Kevin Chee frequently travelled to Japan (pre-Covid, of course) and what he realised then was that he could not find high-quality matcha (or green tea) here that are comparable to the ones he tried in Japan.
The 34-year-old wanted to fill this gap and start up a F&B business that specialises in matcha in Singapore. He went on to reach out to a fourth generation tea farmer in Japan to secure a partnership to bring in their tea leaves and powders.
This led to the launch of Matchaya in 2015, which started out as a pop-up store in food carnivals and flea markets selling bottled Matcha Latte, Houjicha Latte and Royal Milk Tea.
An initial investment of S$3,000 was pumped into the part-time business, which managed to break even within three months.
Shortly after, Kevin figured that the brand should have a more permanent presence and established its first tea bar kiosk at Icon Village, though that has since closed down.
The following year, it opened its first progressive tea bar at The Cathay, which is still operating today.
Matchaya has since set up a string of four outlets in Singapore and also rebranded itself in 2019 as a “progressive tea bar” to reflect its modern concept, while still retaining age-old trends of whisking and tea preparation.
Building a tea company with no experience
Despite zero F&B knowledge and experience, Kevin — who was 28 then — was deeply intrigued by the tea business and wants to help bridge the gap in the industry, particularly in terms of the product and customer experience.
“Everyone sees [Matchaya] as a tea company that innovates tea products, so that more people can enjoy tea in a different way. We do not stick to norms, but firmly believe in pushing the boundaries in terms of curating products and experience that adds value and customer [satisfaction].”
The early days of the business however, wasn’t easy. It was based on a “notion for survival instinct” and he did all he could to make it work, including juggling multiple hats.
He would oversee the business operations 14 hours a day everyday, and then rush back home to continue doing finance, marketing, human resource, as well as research and development (R&D), before finally catching a few hours of sleep — and this cycle would repeat itself.
“Everyone in our industry understands the physical hard work we go through, but the mental stress continues even when we leave our retail stores,” he lamented.
When it comes to product development, the Matchaya team seeks inspiration from “recent finds or travels”. Their customers also play a part in the process by letting them know what flavour, or product form, they would like to see.
“To perfect the flavours and recipe, we go through countless of R&D steps to develop a product that meets [our standards in terms of] flavour, texture and uniqueness. The creative team has to agree to the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) before we launch the product,” explained Kevin.
“As a young company, we believe in launching an MVP before improving the product as we learn from our customers. This way, we can be adaptive and grow faster to better fulfil our customers’ [requests].”
Beyond tea drinks and desserts, Matchaya recently launched “tea bakes”.
The team has also been doing a lot of R&D for its floral tea blend, ready-to-drink (RTD) offerings and signature soft serve tubs. Kevin is leading the charge to onboard these products on different retail platforms such as RedMart, Lazada and gourmet supermarkets.
As a pioneering matcha specialty store, Matchaya also had to ramp up its efforts to educate consumers on matcha and its benefits. They invested a lot of time and resources in content generation on its website and social media channels.
With a strong digital marketing approach, they managed to organically grow a strong base of local and international customers.
Overcoming Covid-19 challenges
Since inception, Matchaya adopts an omni-channel strategy. Beyond its physical tea bars, customers can also engage or buy from the brand through its website and retail distribution channels.
Kevin noted that since Covid-19 started, there has been a strong uptick in online activities, which translates to increased brand exposure and growing revenue stream from all its channels.
By consistently maintaining both an online and offline presence, Matchaya has been able to swiftly adapt to the pandemic, which has greatly affected its business, much like many others in the F&B industry.
“Foot traffic and sales in our retail outlets has dropped greatly as customers are not coming out as much. Fortunately, Covid-19 has accelerated our growth in our online and distribution channels, where we are able to touch our consumers via D2C (direct-to-consumer).”
“We are thankful to say that our business direction and acumen remains well on track for expansion.”
In the midst of the pandemic, Matchaya steadily grew its footprint, opening three more stores in Singapore — a tea bar kiosk at Paragon in October 2020, as well as a tea flagship store at Takashimaya and progressive tea bar at JEM in June 2021.
According to Kevin, another three to four outlets are scheduled to open in 2022. They are still looking out for retail outlets that “make sense in terms of the demography and delivery radius”, which their existing outlets do not cater to at the moment.
He added that they have also received a fair bit of overseas enquiries and with the improving Covid-19 situation, he hopes to have their first overseas store very soon in 2022.
“People is everything”
Currently, Matchaya manages about 60 to 70 per cent of the matcha supplies in Singapore, and he forecasts that the distribution arm will grow 10 per cent in the year ahead.
Commenting on the business growth thus far, Kevin cited having “the right people at the right time” as one of the key contributing factors.
He has acquired two great working partners, who now form Matchaya’s core management team, helping to scaling the business.
“People is at the heart of all businesses and in our case, we believe people is everything. We are blessed to have like-minded individuals that join us to build a stronger people culture. As a company, we are consistently evaluating ourselves to make working here a fun and enriching experience.”
“Make your people happy, and they will take care of the rest,” he quipped.
It also helps that over time, consumers’ knowledge on tea, matcha and health foods have matured, so Matchaya now has a stronger appeal to them.
However, the F&B market is notoriously saturated and competitive, so what could be the secret to success in lasting in this industry?
For Kevin, innovation is their key differentiating factor — in the way they present their products, especially in terms of customer experience and customer service.
“A good experience [encourages] a customer to return and coupled with excellent products, a customer will become a loyal and supportive one in the long run.”
He summed up the interview with his personal business mantra: “Work hard and keep going, find the right people, and never stop challenging yourself [to be] the best.”
Featured Image Credit: Matchaya