When the pandemic first started last year, baby and family photographer Asther Lau did not expect things to get so bad.
“I thought that if I was careful and had strict SOPs in place, I could still service my clients,” says Lau, a Sarawakian who lives in Petaling Jaya.
“Even though it wasn’t possible to do my shoots outdoors, I could still do them in the comfort and safety of my studio,” she recounts.
“But when the situation got worse and the number of cases increased, my studio’s building management disallowed visitors altogether,” she says.
Lau reveals that she still had enquiries for maternity and newborn sessions throughout the recovery and conditional MCOs although the numbers had dropped drastically from pre-pandemic days.
“But I had to be selective,” she says.
Her family’s health and safety was a major concern and priority.
“My mum has lupus, my husband has hypertension and irregular heartbeat episodes, and my daughter is just 12. I myself am a thyroid patient. So, we’re kind of in the high-risk category and can’t afford to succumb to what was then the unknown Covid disease,” she says.
Lau, who has been in the photography business for 13 years, reveals that she was only able to earn a total of two months worth of her usual income last year.
Her household income was also impacted since her husband, who runs a handyman business, couldn’t go to clients’ homes during the pandemic.
Lau knew she had to pivot. She decided to start selling homemade food, including Sarawak specialities cooked by her mother, in their neighbourhood.
“It was a huge hit with our neighbours and we could at least bear our daily expenses through the earnings. But it was a lot of hard work,” she says.
Lau even started baking and selling buttermilk cookies and banana cake in her neighbourhood.
But the profit margin was too low to survive on, she says.
Because she was involved in helping to rescue and rehome stray animals in the neighbourhood, Lau got to know many pet owners. She decided to try making pet snacks and food – dehydrated pet treats, home baked pet cookies – to sell, and bought a dehydrator.
But she discovered that there were already so many new players in the pet food business and realised it was not a feasible option, so she was stuck with the equipment she had bought and no business plan.
Lau says that what she sells was an “incidental discovery” and that she “underestimated” it at first, because it was “just something that she and her family consume personally”.
“I decided to use the dehydrator to make dehydrated fruits for my family since I’ve always loved eating dried fruit and it’s difficult to find good quality ones with no preservatives,” she says.
“I used to have to drive around a lot, fetching my daughter for classes and didn’t get to have my meals on time, and I kept a bottle of my dried fruit snacks in the car which I tried and realised they were so good, and healthy too!” she laughs.
“They’re a great pick-me-up, especially during stressful days,” she says. “And I suddenly realised that it was a business idea worth exploring.”
It was in November 2020 and she decided to make the most of the Christmas season and start selling dehydrated fruit treats in Christmas packaging as gifts.
Since she was also very much into recycling at home, Lau decided to use glass jars because there aren’t many recycling centres that accept them, unlike paper, plastic or aluminum cans.
She started by cleaning and sterilising her own huge collection of empty jars at home, decorated them with a Christmas theme and filled them with the dehydrated fruits and once again started selling them in her neighbourhood.
The feedback from her neighbours was very encouraging.
“Feeling motivated, I worked at making better treats, tweaking the size and shape for better production quality,” she says.
From a self-designed logo, she decided to invest into her branding and hired a professional designer to produce her logo and labels.
In January 2021, she officially launched Jari Treats. Her treats include cinnamon apples, gingery oranges, dehydrated mangoes and dehydrated pineapples, but there are seasonable fruits such as persimmons as well. She is currently doing R&D and hopes to have more products in the future, including vegetables and other seasonal fruits too.
Lau says that her treats appeal to a wide target market – from energetic millennials who are constantly on-the-go and need snacks to keep their energy levels up, to homemakers looking for healthy snacks for their family, to those seeking thoughtful, healthy gifts for their loved ones whom they can’t see during the pandemic.
Most of her customers are from the Klang Valley but some have ordered her treats to be sent out to as far as Penang and Johor, which she uses a delivery service for.
A family affair
While Lau does most of the production work personally, her mother and daughter help to prepare the fruits, slicing and washing them, and her husband helps with deliveries as well as purchasing the crates of fruit.
She admits that there are many challenges starting a new business during the pandemic.
“Food is a very fast-paced and trending industry. There needs to be consistent marketing in order to maintain the sales,” she says.
She is also concerned about the current lockdown and how it will impact her family and business.
“We’re worried and not sure if we can cover our overheads,” she says.
“On one hand, more people tend to want to send gifts to their loved ones whom they can’t meet or visit. On the other hand, people spend more cautiously during uncertain times, while the cost of raw materials and operations are constantly increasing, so the product pricing has to be just right,” she says, adding that she’s gotten certification from the Health Ministry and a typhoid jab which is a requirement in the food-handling industry.
Lau has also recently signed a lease to a bigger workspace in a commercial lot.
“It’s not a shop but a bigger space with a larger kitchen and more packing and storage space. We hope to be able to increase our production and sales,” she says.
“Eating healthy is now the trend, even more so during the pandemic.
“Rather than having snacks that are processed with lots of sugar, salt, artificial flavouring and preservatives, I hope to encourage people to have healthy snacks with no artificial flavouring, preservatives, and no added salt or sugar,” she concludes.
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