Founder, Freshen Food
If you want some homecooked Chinese soup pronto - then you pretty much have to content yourself with a takeaway from a food court or restaurant.
That was the biggest gap in the ready-made soups market that Pamela Phua, whose background is in communications, saw when she worked with clients in the food industry.
So, two years ago, she decided to do something about it. The packaged soup category was all western-recipe dominated, and most of them highly processed to boot.
"I wanted to create a product that was convenient and healthy, following the traditional approach, and not forsake nutrition for convenience," she shares.
So she contacted the people in the industry she'd met to go about this, tapping startup funds by Spring Singapore's Action Community for Entrepreneurship (now privatised).
A year plus of experimentation later, Freshen Food's nutrition-packed Lotus Root & Peanut Chicken Soup (with red date and wolfberry) (for 260gm, S$6.95), and the more basic Carrot & Potato Chicken Soup (onion) (S$5.95) are now available at NTUC FairPrice outlets and other supermarkets in the island.
Freshen Food's soups are the first on the shelves as ready-cooked, complete-with-ingredients soup, and it's made possible because of a manufacturing innovation called Retort, which uses pressurised steam for heat sterilisation, says Ms Phua. Think of Chinese soups made in an industrial-sized pressure cooker.
"Retort was the technology used for making food for the US army so that freshly cooked food can be conserved for over a year, without preservatives," she says, adding that she worked with the Food Innovation and Resource Centre at Singapore Polytechnic.
The most difficult part was the research and development stage because although Ms Phua used her grandmother's recipes, it wasn't easy finding the Retort parameters that emulate the taste of restaurant-quality homecooked soup.
The temperature, timing and pressure parameters all affect the shelf-stability and taste of the final product, she shares.
No MSG was added as well, only salt, as the base of the soup is brewed from bones and dried seafood.
Ms Phua persevered as her gut instinct and official market surveys told her that the market potential is potentially large. The market survey by Euromonitor at the time showed that the packaged soups market was set to register current value growth of 3 per cent to attain S$32 million in 2013.
"This is however largely based on western soups," highlights Ms Phua. She also saw the strong acceptance rate with busy but health-conscious consumers when she took Freshen Food's soups to the recent Asian Food Expo.
"For now the education process is important," she points out. "Consumers are surprised to find that the soups don't have preservatives and MSG and that it can just be reheated."
Ms Phua is already developing a third soup, experimenting with other soup flavours, and also developing the export market for Freshen Food's soups. "It's a product that's conceived for the export market and once consumer demand has stabilised in Singapore, I'm keen to explore the Australian and US markets because of their large Asian communities."