If you were to ask Marcus Png what he thought he'll be doing in 2020, selling durians would definitely not be his answer. Yet, this is what the 31-year-old is doing now as one of the two people behind online durian delivery business, Durian Lobang King. And yes, Covid-19 had a huge role to play.
This is not his first encounter with durians though. He and his business partner, Q Lim, 32, are also the owners of an events company, Truevents, and they would regularly organise durian-related events for their clients, including a large scale durian buffet for a neighbourhood shopping centre in Singapore.
Finding a new livelihood
Png and Lim's events company started to see business suffer in January when the first Covid-19 patient was reported in Singapore. Clients started to postpone and even cancel events. "But s**t hit the fan in February, when the situation became more severe and our business was severely impacted," Png says.
Their foray into the durian business came about because they realised that they needed to find a new revenue stream, as well as to satisfy their own durian cravings.
The duo then spent a week eating durians from various stalls, spending almost $900 while doing so, but they were never satisfied by the quality they got for the price that they paid.
"Since we had contacts with a durian plantation in Malaysia from previous events we organised, we decided that we wanted to provide durians to consumers that lived up to their expectations," shares Png.
And how long does it take to set up a durian business? For Durian Lobang King, they spent about a month to find a place to operate, work out the logistics, packaging, website and most importantly, get experienced help, since the two founders weren't familiar with handling durians.
And this proved to be tricky as most seasoned hands in Singapore were already hired for the durian season and it was not possible to get help from Malaysia due to the movement control order (MCO).
Eventually, "through lots of asking around and pulling every string we had", they managed to find an experienced uncle who came out of retirement to help and impart his durian wisdom to them.
Learning on the job about all things durian-related
The duo has certainly "levelled up" in their durian knowledge, with terms like 'Old Tree' and 'Black Pearl' (varieties of Mao Shan Wang) now familiar to them.
While Lim had always been picky about the type of durian that he ate, Png used to be less discerning. However, this has changed.
"I used to eat any durian, as long as it was good as I was price-conscious. But after starting Durian Lobang King, I won't waste my calories on durians other than Mao Shan Wang," Png says, adding that his tastes have also changed from liking sweet durians to having a preference for the bittersweet variety.
As with most things, it wasn't all smooth sailing. Logistics, for one, was something the pair had to grapple with. They only have a few hours to pack the durians that come in from Malaysia at 5pm, as they promise to deliver between 6pm to 11pm on the same day.
Both Png and Lim had to learn how to open durians quickly and pick up tips on how to tell whether a durian is good through its appearance, whilst on the job.
Teething problems meant that on their first day of business on May 30, they were only able to deliver 50kg of the 100kg that they had ordered due to the quality of the durians they opened and their insistence on not sending out sub-standard durian. Thankfully, they managed to work it out with their suppliers and from the third day of operations, they had no more issues with the durian, quality-wise.
They are grateful for the support that they have gotten so far as their sales are healthy. While they are still keen to go back to their events business once the industry recovers, they are committed to grow Durian Lobang King and promise that it'll "not be a hit and run business". The duo is currently working with IncuBaker Singapore to develop a line of durian pastries and are even looking at potentially opening a cafe.
Starting a durian business to provide jobs for those in need
Like Durian Lobang King, Samuel Chen's Home of Durian at Bedok started operations this year.
According to the 38-year-old, the decision to start Home of Durian took just 10 minutes of consideration, after a friend passed him a contact to a durian plantation in Malaysia and the realisation that some of his favourite durian stalls had closed due to circuit breaker measures.
"I was certain that no matter what the circumstances were, Singaporeans would still want to eat durians, which made this a viable business," says Chen.
Another reason behind starting Home of Durian was to create jobs for people whom he knows that have lost their jobs. While he could help them out financially, he believes that providing a job in a sustainable business would be of more value.
Already, people have approached him for a job, which he is happy to offer it there is a suitable role in the set-up. He shares that an older man who had a flailing container business reached out to him on Facebook and came down to their Bedok shop. Chen offered him a job on the spot to do deliveries.
Home of Durian currently provides work for about 30 people daily to do everything from opening durians to deliveries.
United by their love for durian
He shares that no one on his team has prior experience in the durian business, but they all are united by their love for durian. "Some of the people on my team grew up in the kampong where they naturally learnt how to identify good durians, so their skills have come in handy," he quips.
For Chen, Home of Durian is here to stay. They currently offer Mao Shan Wang durians only but plan to offer other varieties of durian when they are in season. He also intends to open more Home of Durian branches to create more employment opportunities and bring durians closer to more people, with a Yishun branch already in the works.
Giving back to society and helping those in need is also what Chen hopes to do with Home of Durian. The business hosted its first charity sale on June 9 and he intends to hold more of such events during the three-month-long durian season.
To order from Durian Lobang King, visit durianlobangking.com.sg. Prices are updated daily and durians are delivered from 6pm to 11pm daily.
To order from Home of Durian, Whatsapp, SMS or call +65 8811 0060. Visit their Facebook page for the latest prices and durians are delivered from 7pm to 11pm daily.