Two's Company

Udderly successful ice cream

Home-grown ice-cream parlour Udders had a challenging first year when it opened, but now it has five outlets and an annual revenue of $5 million

SINGAPORE - It is 10am on a Monday, two hours before the Siglap branch of Singapore ice-cream chain Udders is scheduled to open.

Going by the crowds that throng the chain’s five outlets daily, it would seem that these are the only few hours of the day during which the ice-cream parlours, painted in cheery orange, are quiet.

But making up for the lack of chatter are the co-owners, husband and wife David Yim, 45, and Wong Peck Lin, 44, who seem to be on the brink of a food fight.

“How about I pretend to eat this burger on her head while she holds a giant cone of ice cream?” he suggests to the bemused photographer whois taking photographs to go with the interview.

“Or maybe I can smash some ice cream into his hair?” Ms Wong counters with a grin.

The photographer steps in before things get out of hand but the quirky parents of an eight-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son prove throughout the shoot to be game for anything, resulting in some hilarious  photographs that are in line with the cheeky vibe of their brand.

“As you can tell, we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Mr Yim says later.

His bright orange namecard identifies him as Chief Milkman.

“After all, we did name our brand after a cow’s um... mammary glands. We’re all about keeping things fun.”

I couldn't decide if I wanted to sell ice cream or burgers. Now I'm lucky to be able to do both and do them well.''

MR DAVID YIM

Still, going by the upward trajectory Udders has been on since its start in 2007, it is evident that the couple, who married in 1998 after dating since their mid-20s, know how to work just as hard as they play.

What started as a 500 sq ft ice-cream parlour in Novena eight years ago is today a well-recognised local brand with five outlets across the island.

It is best known for its best-selling Mao Shan Wang ice cream and its range of intensely alcoholic flavours, including Bailey’s & Bourbon and Rum Rum Raisin.

In recent years, the chain has also firmly cemented its place in the local food and beverage industry with the introduction of two new sister brands – The Udder Pancake at the Upper Thomson outlet in 2012 and Bukit Timah outlet last year, and Udders and Kook at its Siglap outlet earlier this year, offering savoury pancakes
and hamburgers so patrons can enjoy a complete meal.

Despite the successes the couple are enjoying today, the journey to building their ice-cream business was not easy, given neither had any entrepreneurship experience prior to starting Udders.

"My wife is a trained lawyer who graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and I spent seven years as a teacher before we decided to start Udders," says Mr Yim, an NUS sociology and economics graduate.

"Unlike most entrepreneurs, neither of us started our careers dreaming that we would one day be business owners."

His initial career aspiration?

Moulding young minds - he taught English, mathematics and science to students in the Normal Technical stream at Yishun Town Secondary School.

Always gunning for the underdog, he went beyond rote teaching methods to cater to his students' different learning needs.

Within his first year, he had helped bring the school's passes in English up from an average of 80 per cent to 99.7 per cent.

Although he excelled at his work, he soon began to find the bureaucracy of the civil service stifling.

"At 36, I was having a premature mid-life crisis, suffocated by the straight and narrow parameters I had to follow," he recalls.

"It's what got me thinking about taking the leap to start something on my own. It felt like a do-or-die moment for me."

With the blessings of his wife, who was a business consultant at the time, he left his job in 2006 and the duo spent time thinking up the perfect business idea.

"As a foodie, I knew I wanted to sell either ice cream or burgers. Those on the market were lacking in quality at the time," he says.

"But since I didn't know anything about either, I ordered the equipment for both and decided to choose when they arrived."

The ice-cream making equipment arrived first, prompting him to jump headfirst into learning all about making the frozen treat from scratch.

Armed with nothing more than books, the Internet and his own liquid nitrogen machine, he spent the next four months holed up at home, often staying up until 3am to craft and perfect his recipes.

"We ate so much ice cream back then," Ms Wong recalls, adding that they experimented with different liqueurs and fresh ingredients to keep the flavours intense and authentic.

"We wanted to offer customers something that was unique, not the same old stuff that was already available on the market."

And thanks to the preferential rental rates they got from his father for a ground floor retail space he owned in Novena, the two were set.

With a mortgaged home and a war chest made up of $150,000 of their savings, the couple and a third partner opened the doors to their 20-seater cafe in 2007.

The menu featured a selection of 15 flavours, including trademarked alcoholic specials such as Orange Choc Bitters and Tira-Miss-U.

However, the business did not take off like they had hoped.

Without the power of social media and the financial resources to spend on advertising, they were left relying on word of mouth.

"It was really tough for us - sometimes we would go an entire day without a single customer," Mr Yim says.

The only thing that kept them going? A dogged confidence in the quality of their ice cream and the positive feedback they got from their few repeat customers.

It took six months before word got around and a full year before they finally pulled in the crowds.

Luckily for them, they had a little something for everyone. Their cheeky catchphrases caught the eye of the young crowd while the adults were drawn by the boozy ice-cream flavours.

A year and a half after opening, the business finally stopped making a loss and Mr Yim paid himself his first salary - a nominal $200.

