irvins founder irvin gunawan
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Established in 2015, IRVINS was founded by Indonesian-born entrepreneur Irvin Gunawan.

The snack business started out as a zi char restaurant at River Valley, where IRVINS’ initially sold salted egg potato chips and fish skin as a side dish on the restaurant’s menu, before offering it as a packaged snack that customers could buy over the cashier counter.

The snacks were so popular that its sales multiplied by five to six-fold, leading the entrepreneur to shut down the zi char restaurant and focus on growing the salted egg business.

Irvin Gunawan brothers
Irvin Gunawan (middle) and his two brothers / Image Credit: IRVINS

Joined by his two brothers in 2015, the brand saw profound success, so much so that it expanded to 14 markets around the world — that is, until the pandemic hit.

Shutting down half of its outlets in Singapore

When more stringent Circuit Breaker measures kicked in back in April 2020, IRVINS’ physical outlets were not allowed to operate given that it only sold snacks.

These measures spelt bad news for the company, as the main drivers of its business before the pandemic were its physical retail stores and e-commerce store.

While its revenue from its website remained steady, its retail store closures saw the business lose significant revenue that year. In fact, their sales more than halved almost overnight.

“It was a challenging time for the company, to say the least,” said the 36-year-old founder.

Furthermore, the travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic exacerbated the company’s revenue loss as the brand was a favoured snack for travelers to lug back home.

irvins messy kitchen
IRVINS’ has closed its two-in-one F&B concept at Wisma Atria / Image Credit: IRVINS

Scrambling to cut down on costs to cope with its losses, the company had to carry out a one-time retrenchment of over 30 staff and streamlined its facilities. This led to the closure of six of its 12 retail outlets, as well as its two-in-one restaurant concept Messy Kitchen by the end of the pandemic.

Working with retailers to make up for its losses

Up until 2019, IRVINS’ products could only be purchased via its stores or website. “So when COVID-19 hit, our customers were finding it hard to buy our products,” said Irvin.

This prompted the brand to work with retailers and other players in the F&B industry to boost its sales, which Irvin deems as a necessary move.

We had to learn to adapt by working with new local retail partners like 7-Eleven, RedMart, Cold Storage, NTUC Fairprice, international distributors and other businesses.

– Irvin Gunawan, founder of IRVINS

The brand took its partnerships with local retailers a step further by expanding it on an international scale — it now sells its snacks at 7-Eleven stores in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Costco in the US and Canada, and Don Quijote (Don Don Donki) in Japan.

irvins salted egg fish skin pezzo salted egg pizza
IRVINS x 7-Eleven and IRVINS x Pezzo / Image Credit: 7-Eleven and Pezzo

Aside from retailers, IRVINS also collaborated with restaurants to “push the needle in creating new, innovative products” for its customers.

Its first collaboration was with local pizza chain Pezzo, in which they concocted a one-of-a-kind salted egg pizza. Although the pizza was available for a limited time, Irvin said that it was well-received by Singaporeans.

Such partnerships have proved to be vital to the company’s survival. By leveraging the customer base of its partners as well as its own, the company’s sales grew in volume over the past two years, and Irvin expects this upwards trend to continue this year.

It recently opened three new outlets in Singapore

As restrictions are lifted and more businesses sprung back to life this year, IRVINS’ physical store revenues are now back on track.

By diversifying its distribution channels during the pandemic, the company is in a more resilient position thanks to “the foundation of [the company’s] hard work over the past two years”, said Irvin.

IRVINS’ outlet at VivoCity / Image Credit: IRVINS

In fact, IRVINS opened up three outlets last December — located at VivoCity, Bugis Junction, and Changi Airport T2 transit. According to Irvin, the brand does not intend to increase its number of outlets in Singapore for the time being.

“Running physical stores means we can’t shy away from manpower issues — a huge and common competitive problem among other retailers and F&B operators,” he explained, adding that inflation has become an additional concern.

For its new store openings, IRVINS faced hiring difficulties which impacted its store efficiency, as some stores could not operate at two full shifts. 

As a consequence, the brand has to stay on top of its game and adapt to the hiring challenge in the retail and F&B space, by automating some of its processes and training store employees to take on hybrid roles.

In addition to that, IRVINS is also currently looking at exploring and working with tertiary institutions such as ITE to provide internship programmes for their students with possible career progressions within the company.

Ultimately, the brand’s vision is to solidify its Singapore HQ as an innovation center, and it is open to shifting its production out of the country to achieve this.

Expanding its international presence

This year, IRVINS plans on strengthening its business internationally, particularly expanding its distribution in the UK and Europe.

Commenting on IRVINS’ current international presence, the entrepreneur said that they have a sizeable presence in countries such as the Philippines, Hong Kong, and most recently, the USA.

“We have built a certain business and brand reputation in [these] markets, and our products can be easily found in local stores.”

Despite this, IRVINS still faces major obstacles expanding overseas, such the lack of “awareness and education” in the majority of overseas markets.

Unlike Singapore, not many people know about or have tried salted egg and fish skin as a snack. This naturally and directly impacts the way IRVINS has to market our products. 

– Irvin Gunawan, founder of IRVINS

Hence, the company has to come up with effective ways to convince potential customers abroad to try its products. For example, in the US, the company first started to build its presence in Asian communities since they figured that Asians would be more familiar with the salted egg concept.

irvins salmon skin pop up USA
IRVINS’ products sold at a pop-up store in the USA / Image Credit: IRVINS

The brand is now popular in Los Angeles, San Francisco as well as New York, and it plans on moving into mainstream markets by selling its products through Costco and Albertsons supermarkets across the country this month.

Additionally, although IRVINS has pulled the plug on Messy Kitchen in Singapore, it plans to revive it abroad, so its global customers can have a taste of IRVINS’ signature salted egg on cooked food.

“This is the closest experience they can get to the time we were a [zi char] restaurant,” said Irvin.

He believes that there is so much potential to explore and create new products using its salted egg recipe.

With a commitment to innovation, IRVINS has plans to introduce new products in the coming years. These new offerings may include customisable options, fresh food infused with IRVINS’ salted egg recipe, and improved store concepts.

irvins truffle potato chips
IRVIN’s truffle potato chips / Image Credit: IRVINS

Even though the company has already expanded its product line with other offerings such as Smoked Cheese Salmon Skin and Truffle Potato Chips that deviate from salted egg flavours, customers have continued to love these new products just as much as the original salted egg line-up.

This positive reception has humbled the founder and signifies to him that IRVINS has an appeal beyond its salted egg flavours and motivates the company to move forward.

Featured Image Credit: IRVINS

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)