The drive for change and innovation propelled non-dairy ice cream maker Soyato to grow from a tiny venture to become one of Singapore's more successful food and beverage (F&B) pioneers.
Like many great ideas, Soyato started simple and personal.
Founders Alan Phua and Verleen Goh, who are a couple, wanted healthier options to satisfy their craving for ice cream.
"Verleen and I would go on these regular ice cream trips, only to go home feeling guilty and worried about all the fat and calories. That's when we realised the market has yet to offer hard ice cream that's simply tasty but not loaded with fat - and that's where we saw a business opportunity," Mr Phua, 31, told The Straits Times.
Today, three years after Soyato began as a single stall at Bugis Junction, its trademark soyamilk- made ice cream is being sold at more than 100 locations, including restaurants and cafes, as well as 26 supermarkets across the island.
It is now a flourishing business with strong turnover, and has sold more than 2.5 million servings of ice cream since 2011 as Singaporeans become increasingly health-conscious, said Mr Phua.
"We've come a long way from producing in five-litre batches - now we produce by the ton for national distribution." As Soyato grew further, the company also scaled up production by using the services of a contract manufacturer in Selangor.
Soyato's transformation from a tiny start-up was beset with challenges, many relating to getting right the science of making ice cream with no cream and a much lower fat content.
This was not an easy task for Mr Phua and Ms Goh, 27, who were final-year students at the Singapore Management University and the National University of Singapore respectively when Soyato was started.
"Right from the start, we sort of realised why there's no hard ice cream in the market that's dairy-free. Regular ice cream gets its creaminess and texture from dairy protein, casein and at least 12 per cent fat, so it's very difficult to get a creamy texture if we don't use those ingredients," Mr Phua explained.
What followed was a period of intense trial and error, with Ms Goh - a food-science student - leading the product development.
Eventually, the duo chose soya milk as their cream substitute for its consistency with milk's characteristics but a very low level of fat and zero cholesterol.
Outside the kitchen, the pair also frequently took part in road shows and lifestyle events to put their experimental ice cream up for tasting.
"People liked our first few prototypes, but said they preferred it less beany and more creamy. Feedback like this really motivated us and led us to work harder on improving our formula."
It was not until six months later that the team finally had its "eureka moment".
Mr Phua declined to provide the details of what made his soya-milk ice cream tick, but stressed that Soyato's products have continued to evolve since then in terms of texture, taste, shelf life and range of flavours - more than 40 now.
"Food science and technology is our company's core competency, so improving the quality and variety - essentially the intellectual properties - of our products will always be our priority, instead of spending resources on operating a food services chain of our own."
Mr Phua added that Soyato will continue to rely on third-party point of sales to build its network, which is set to grow to 350 locations in Singapore next year.
The pair expect a major phase of growth next year, with plans already afoot for its soya-milk ice cream to go overseas.
"We are in talks with distributors in South Korea, where consumers are crazy about the calorie count of their food. In Shanghai too, we are talking to convenience- store distributors. Sales in these two markets may begin as early as the start of next year."
But for a company that is living and breathing innovation, Soyato is not going to stay in its comfort zone, he stressed.
"We are developing non-icecream products to tap the growing demand for healthy food as our population ages. This is a group of consumers who are not only growing in numbers but are also worried about diabetes and hypertension.
"We can't say what these new products will be, except that they will be ready in a year's time."
Soyato's growth comes at a time when many local food and beverage SMEs are finding business transformation a tough call to make as they struggle under the pressure of rising business costs and tightening manpower.
Mr Phua agrees that times are hard for the industry now - but that does not make innovation and change a luxury.
"For SMEs like us, it's really a necessity. Think of the marketing power of big fast-moving consumer- good players, their advertisements on billboards and at bus stations. Against that sort of competition, if you're stuck with 'me-too' products, then there's not going to be a way out for you," he said.
"We cannot outspend their marketing budgets, but we can out-innovate them and capture new loyal supporters."
This article was first published on December 17, 2014.
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