NOT many have the opportunity to refer to their fathers as Willy Wonka. Queenie Teng and Teng Wei Tzyy count among the few.
And the sisters are following in the footsteps of their father.
Building on what their father started, Queenie, 37, and Wei Tzyy, 29, are bringing Harriston – previously better known as Cocoa Boutique – closer to becoming an internationally-known chocolate emporium in Malaysia.
But it wasn’t always so sweet.
Queenie recalls that her father, Teng Sze Choong, had little to no support when he decided to open his first Cocoa Boutique retail store in early 2005.
Sze Choong had been a tour guide for a number of years and was very passionate about promoting Malaysia.
“He knew there were tremendous opportunities in Malaysia’s tourism industry. Tourists would always bring back souvenirs. And he would do some trading on-and-off, targeting Malaysian goods,” she says.
He finally settled on building a business in making chocolates, a taste of goodness that he never forgot from his childhood days.
“But at that time, no one supported him. Especially with the hot weather in Malaysia, people laughed and asked why would he want to make chocolates. It was tough times. But he went ahead with that passion anyway,” she shares.
Sze Choong’s venture was one of the early settlers in the chocolate enclave that was taking shape around the Jalan Imbi, Kuala Lumpur, area.
He also started looking into chocolate recipes which incorporated local ingredients such as durian and tongkat ali to share locally grown produce with tourists. These were relatively new flavours at the time and Sze Choong somehow hit the right notes with them.
Queenie says its signature durian chocolate remains a bestseller to this day.
The chocolate maker opened up a few other stores and made a name among the many tourists who made a beeline into the country every year.
Harriston’s five shops receive about 2,500 tourists a day.
“To date, about 8 million tourists from eight countries have come to our stores. And they want to bring our chocolates back to their own place,” she says.
Bringing in change
Queenie had just got off a marketing role in the retail industry before she came on board the company around 2008.
Naturally, she took on the marketing role at Harriston.
But it was a clash of old and new approach to doing business. Their father was used to the traditional way of doing business - passively waiting for foot traffic to fill his stores - and has grown well with the model. Queenie, on the other hand, had ideas for new packaging, branding and the works.
Needless to say, the differences came across as quite a culture shock for both of them.
“It took some time for us to adapt to his way of doing business and for him to accept our suggestions. We had a lot of ups and downs in between but we also learned a lot from him, especially in dealing with suppliers,” notes Queenie.
As Harriston grew, the family started looking into the possibility of setting up their own manufacturing facility.
“Previously, we outsourced the manufacturing of our chocolates. We couldn’t control the quality and the consistency of quality of the products. So we decided to set up our own factory,” says Wei Tzyy.
The factory was completed in 2012 in Shah Alam.
The facility, which produces about 45 tonnes of chocolate products a month, catered to the needs of its stores.
In 2014, Wei Tzyy returned from a short stint in the US to help out in the family business. Her attention was focused on the manufacturing operations of the business.
Over time, the sisters started looking at ways to upgrade the business.
“From the retail side, we started consolidating all our stores and products under the Harriston brand. And we are looking at more marketing efforts to end-customers.
“For the manufacturing side, we are building in a lot of machinery to control the consistency of quality and add in more SKUs (stock keeping unit). We have about 150 SKUs at the moment. We also want to add in more local flavours to our chocolates,” Wei Tzyy shares. She is currently the company’s chief executive officer.
To cater to their plans for expansion, they have also set up a second manufacturing facility which is expected to come onstream next year. The new factory will have twice the capacity of its existing one.
Wei Tzyy says a lot of thought has gone into making its second facility a sustainable one and to ensure that it is able to obtain all the necessary certifications.
Exploring new avenues
Having built a presence in the tourism market, Queenie and Wei Tzyy are now turning their attention to the local market.
“The locals sort of know us, but not really...,” Queenie’s voice trails off.
Malaysia has seen a wide variety of chocolate products over the years. Foreign brands have long established their presence among local consumers and trying to get a bite of that bar is not easy.
There is a general impression that Western-made chocolates are better, acknowledges Wei Tzyy
Interestingly, though, Malaysia used to be the third largest cocoa exporter in the world. And while cocoa production has declined drastically from the 1990s, it remains one of the largest chocolate processing countries in South-East Asia.
“When we have blind tasting, a lot of the locals would actually choose our products. Many of the other chocolate products in Asia are actually mainly made in Malaysia. So we want to educate the industry that we can produce good chocolate here. We have the expertise in the local market.
“I think If we keep pushing our brand out into the market, the locals will know that there are local-made brands available,” adds Wei Tzyy
She notes that Harriston carries a variety of products that target different consumer segments, which may help the brand capture a portion of the market.
She expects to introduce its artisan range at local grocers by the end of the year to reach out to local consumers.
“We also added more elements to our outlets to make them more experiential. We added in DIY workshops for customers to make their own chocolates,” chirps in Queenie.
The sisters are also keen to move upstream into cocoa farms. This will not only help with maintaining quality of its cocoa supply, it could also enhance customer experience with farm tours.
However, Harriston is not about to go big in the upstream business.
“We will focus on small-scale farm production. We don’t just want to own a farm but we want to look at the quality of beans. It will start with existing plantations because it takes a few years for a tree to grow and having a good cocoa plantation is tough, because you have pests and things like that,” says Wei Tzyy.
Harriston is also open to collaborations with other businesses or organisations to produce more unique local products. For example, it is working closely with The Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute to incorporate more local produce like the Bentong ginger into its chocolates.
More tie-ups like this could literally spell endless potential for Harriston as it also explores other non-edible chocolate-based products such as soap bars and beauty products.
In serving the tourists market, another door that has opened up for Harriston is the export market. But this, says Wei Tzyy, will be another challenging market for the company to tackle due to intense competition.
It is in the midst of looking for good partners or distributors to help it grow in other countries.
Harriston is eyeing the South-East Asian market and later, the Asia Pacific market. It has also received keen interest from the Middle East.
“Recently, we also had the opportunity to launch the ruby chocolate, the world’s fourth chocolate after the dark, milk and white varieties. It was discovered by Barry Callebaut about 13 years ago and we were given the licence to launch this product first in the region,” adds Queenie.
The group is currently enjoying steady growth of 10% a year. And with a staff strength of about 200 people, the sisters are looking forward to take the company places.
“We won’t walk away from our core tourists business. But we are looking into diversifying our markets. We plan to have presence in every state where we can get close to Malaysians. That’s the quickest way to promote local products. But it will take time,” says Wei Tzyy.
“We are trying to work towards our father’s vision. We are proud of this. It’s a homegrown brand. And we want Malaysians to know that we can make Malaysian chocolates,” adds Queenie.