Singaporean Yiping Goh, 39, and her Spanish husband Carlos Bañón, 43, would travel to Spain twice a year to visit their family and friends during pre-pandemic times.
With Covid-19 restricting travel however, they couldn’t travel to Spain for the past two years. Besides family and friends, local delicacies like Spanish wines and food like freshly sliced jamon iberico (Spanish ham), olives and cheeses, was something they truly miss.
“It [became] a project for us to directly import our favourite Spanish delicatessen and wines to satisfy our own cravings and also to share what we know about Spain with our friends and family. We also saw a huge underrepresentation of Spanish gourmet and wines here in Singapore, despite it being a food haven,” said Yiping.
“Everytime we share our private stash brought back from our travels in Spain, our friends love them. So for a few years now, we have always thought Spanish food and wines have an untapped opportunity here. Finally, the travel lockdowns triggered us to take action.”
The couple went on to establish CasaJulia — named after Carlos’ late mother — in October 2021, which is mostly a “passion project” that was born out of late nights feeding their second newborn.
They are no rookie entrepreneurs
The duo might be green to the F&B scene, but they are both not new to the business world.
Yiping is a serial tech founder. She is the former co-founder of AllDealsAsia and MatahariMall (Indonesia) by Lippo Group — the same group that produced unicorn OVO. Now, she is a venture capital investor and a partner at Quest Ventures, which has backed household names the likes of Carousell, ShopBack, Carro, 99.co, Style Theory, SGAG and Ion Mobility.
Meanwhile, Carlos owns an award-winning architecture firm called Subarquitectura, and is also a professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).
They had already conducted some research legwork since a few years ago, so once they put all the other bits and pieces together, they were finally ready to kickstart the business.
However, although they are both seasoned entrepreneurs, they had some challenges navigating the business of importing and F&B, which is something “quite alien” from their regular work in tech and design.
For instance, they had difficulty finding the right partners in Spain to work with, especially since they are still a fledgling startup and could not fulfil any minimum purchase volume set by suppliers.
“We had to convince our suppliers that Singapore is a worthwhile new market to pursue and tread that fine balance,” said Carlos.
In particular, the couple feels that Asians’ palate preferences are similar to Europeans’, and our tastebuds are compatible with Spanish food.
“We love our seafood, meats, rice, cold platters and enjoy good wines. But because the Spanish culinary scene in Singapore is newer compared to the Italian and French, there’s still a lack of knowledge of Spanish food,” he added.
“Spanish wines are as good, if not better, than the other old world wines, but it’s less known and underrated. In fact, for similar quality, Spanish wines usually cost less.”
Bringing a piece of Spain to Singapore
CasaJulia is essentially an online marketplace that directly imports Spanish food favourites like jamon, rare wines, olive oil and cheeses, delivering them right to your doorstep.
For those unacquainted, jamon is touted to be the finest ham in the world and has been dubbed as one of the national culinary treasures of Spain. Like how Japan has its Kobe beef and prized sashimi, Spain prides itself on its Iberian ham.
Much like many other delicacies, they are on the expensive side — prices can go above S$1,000 for about 8 to 9 kilograms, depending on its grade, which is determined based on the parentage of the pigs, their feed and their ageing duration.
“They (Iberian black pigs) are reared in the most humane and free range conditions, [which] some say [are] the most luxurious conditions,” said Yiping, justifying its price tag.
According to the couple, every product featured on their platform has been tried and tasted to their Spanish and Singaporean palates. To date, their bestsellers are their jamon iberico legs, sliced packs and wines.
In fact, the couple has observed a gifting trend for jamon during festive seasons like Christmas.
“For Chinese New Year, we are seeing more friends nicknaming our jamon as the Spanish version of bak kwa, or ‘atas’ bak kwa, this season, especially referring to the sliced packs. It is funny, but it has a certain resonance. They are also way healthier, yet super delicious.”
When it comes to their wines, they are sourced from all over Spain, including those from “under-discovered” regions and up-and-coming boutique wineries, whose first batches only consist of a few hundred to few thousand bottles.
“We import [our wines] directly from Spain, working with top and off the regular cuff sommeliers there,” shared Carlos.
“In particular, we have this crazy rare underwater wine, Attis Mar, which had been submerged under the Atlantic Ocean for its ageing process — something that is unique and makes the white wine way more intense and has a really long finish.”
Yiping stressed that CasaJulia helps to bridge the gap for customers to enjoy freshly cut jamon and explore exotic wines that are hardly ever exported out of Spain, as many of them only serve their domestic markets.
“We really want to bring that experience of traveling through Spain without being physically there, or to nurse the withdrawal symptoms of someone who’s been to Spanish cities before and miss wines from there,” she added.
Achieved a five-figure revenue in two months
Covid-19 has negatively impacted many businesses, but it has also spurred the emergence of new ones — CasaJulia being one of them.
When asked how the pandemic has affected their business, Yiping said that it’s a double-edged sword as it serves as both a business threat and opportunity.
“People are looking forward to trying out new experiences when they can’t travel as much. They see trying out new culinary experiences as a way of traveling, and [it helps] that more people are hosting [meals] at home these days.”
She also acknowledged that tightened Covid-19 restrictions on household visitors can lead to more hesitation when it comes to consumer purchase, but as a whole, she feels that the opportunities outweigh the threats with the boom of e-commerce.
In fact, the bootstrapped business has already broken even, and within two months, it achieved five-figure sales with no marketing spend.
This is a testament to CasaJulia’s steady growth, but the couple are not resting on their laurels. After all, the F&B space is very saturated and competitive.
To last in the game, they feel that it’s important to “find their own niche and stay ahead of trends”. At the same time, they are making it a point to continually improve their offerings and service quality to win customers’ hearts.
“Most importantly, while we made our calculations, and checked several key assumptions over and over again, we chose not to overthink and decided to just start [because] we know that if we have a long list of criteria that a startup idea must meet, we will never start,” said Carlos.
“With CasaJulia, we followed our hearts, but we also followed opportunity gaps that this pandemic presented and is still unravelling. We went with starting small first, doing little experiments, and iterating along the way.”
In the next few months, CasaJulia plans to expand the business line to include other Spanish product such as introducing a wide range of sea salts that is rare to come by here.
Sharing other future business plans, the couple also said that they are exploring the idea of setting up offline pop-up events, collaborations with restaurants, and eventually set up a physical store when the time is right.
“Our ultimate goal is to be the top-of-mind choice for consumers when it comes to Spanish gourmet and wines”.
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Featured Image Credit: CasaJulia