Savouring sweet success with drinks and desserts

Savouring sweet success with drinks and desserts

Tucked away in a corner of *Scape near Orchard Road is the culmination of a dream of two young entrepreneurs from Indonesia.

It was a sweet tooth that led Mr Karim Sumilo, 29, and Mr Johan Wong, 30, to open their own Asian drinks and desserts stall, Tea Tozz.

Both are Singapore permanent residents.

"I love Lao Ban tau huay, and I eat it around two to three times a week. I also like bubble tea," said Mr Sumilo.

They first came up with the idea of opening a desserts shop at a mutual friend's wedding party two years ago.

They pooled $60,000 of their savings to open a 16 sq m shop at Bugis Street in June 2012.

In October last year, Tea Tozz moved to its present location at *Scape - more than doubling its retail space to meet rising demand.

In January this year, they opened another outlet in a shopping mall in Medan, Indonesia, where the two entrepreneurs grew up.

Despite the encouraging growth in the business, the duo have no intention of leaving their full-time jobs in the information technology (IT) line.

"The shops are run by supervisors, it is not a full-time proposition for us," said Mr Sumilo, whose parents are supportive of his endeavour.

"But they told me not to leave my job because setting up a business is risky."

Mr Sumilo also recounts the arduous process of taste-testing Tea Tozz's products.

Two months before the shop opened in Bugis, his brother and sister - who also live in Singapore - were stuffed with desserts twice a week in his quest to create a perfect menu.

Some trials were more successful than others.

Initially, they had intended to focus on Japanese green tea products, but the two partners realised the market was too niche. They also said green tea made an unsuitable base for bubble tea.

After much experimentation, the store opened with fewer than 10 items on its menu.

Now, it sells more than 40 items, including its popular Thai milk tea and taro pudding.

The partners declined to disclose exact figures, but said revenue was in the low five digits last year.

However, they are not resting on their laurels.

To improve their products and be attuned to the latest trends, they patronise other shops that sell Asian drinks and desserts, including Gong Cha and Koi Cafe, two to three times a week.

They also sponsored desserts to help charitable causes, partnering National University of Singapore geography students last October to raise funds for Myanmar refugees in Thailand.

When asked why they started the business at their age, Mr Sumilo said they would have more time to devote to the business without the responsibility of supporting their families.

But striking out on their own has not been easy. Tea Tozz has not been spared from the manpower crunch that has affected the food and beverage industry here.

"Not a lot of people find working in food and beverage a very glamorous job, and part-timers have other priorities such as school or examinations that might interfere with their work," said Mr Sumilo.

He also noted that high levies make it extremely difficult to hire foreign workers.

One way Tea Tozz meets the staffing challenge is to open from 1pm to 11pm - after school hours, when part-timers can work.

The hours are also convenient for their target customers, or "Tea Tozzers", aged 15 to 35, who can patronise the shop after school or work.

Also, the self-serve toppings concept in Tea Tozz allows customers to scoop their own customised toppings - such as jellies and pearls - onto their drinks or desserts.

That helps cut down the shop's staffing needs.

The Tea Tozz outlet in *Scape has five full and part-time employees.

The key to retaining good staff is to communicate more with them to better understand their concerns, said Mr Sumilo.

"I treat my staff like family, by giving them benefits and letting them know that this is their home," he said.

Employees get monetary incentives when certain sales targets are met, and they are encouraged to experiment with different flavours to come up with new products.

The two business owners also make it a point to drop by the shop around three times a week to check on how the staff are doing.

Ultimately, despite the risks and pitfalls of business ventures, the owners of Tea Tozz have no regrets over taking the plunge.

"In business, what you put in is what you get, and I am very happy I get to share the passion for desserts and drinks with our customers," said Mr Sumilo.

ivantyh@sph.com.sg


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