A few years ago, botanical ice creams was pretty much unheard of in Singapore.
Edwin Lim, founder of Birds of Paradise Gelato Boutique, wanted to fill this gap and create his own artisanal gelato (Italian-style ice cream) that uses regional plant-based ingredients like fruits, flowers, herbs and spices.
Furthermore, he noted that about 90 per cent of the gelato in Singapore was sold by Italian-branded chains at the time.
“Back then, most shops made their gelato using mass-produced gelato flavouring products imported from Italy, which meant that most gelato shops were all selling the same typical flavours [like] bacio, stracciatella [and] menthe,” explained Edwin.
“We spent a lot of time to research and create the concept of a botanical gelato boutique, which is the first of its kind in Singapore, and possibly the world.”
It was a novel concept, but many of his friends expressed their skepticism — they were unfamiliar with botanical gelato and doubted that it will sell well here.
Regardless, he pressed on and went on to open Bird Paradise’s very first outlet at Katong in July 2016.
Unique flavours with real ingredients
They made their own gelato from scratch, and developed its own collection of unique flavours using real ingredients.
“We get inspiration for our flavours from literature, architecture, music and even from our travels. Using literature as an example, it could be [as] simple as flipping through a culinary book, or it could be more abstract like reading Somerset Maugham’s tropical tales and being inspired by the setting of coconut plantations,” said Edwin.
“We eschew trends and rather lean on our creative process, which is an everyday cycle of observation, inspiration, distillation and execution.”
One of the first few flavours it created was White Chrysanthemum.
Many of us grew up drinking chrysanthemum tea — be it mummy’s home brew or cans from the vending machine. We thought that chrysanthemum would be a beautiful flavour to represent our signature range of botanical gelato, what with the floral imagery and the place that it holds in many of our hearts.
We added cacao nibs to balance the sweetness with a slight bitter crunch, and to give it a decidedly more adult touch. While taste-testing our R&D chrysanthemum, we were initially met with disbelief from our taste-testers — “who drinks chrysanthemum tea with milk?” — but when they tried it, their reactions were priceless!– Edwin Lim, founder of Birds of Paradise
The brand also recently collaborated with local singer-songwriter Linying to create a limited edition flavour that is inspired by her newly-launched single ‘Springtime’.
They co-created a gelato made with red berries and rhubarb, carrying a sweet and sour duality, which is elevated with the fragrant torch ginger flower (or ‘rojak flower’) for a local twist.
Additionally, the brand had always wanted to create a coconut-based flavour, but they were adamant that it has to be the best in the region if they were to ever make one.
“On and off for about three years, we experimented with about 20 iterations of coconut sorbet, but it was never good enough for us to bring to the table. Finally in 2021, we found a great producer of fresh cold-pressed coconut milk in The Coconut Club,” shared Edwin.
Coupled with their knowledge and experience in gelato-making, they managed to create coconut sorbet, which received “overwhelming love” from customers. The collaboration period has ended, but Birds of Paradise has since decided to bring back the flavour for good due to the popular demand.
Capturing that first-mover advantage comes with challenges
Although Birds of Paradise were “early-movers” with their locally created gelato, it was an uphill battle for them to convince customers that their product is on par, or better, than imported gelato brands.
Customers would baulk at their prices and complain that they were expensive. Edwin reasoned that it could be because they “didn’t have a foreign-sounding name to lend authenticity to a product that is quintessentially regarded as an Italian specialty”.
During their first few weeks of opening, the team would even stand outside of their shop to give away free samples but many would not even stop to give them their time of day to try it out.
“The proof of the pudding is in the eating and with time, our customers came to recognise the value of the ingredients and the expertise behind our gelato,” he said.
Today, Birds of Paradise is synonymous with long queues, with customers eager to get their hands on their array of unique botanical flavours such as lychee raspberry, pistachio, sea salt hojicha, spiced pear and vanilla fig, and the brand’s very own house-made thyme cone.
The brand has since expanded to two outlets in Singapore — it opened its second outlet at Jewel Changi Airport as one of the inaugural tenants in April 2019 — and is looking to open its third very soon at a “central location” in the first quarter of 2022.
Despite the business growth, Edwin said that they face other sets of challenges.
For instance, they encountered other “bandwagon concepts” that try to replicate what they’re doing in terms of products, flavours and visual communications.
We’ve encountered ‘customers’ demanding to know the brands of our ingredients, industrial espionage, and the likes. Our customers are our eyes and ears — they would be the first to take umbrage at such-and-such brand taking a few too many leaves out of our playbook.– Edwin Lim, founder of Birds of Paradise
The Covid-19 pandemic has also been particularly challenging for Birds of Paradise, as with many other businesses.
Fortunately, they were allowed to operate through many of the business closures. They also took it as an opportunity to accelerate their digitalisation efforts and launch its e-commerce store on its website to cater to the demand for online deliveries.
The brand also doubled down on its efforts to give back by passing on portions of the Job Support Scheme funds that they don’t need to other members of the communities around them like their staff, partners and charities.
Listed on Michelin Guide for three consecutive years
It’s also noteworthy that Birds of Paradise has been listed on Michelin Guide for three consecutive years in 2018, 2019 and 2021 (there was no publication in 2020 due to Covid-19), and it’s the only dessert concept to be awarded a Michelin Plate.
According to Edwin, the award serves as a “professional validation of the excellence of [its] botanical gelato”.
Although the brand is honoured to receive this prestigious award, it has yet to display the award decal at their boutique as they want customers to patronise them because of their gelato, instead of the fact that they are an award-winning brand.
“With time, our customers have been so supportive and appreciative of our pursuit of excellence that we are slowly growing more comfortable sharing about awards and recognition,” said Edwin.
“This year, we were selected to be a Made with Passion brand — an honour that we celebrate as a testament to our contribution to the commercial-cultural landscape of Singapore and to the excellence of locally made products on the global stage.”
Reflecting on their milestones, Edwin feels that their slow and steady growth is built upon a foundation of strong values, particularly “quality” and “trust”, which goes hand in hand.
They have a singular focus on quality, and take pride in using good quality ingredients and not comprising on their processes to create an excellent product.
As they consistently deliver quality products, customers would better trust the brand.
“When we say we use real vanilla, we use real vanilla beans. When vanilla prices shot up four-fold a few years ago, we had to stop making our super popular Vanilla Fig flavour. We could have switched to using a cheaper extract, but we chose not to because it was important to [stay] true to what we said about using real ingredients, even if there was commercial cost to not selling it,” said Edwin, adding that the brand has decided to bring back the flavour this Christmas season.
Our values may not be visible to our customer, but it is through our values that the sincerity of our brand comes across to our customers.– Edwin Lim, founder of Birds of Paradise
While many might see them as a successful F&B brand, Birds of Paradise does not rest on its laurels. Instead, it seeks to continually improve itself, and takes every customer feedback and business discussion seriously.
Their ultimate goal is to help make the world a better place by consistently creating the best quality botanical gelato that will make Singaporeans proud to share with the world.
Featured Image Credit: Birds of Paradise