VIVIAN Yap, founder of Monte Gelato Manufacturing Sdn Bhd, isn’t exactly a big fan of ice-cream. She prefers warmer food.
But her first brush with gelato left such an impression that it opened up a whole new opportunity for her.
While doing her usual rounds at a shopping mall, Yap came across a kiosk that displayed a colourful array of gelato. Intrigued, she gave the coconut-flavoured gelato a try.
“When I went home, I kept thinking about going back to that store to get more ice cream,” she says.
And for someone who has little interest in ice cream, getting hooked like that made her realise that there is perhaps a business opportunity there which she could explore. Additionally, choices of gelato in Malaysia then were limited and we had the perfect weather for it - summer all year long.
She went back to the kiosk, a gelato brand from Italy, and asked for a franchise.
While operating her franchised outlets over the next three years, she learned the ropes of running an ice-cream business and the technicalities of the recipes. She also travelled extensively and got to know suppliers who could one day help her launch her own gelato company.
But getting local suppliers wasn’t easy at all. There were plenty of ingredient suppliers for ice-cream, but those who could provide materials for gelato were few and far between. And of those that could potentially supply ingredients for gelato, almost none had expertise in the area.
“I had to explain the difference between gelato and ice-cream to the supplier. From there, we collaborated and came up with the right materials to make gelato,” says Yap.
Some may find taste testing ice-cream a dream job. Not Yap. Trying out at least 15 flavours of gelato a day, every day, was no joke.
“I had to eat, eat, eat and eat until the supplier got the recipe right,” she laughs.
The process of fine tuning her recipes took about a year before she started a factory to make her own gelato.
In 2004, Yap launched Monte Gelato.
But this was not Yap’s first business venture. After all, doing business, she says, makes her world go round.
Yap had earlier co-founded Speedy Video at the age of 26. After over 20 years and 80 Speedy outlets, she sold off her shares in that company about two years ago.
But from her experience at the entertainment products distribution company, she knew that the way to grow Monte Gelato was to have their own retail outlets to ensure a strong distribution network.
So she launched six retail kiosks from the get-go under the brand Gelato Fruity to sell her produce.
Juggling between her manufacturing business and the retail operations came naturally for her. By then, she had already established a good working relationship with malls from her time at Speedy and she had always been in full control of her operations with the previous gelato franchise business.
Today, the company has 13 Gelato Fruity outlets with two more coming on stream later in the year.
According to Monte Gelato operation director Lai Kok Wai, the manufacturer produces about 1.5 tonnes of gelato a month at its factory with a built-up area of 11,000 sq ft-12,000 sq ft, the bulk of which goes to their own retail business.
It also tailors a very small portion of its production according to the requirements of its corporate clients such as hotels and cafes.
“We are not a commercial producer. We do it with passion. We develop recipes and we produce them semi-manual to maintain the taste and quality. The selection of raw materials is important in order to achieve better results,” says Lai.
Yap adds that the main selling point for its gelato is that they are freshly produced every day.
“Other ice-cream can be imported because they have preservatives, so they can last a long time.
“Our gelato has no flavouring, colouring and preservatives, so we need to make them fresh every day. That is why we need a factory. We deliver our gelato fresh to our outlets every day,” she says.
Yap also started to localise her product offering by developing recipes with local fruits such as durian, guava, dragon fruit and soursop, reducing its reliance on milk-based ice-cream or Italian recipes alone.
Gelato Fruity is known for its wide selection of fruit-based gelato, Yap adds proudly.
The manufacturer is also developing other gelato products to appeal to more customers. It recently started production of its gelato sticks, which are mainly done manually. Currently, it produces about 200 sticks a day for selected outlets.
But in the F&B line, Yap believes it is important to keep improving to not only retain, but also to grow, your customer base.
As such, she is also looking at revamping her retail operations to cater to a wider group of customers.
“Nowadays, consumers want more choices. Not everyone in the family wants to eat gelato or drink fruit juice only. Some want other types of food. So we want to offer a menu that can cater to the whole family,” Yap explains.
Over the coming years, Monte Gelato will be converting some of its kiosks into dessert cafes, under the Sweet Taste brand.
She notes that kiosks, with an average area of 300sq ft-600sq ft, have limited space. A cafe, at about 1,500sq ft, on the other hand, would be able to handle more customers.
Although this would mean heavier set-up costs, Yap says a full-fledged cafe will create a better ambiance and experience for the customers.
The new outlets will add other products to the menu such as waffles, pancakes and other snacks that can be served with gelato. It will also include hot drinks and beverages that go well with its gelato, like milkshakes, affogatos and floats.
“We can also look at gelato cakes and cupcakes,” she says.
Lai says its manufacturing facility is more than capable of handling the production of these new products.
“We can develop other products in-house. We’ve acquired the skills to produce all these,” he says.
Notably, this new retail direction will bring about a new set of challenges. For one, it requires more manpower at its outlets. Additionally, the F&B industry has a high turnover rate.
Yap says they are in the midst of hiring an experienced team to handle its cafe.
“I’m confident with my products and I believe it can be successful. Over the past 10 years, we’ve gotten a lot of regular customers.
“And I am someone who will not let go of an opportunity if I see that the thing is right. I believe nothing is impossible. I just need to persevere,” she adds.
The first cafe is expected to open its doors later this year in Mont Kiara Mall. Yap is unfazed by the growing competition in the ice-cream segment.
When she launched Monte Gelato, you could count the number of gelato brands in the market with your hands. But as consumers wise up to a wider range of offerings, more and more gelato brands have emerged in Malaysia.
However, she points out that Monte Gelato has its own unique flavours and the Gelato Fruity brand is well established in the market. She dares say that it is the leading brand in the market.
She says she has put in a lot of effort in ensuring the quality of her products and remains confident in her own recipes.
“Once they try our gelato, very few will walk away. The taste is different. We put in real fruits and it’s not very sweet,” she says.
Others may come and go, but Yap is hell-bent on staying.
In fact, she says the company has a lot more potential to explore.
“This is my baby, my brand, my recipes. I know the direction that I want to take this business in, so there is a lot that we can do,” she says.
She hopes to open more outlets next year. Once it crosses the 20th outlet, Yap may explore franchise opportunities for its brands. She is also looking at potentially bringing her brands to other countries.
The group currently makes an average annual revenue of about RM15mil and employs about 200 people.
“The gelato market is very big, not only in Malaysia. There is definitely an opportunity for us to go overseas,” she says.
Yap and Lai still frequent their outlets to talk to their customers and get feedback on their products. Apart from getting to know their customers, this will also help them continually improve on their products and service.
One thing Yap has realised is that consumers often used the terms gelato and ice-cream interchangeably. They are not the same, she says.
Gelato is often lower in fat, calories and sugar compared to ice cream, she explains, and is a better option for those who are more health conscious. It uses more natural-based ingredients, she adds.
“I want to do business, but I also want my customers to enjoy safely produced products and something that is healthy,” says the petite lady.