THE pandemic may have rankled many businesses, but for some, it has also opened a few timely doors.
While everyone hunkered down during the movement control order (MCO), a number of home-based ventures started mushrooming, and even flourished. Food-based upstarts, particularly, drew a lot of interest from consumers looking to get their staple groceries and ingredients to cook at home.
Sales were similarly brisk for Lim Shwe Ying at Agak-Agak Nyonya.
When she started the Peranakan paste business in December 2019, she was aiming for a modest 10% month-on-month increase in sales. The MCO took it up to 30%.
“Covid-19 is an unfortunate thing, but the MCO was a blessing in disguise. It really helped boost sales and build brand awareness for us, ” she shares.
That gave Lim a much needed confidence boost considering that her venture into business came about after losing her job as an engineer early last year.
“I was retrenched. So I thought it was maybe time to explore doing something on my own.”
F&B is a notoriously saturated market; pretty much anything on the menu is already available in the market and consumers can be fickle. The competition for customers’ taste buds and pockets can be intense.
But Lim thinks there is space to carve a niche in Peranakan food.
Preparing Peranakan dishes from scratch can be laborious and time-consuming. And given how particular the Peranakan community can be, Lim says a lot of the products on the shelf are not up to par.
When she began toying with the idea of going into F&B, she thought she could make something of her mother’s Peranakan heritage.
Lim persuaded her mother, who was in the dark about her unemployment at the time, to teach her their family recipes. They spent many months blending and cooking and experimented on ways to pack various types of pastes before her mother found out she was out of a job.
The discovery didn’t go down well with her mother. But she eventually relented and gave Lim a big helping hand with their production in the kitchen.
“It was difficult at first because I didn’t know how to pack the paste. I broke down a few times in between but I had to be patient because I didn’t have the knowledge yet at that time.
“I got help from a friend who is a food scientist and I did R&D for a few months to find a way to extend the shelf life of the paste, so now it can last about six months, ” she says.
Lim and her mother make about 30kg of paste a day. And with orders picking up, she is looking at the possibility of moving the operations out of their home.
“I am starting to feel the struggle to keep up with demand because of the limited facilities we have. But I also want to see how things pan out after all this movement restriction is over because this spike in demand could be temporary and I have to justify in the long run whether we should move out or even start hiring, ” she says.
She notes that demand dipped a little after the initial MCO period before soaring again with the reimposition of the conditional MCO in October.
And given that it has already established some brand awareness, Agak-Agak Nyonya has been getting a significant percentage of repeat orders.
Lim expects demand to remain strong for the next few months with festive seasons around the corner. She is working on gift pack ideas and will be collaborating with other fresh food businesses to create bundle products to maximise opportunities in the short-term.
Over the longer run, though, she hopes to supply her pastes to other restaurants.
“I think sales may slow down after all of this. So I need to have the next plan of action. After the conditional MCO when there’s not much restrictions anymore, I’m trying to go more business-to-business to maintain sales.
“Businesses need to adapt to what’s going on in that time. We need to keep up, otherwise, we’ll die, ” she says.
But the consumer market will remain an important part of Agak-Agak Nyonya’s business as Lim sees this as a platform to educate the public about Peranakan culture.
“People don’t know much about Peranakan food or they don’t really remember the culture and roots of Peranakan. I want to reintroduce the culture to the younger generation using food as a platform, ” says the 32-year-old.
If she can prove that the business model is sustainable for the long-term, she hopes to bring the Peranakan food and culture to a wider audience.
“The response has been good so far. And if I can prove that this works, I may look at getting investors to come in to grow this bigger. The goal is to go international.
“This business hasn’t been as easy as I thought but things are starting to fall into place and I have learned a lot along the way like managing the financials and how to be more efficient with the processes. I do want to build this for the long haul, I’m looking at putting in 10 to 20 years to grow this. I have big dreams for this brand.“Of course, we never know what might happen and plans may change. But what I need now is to persevere, ” says Lim.
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