How These Food Entrepreneurs Went From Barely Staying Afloat to Having Hour-Long Lines

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In this ongoing series, we share advice, tips, and insights from real entrepreneurs , who are actively involved in business battles every day. (All answers have been edited and condensed to make them more concise. )



IRVINS

Who are you? And what’s your business?

I’m Irvin Gunawan, founder and CEO of IRVINS, an award-winning gourmet Singaporean salted egg snack brand. We specialize in chef-crafted gourmet chips, crispy upcycled salmon skin snacks, and other whole food ingredients that are common in Southeast Asian cuisine. Salted egg, also known as “the parmesan” in Asia, is a flavorful umami-flavored seasoning that has been a staple of Asian cuisine since the sixth Century. To make our famous (and proprietary) salted egg sauce, our in-house chefs salt-brine duck egg yolks for 30 days and then steam them before baking them into each bite. It produces a delicious umami flavor with a crunchy crunch.

Since launching in 2016 as the world’s original salted egg snack brand, we have gone from having a dedicated, cult-like following in Singapore to being one of the most popular snack brands in Asia and, more recently, have expanded into new global markets including Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the U.S.

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What inspired you to create this business?

We have been doing the food business for a long time, dating back from 2008 when I first opened the first Irvins seafood restaurant in Singapore. The Irvins salted egg snacks business was born almost by accident but also by necessity: Around 2014, we had to move the restaurant because our landlord increased the rent by 50%. Because it was in a residential neighborhood, we were doing very badly in the new location. It was difficult to keep the business afloat. We tried many things to pivot, including making a packaged product from the salted eggs we most loved, such as the salted egg fish skin or salted egg potato chips. We decided to open some pop-ups in the area after the product sold out on shelves. The snacks would go fast, with a one-hour wait. They would sell out in two hours. This was our eureka moment. We knew that we had created something that was truly meaningful to people, and were confident it could scale beyond Singapore.

What was your biggest business challenge and how did you pivot to overcome it?

The last two years of the pandemic were difficult for us as our snacks were sold mainly in our malls and pop-ups. We lost a lot of our revenue when COVID struck and the malls closed suddenly. We had to expand our distribution channels, including online, convenience stores, and supermarkets. This method allowed us to grow our distribution to 12 countries, which made the brand — because of our distribution pivot — more diversified and resilient.

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What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking for funding?

We have not raised any external funding as our profits have been sufficient to finance our growth. This arrangement is a good fit for us because we have always been determined to grow sustainably and at an acceptable pace. It’s not difficult to follow this route, I believe. It’s important to understand that external funds such as VCs may be available for you if you need them. They might have a different agenda than yours. It is important to be clear about what you want from the funding, and how you will use it, before you begin fundraising. Also, it is important to stay the course. For example, outside parties might push for top-line growth targets in order to sell the business at a high value in 5-7 years. Owners, however, are more interested in long-term, sustainable bottom-line growth. This route can have a lot of upside for all parties. However, if you don’t know your goals in 5-7 years you could lose control and it could work against you.

What does the word “entrepreneur” mean to you?

Being an entrepreneur to me means taking risks and creating things that are driven by passion or obsession. Entrepreneurs always put customers, ideas, and products first before profit and loss.

What is something many aspiring business owners think they need that they really don’t?

Many people believe that ‘external” things such as how grand a restaurant is, how well-furnished and equipped an office, or how wealthy the founders are matter a lot. But, in fact, I can attest from my 15 years doing business that they don’t. IRVINS snacks were originally sold in red plastic tubs (yes, it was as bad as it sounds) from 40-square-foot pop ups that me and my brother made out of Ikea tables and racks. The products sold out in two hours after opening each day. This was due to the quality of the product and the offering, not how we dressed or the fancy branding. We also didn’t have any cash back then. In fact, most of my failed projects were those where we spent too much on the store/restaurant to make it too big, grand, extravagant, or unnecessary.

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What is it like running a company with your two brothers?

It’s been a great learning experience. Although we are not perfect as individuals and as a group, the long-term experience of running and managing this company together has taught us to be more compassionate, understanding, and to hold ourselves accountable to the company. We have learned to discipline and demand from each other to make sure that we achieve our goals in a way that connects rather than divides.

Our bond is strong and it is great (especially during difficult times) to have the unquestionable support of my brothers who I know have my best interests at heart. This is a privilege not all business owners have.

What has been the response to your snacks in the US market and what is your strategy for growth here?

We were amazed at how well IRVINS was accepted in the US. This is because salted eggs are not a traditional food. It is clear that people are interested in what we have to say. Even people like Cardi B, David Chang and Andrew Zimmern love our products!

We are currently serving our customers thru supermarkets such as Hmart and Ranch 99, at Costco, and online thru our own website (eatirvins.com), Weee! Yamibuy. We have great US retail and distribution partners who are just as excited about our products. We intend to continue to educate and excite people on salted eggs, tell our stories, get our products closer for customers through interesting partnerships and wider mainstream distribution. We will not rest until salted eggs are as common in the U.S.as Mochi or Kimchi. This is when we will know we have succeeded.

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