Creative Capital: Her farmers' market stall is now one of Singapore's coolest ice cream companies
Mother-of-one Natasha Chiam first started making ice cream sandwiches for her now-husband in her kitchen eight years ago.
Who doesn’t love an ice cream sandwich? Eight years ago, journalist Natasha Chiam, who graduated with a law degree and briefly worked in the legal sector, started making homemade cookies and ice cream, selling them at weekend markets.
Her delicious combinations quickly made her Ice Cream & Cookie Co (ICC) a local standout and built a devoted following. Today, ICC is one of the biggest independent players in frozen confections in Singapore.
This October, Natasha is launching ICC Kids, inspired by her experiences as a young mother. ICC Kids is a range of what Chiam describes as “wholesome baked goods and ice cream for children and new mothers”.
WHAT WAS THE ORIGINAL INSPIRATION FOR ICC?
Growing up, my parents would spend a lot of time in the kitchen cooking with my brother and me. It was truly the heart of our home and many of my happiest childhood memories are making and sharing food with my family. I think because of this, food has always been something I share with those that I care about.
ICC started at home, with ice cream sandwiches that I made for my now-husband. He loved them and encouraged me to bring them to farmers’ markets and pop-ups around Singapore. That is how the business began.
WHAT ARE YOUR MEMORIES OF THOSE EARLY DAYS SELLING AT WEEKEND MARKETS BACK IN 2012?
One of the craziest things is that I did almost all of our deliveries myself for the first two years, rushing around Singapore in a beat-up rental.
I used to push my trolley into commercial loading bays with all the tough truck drivers. They would always be amused to see me there – I'm rather short and would be half-hidden behind my tower of ice cream boxes. Plus, female drivers are still a rarity. Driving would often take most of the day. That meant I would only get to the actual work at night. In hindsight, two years seems too long, but when you are a start-up with zero external funding, saving every dollar counts.
That experience definitely made me tougher. Doing hands-on jobs like those has allowed me to understand all aspects of my business and thus made me a better manager. I am more able to understand challenges that employees at all levels of my company face because I've worked in every function from delivery to cleaning, production, marketing and management.
It actually made me a better person too. I'd previously had the privilege of working in rather cushy jobs, so it was eye-opening to learn how hard blue collar workers, like delivery personnel and factory production staff, have to work so that consumers can enjoy nice products and convenience. It puts things into perspective.
THE COMPANY HAS CERTAINLY GROWN AND DIVERSIFIED OVER THE YEARS.
Growth is never easy. If I had known how hard it would be, I probably would never have quit my nine-to-five job and taken the plunge into business. Initially growth was very organic, or even sometimes serendipitous.
For example, one of our first customers happened to be a business, which is what pushed me toward manufacturing rather than running retail stores. This direction has allowed me to continue to grow the business with probably greater success than I could have achieved in Singapore's tough retail environment.
As the years go by, you learn more, and you take on more responsibility so growth is definitely planned. I have employees to support, so I am very careful about planning future expansion and how to use the company's finances. Being careful and rather conservative also helped us make it through the recent shutdowns due to the pandemic.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS TODAY. HOW HAS IT CHANGED AND EVOLVED?
We have grown from a single farmers’ market stall to one of Singapore's leading ice cream manufacturers. When we first started out, everything was truly artisanal and hand made. Now, because we supply to supermarkets and F&B chains who in turn serve thousands of people each day, we have a duty to ensure consistent quality and food safety for all of our products.
Our products are IS22000 and HACCP certified, which means as a business we have many measures in place to ensure total food safety for all of our products. While our recipes have basically remained the same, we have had to edit certain things. For instance, we now use a very small percentage of stabilisers to improve shelf stability and product quality – when we started out we were stabiliser-free.
I used to automatically think that stabilisers are bad for your health, but not all stabilisers are created equal. The ones we use are high quality, as well as 100 percent plant-based and vegan certified.
We do more wholesale these days, as we still do not have a retail store – all of our retail is online via our website. Most wholesalers purchase our pints or large food service tubs. The ice cream sandwiches are also still our signature product. We have a loyal following who buy them at independent cafes and also directly from us.
YOU ALSO SELL OUTSIDE OF SINGAPORE. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR INTERNATIONAL EXPANSION?
