For as long as Celine Yeo could remember, her younger brother Kevin loves Italy. It is an essential inclusion in his travel plans, whether it be during his honeymoon or any other opportunity to explore the world.
In one of his trips back in 2015, Kevin decided to venture out of the big cities and usual tourist spots for a change. He set foot on Umbria, a region known to be the “green heart of Italy” for its hilly and natural landscape.
In Spoleto, an ancient city in east-central of Umbria, Kevin met Mirko, an Italian businessman and third-generation farm owner. As food lovers, the two bonded quickly over local wine and prosciutto. Mirko also showed hospitality by bringing Kevin to his farms and truffle hunting.
Kevin and Mirko kept in touch after the trip and before long, they were co-owning a truffle farm together. Kevin was interested to import and sell the harvested truffles from their farm to Singapore, but his full-time job in a logistic company did not grant him the luxury of time to manage a side business.
Just as Kevin was on the verge of fully launching his truffle business in 2020, the unforeseen COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, forcing him to put his plans on hold once more. However, after a long wait, the opportune moment finally presented itself in October 2022, allowing Kevin to finally pursue his entrepreneurial aspirations with renewed determination.
With the help of his elder sister Celine, who took on the role as a sales and marketing director, Kevin founded Craft Truffles, a gourmet brand specialising in truffle-made condiments and food items.
Currently, Craft Truffles has nine products under its belt, including its signature truffle-infused mayonnaise, truffle oil, black truffle butter, and truffle with Acacia honey. All of them are manufactured in Italy with truffles that were freshly harvested from the farm that’s co-owned by Kevin and Mirko.
Celine noted that truffles have a short shelf life — they start to lose their flavour the moment they are picked, so importing them to Singapore would compromise their overall quality. Due to their delicate nature, truffles require immediate processing to preserve their exquisite flavour and quality.
On top of ascertaining freshness, Celine shared that co-owning a truffle farm in Italy allows Craft Truffles to keep its products affordable by eliminating intermediaries. Furthermore, this ownership guarantees a steady and reliable supply of truffles throughout the year.
Celine explained that wild truffles are often harvested with the assistance of highly skilled hogs or dogs, possessing an exceptional sense of smell that allows them to locate these prized delicacies growing deep underground.
Since farmed truffles does not involve animals, Craft Truffles is able to obtain Halal certification for all its products and bring them to a wider community. “We are trying to disrupt the market by bringing down the price point, granting accessibility, and offering different flavours,” Celine said.
“We come from a family of foodies,” Celine said. “Our mother used to be a cook for British families in the 1960s, so our dinners are always filled with a variety of dishes. She would make English trifle alongside hotpot — I know it sounds odd, but this is the kind of environment that Kevin and I grew up in and how our passion for food were cultivated.”
Prior to their truffle business, the siblings had established a café named 3 Inch Sin, which specialises in chocolate lava cakes. This venture came to fruition after Celine completed her pastry diploma course at Le Corden Blue.
The café operated for about five years with two outlets in Singapore before it finally closed down in 2015.
After the closure of their café, the siblings returned to their respective trades in arts management and logistics. Nevertheless, the hiccup did not dampen the entrepreneurial spirit of Kevin, who is regarded as the more business savvy one out of the duo.
“We accumulated some valuable experiences after running 3 Inch Sin for five years,” Celine said. “But selling truffle products virtually is very different from running a physical cafe, so I was a little on the fence when Kevin approached me with the idea of setting up Craft Truffles together.”
Celine believes that the e-commerce market is saturated with numerous competitors, providing consumers with the option to directly purchase from overseas suppliers. Consequently, she acknowledges that gaining visibility and attracting potential customers for Craft Truffles will be a significant challenge for her and Kevin.
Given these circumstances, Celine finds herself uncertain about whether Craft Truffles can truly distinguish itself from the competition and achieve success in this crowded marketplace.
After carefully analysing the market gaps and not wanting to dampen her brother’s enthusiasm, Celine reached a decision to join Kevin once more in their entrepreneurial pursuit, but with one condition.
“I told Kevin, if you want me to help you, you must agree that we will never argue over the business and hold a grudge against each other,” Celine said. “At the end of the day, whether the business works or not, blood is always thicker than water. I don’t want our relationship to turn sour over any decisions we make.”
Celine expresses her satisfaction with the dynamic between her and Kevin thus far. They have effectively divided their responsibilities based on their individual skillsets and expertise. Kevin takes charge of the management and operational aspects, while Celine, with her creative flair, focuses on packaging and brand building, ensuring a well-rounded approach to their business.
“An advantage of setting up a business with a family member is the level of trust and shared vision that we already have when we come onboard,” Celine disclosed. “I never questioned Kevin’s goal of wanting to become Singapore’s truffle specialist. Likewise, Kevin never resists when I share my perspective with him. It’s this frankness that helps to move a lot of things forward.”
Still, there were times when their close kinship backfires. Celine recalled the first day she entered Craft Truffles’ office. Although Kevin has set aside a space for Celine to work, he did not equip it with anything apart from a table and chair. “Looking at the empty table, I asked Kevin, where are the rest? Don’t you think I need some stationery?” Celine said.
“Kevin’s reply was he thought I have already gotten them on my own. Both of us ended up laughing hard at the assumptions we made. I think because we are so close that Kevin failed to realise, he was welcoming a staff member, and not his elder sister, onboard.”
In addition to managing their own expectations, the siblings also need to handle the expectations of their Italian counterparts. Celine noted that all along, Italians consume truffles in its natural form and to them, its taste has always been subtle.
Italians are not familiar with the truffle-infused products that Singaporeans are used to, which are mostly stronger in taste and smell. As all Craft Truffles’ products are made in Italy, sometimes, it can be difficult to explain and request its Italian manufacturer to calibrate the taste of the truffle products that matches the expectations of Singaporeans.
“Italians are extremely proud of their heritage and food,” Celine observed. “They would not hesitate to refuse when they know you are altering something that they have acquainted with, even if you are doing it to meet the market’s needs.”
Despite this, nothing is holding back the siblings from pushing the boundaries. Craft Truffles is planning to expand its product range to 15 by the third quarter of this year as the siblings believe there are still many gaps in the truffle retail market waiting to be filled.
“We noticed most players are bringing in similar products and consumers’ understanding of truffles may be limited to truffles fries and pasta,” Celine continued.
“So we have been putting up recipes on our website to inform consumers the many ways of cooking with truffles. We also wanted to widen our selection by introducing a range of ready-to-eat products, so more people can enjoy truffles at their convenience without having to pay a premium.”
Featured Image Credit: Craft Truffles
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