We are sold in Brunei at a gourmet grocery chain called Supa Save. We are also in talks with distributors in Australia and the Middle East. So far, with overseas exports, we’ve been approached by the buyer so in that way that makes things easier – these companies already have presence in their home countries and are motivated themselves to add our products to their line-up.
We also have an ice cream company in Jakarta called Cream Fiction. There, we offer home delivery, have a factory, and 4 scoop shops selling premium ice cream cups, cones, shakes and our ice cream sandwiches. We also do catering and supply wholesale to F&B businesses and schools.
TELL US ABOUT THE NEW LINE, ICC KIDS.
ICC Kids is a line of wholesome baked goods and ice cream for children and new mothers. We hope to give time-pressed parents the ability to offer their kids healthy, home-made treats instead of processed supermarket snacks. All items have low or no sugar, and where sugar is used, it's organic and unrefined.
We've also packed a lot of the baked goods with fruit and vegetables like carrots, bananas and zucchini which we get fresh from the wholesale market. All the children's products, including the ice cream, are also egg-free and nut-free, so kids with allergies can still enjoy them. That said, one of the lactation cookies contains macadamia nuts. Our factory does process nuts so if a child is allergic or sensitive to even to trace elements of nuts, we recommend avoiding our products.
I actually made all of the items in this range first for my own son, who also happens to have an egg allergy, making sure that they are full of wholesome ingredients and are made just like a parent would make at home, from scratch.
If you look at grocery stores, most pre-packed snacks – even the organic ones – are highly processed puffs or crackers, that usually contain vegetable oils, salt and sugar. On the bakery side, most don't differentiate between bakes for adults or children. Snack products are generally made without much consideration for childhood health, and as such there are very limited options for many parents.
I did several rounds of testing and sent lots of samples to friends for their children to try. Children are totally honest with their feedback, so it was easy to iterate based on what they said! I think there was only one time I pushed it too far with a sugar-free zucchini muffin that even the most adventurous kid couldn't finish.
OF THE NEW ICC KIDS SNACKS, WHICH IS YOUR OWN PERSONAL FAVOURITE?
I love the Nibbles – they're like mini cookies – in both the Cheese and Choc Raisin flavour. I think a lot of parents actually eat their kids’ snacks. I mean, who has time to make their own? I often find myself snacking on these little bites. They're great to throw in your work bag, or use as lunchbox fillers.
LOOKING BACK, WHAT WERE SOME OF THE MOST CHALLENGING OBSTACLES YOU NEVER ANTICIPATED BUT HAD TO OVERCOME IN MAKING THE BUSINESS SUCCEED?
Most recently, the covid-19 situation. It's a once in a lifetime kind of experience that nobody could have predicted. Ice cream manufacturing was considered a non-essential business and we were asked to shut down entirely for a few weeks.
To compound that, our food service business fell to almost zero for months because restaurants were severely affected. In order to overcome these challenges, we had to quickly pivot and replace the lost revenue with online home delivery orders, as well as to collect pre-orders during the period we were shut down.
This involved investing heavily into digital marketing and also working out how to cope with the added logistical and administrative load that small retail orders require. For example, a wholesale order might be S$500, but the average retail order is around S$50. Instead of doing one delivery, our drivers have to do ten for the same dollar value. Our customer service staff have to process ten times the amount of paperwork, again for the same dollar value. Obviously we couldn't hire ten times the number of staff to support, so we had to get creative and figure out how to make things work, with a mix of outsourcing, improving internal processes and retraining staff.
We had to quickly and continually modify our business model to make sure we had strong revenue to continue to provide for our staff. Thankfully we were able to do so successfully, and as such we were able to actually pass on some of the government's grants to businesses directly to our staff in the form of cash bonuses over the circuit breaker period.
One example: we gave all our foreign workers the S$750 monthly levy rebate in addition to their salary, and also matched that amount for our Singaporean staff. I believe that if the company can afford to do so, these rebates and concessions should be enjoyed by the employees because they are the ones who are often hit the hardest in difficult times and without them the company cannot survive. The pandemic actually helped us become stronger together.
The pandemic also forced us to use technology to streamline and improve aspects of our business that were previously manual. For example, we implemented more software automations as part of our order receiving and processing procedures to help our staff who had to deal with the sheer volume of many small home delivery orders instead of fewer large wholesale orders during this period.
These are tools that we will continue to use beyond the pandemic and have definitely improved the quality of our customer service, fulfilment and also staff morale.