He recalls: "For me it was a huge step, especially after having gone so long without a pay cheque."

Thankfully, things have been on the up and up since that first challenging year.

In 2009, Udders opened its second outlet in Westmall in Bukit Batok followed by a third in Bukit Timah in the same year.

And though the Westmall outlet closed in 2012, branches that opened in Siglap (2010), Serangoon Garden (2011) and Upper Thomson (2012) are still going strong alongside the Bukit Timah and Novena outlets.

To keep up with demand, the company also invested $1.5 million in a 2,000 sq ft central kitchen in Woodlands in 2011 to produce its ice cream.

When the third partner amicably parted ways with the company in 2010, Ms Wong came on board as a full-time director, leaving her job with Pro Bono Services Office in 2011 to take over the portfolios of marketing, branding, franchising and wholesaling. Her husband took over product development, operations and staffing.

Today, the business has an annual revenue of $5 million and employs 25 full-time staff and at least 50 part-timers at any one time.

Financial success aside, they have also hit some impressive milestones in their eight-year history, such as being selected to be the official ice-cream partner for Gardens by the Bay for the past three years.

"Collaborating with such an iconic local attraction was a huge deal for us," says Ms Wong. "We were so proud to be chosen."

More recently, Udders also partnered another Singaporean F&B institution, Jack's Place, to sell a limited selection of its ice cream at 16 Jack's Place outlets.

A full-scale Udders scoop shop inside the Toa Payoh branch is also slated to open next month.

Mr Jerry Lim, 37, chief operating officer of Jack's Place, says: "Not only is Udders a local company like ours, it also impressed us by staying grounded and true to its brand despite its successes. That's what sealed the deal for us."

And it is evident that staying grounded is key for the duo. When asked what he is most proud of after eight years in the business, Mr Yim is quick with his answer.

"Once upon a time, I couldn't decide if I wanted to sell ice cream or burgers or if either would sell for that matter. Now I'm lucky to be able to do both and do them well. That's enough for me."

And though the couple are comfortable enough to take some time off to indulge in their own passions these days - playing football for Ms Wong and fishing for Mr Yim - it is evident that they have no intention of coasting on their success.

For them, all the time they have got these days that is not spent with their children at their home in Upper Thomson is spent trying to take their business to the next level.

So what is this big next level?

"We would love for Udders to succeed internationally," says Ms Wong firmly.

"As a young brand, seeing Udders make its mark in the international market would undoubtedly be the ultimate achievement for us."


David on Peck Lin

For most married couples, going from living together to working together full time can be a real adjustment, but according to Mr Yim, the transition for him and his wife was almost seamless.

"We were lucky to have led a church group together in the past and learnt each other's style of working early on," he says.

"It really made things easier when we began working together."

And though he admits that the stakes are different when you have to run a business together, he says their solid foundation is what has helped them play to their strengths.

"It can be seen in the smallest things with us," he says.

"For example, she's stronger at languages and I'm more comfortable with science and numbers, so it helped us naturally gravitate towards our areas of responsibility in the business."

In between playing soccer weekly and wanting to climb to Everest base camp next year, Peck Lin's youthful spirit inspires me - both at home and at work.''

MR DAVID YIM

Another area in which they differ? Empathy.

Mr Yim says this means assuming the role of bad cop at work and at home, admitting that good cop is a job much better handled by his wife.

"Not only does she have an incredibly high IQ, she also has a very high EQ, which means many times, our kids or staff approach her first when they have issues," he says.

And though that means that he has to take on tougher roles such as disciplining the kids or laying off staff when necessary, he says it is his wife's empathetic nature that constantly inspires him.

"Watching how she handles situations has taught me to think things through more carefully before reacting to them," he says.

"She's definitely inspired me to get in touch with my sensitive side."

What he loves most about his wife though is her youthful and adventurous spirit.

"She's been playing soccer weekly for the past 20 years and next year, wants to challenge herself and climb to the Everest base camp," Mr Yim says.

"Even though she's got so many responsibilities as a wife, mother and business owner, she makes time for herself and isn't afraid to live in the moment. That is something that makes me very proud."


Peck Lin on David

Ms Wong might be the one obsessed with playing football but it is Mr Yim's inherently playful personality that she feels is one of the biggest reasons for the success of their business.

"Even though we're both quite extroverted, he's really the creative force - the sort who is constantly thinking out of the box," she says when asked to describe her husband in a nutshell.

"I might come across more straitlaced but that's okay. I think our different personalities help balance each other out."

The two have known each other for a long time.

They shared the same school bus to kindergarten from their neighbourhood in Upper Thomson.

Years later, they were school mates at Anglo Chinese Junior College. However, they started properly dating only in their mid-20s.

"We clicked after we led a group together at church and realised how well we got along. I think it's because our personalities complemented each other's strengths and weaknesses very well."

 

We draw a line between work and home - that's an important part of keeping our professional and personal relationships solid.''

MS WONG PECK LIN

Case in point? The self-confessed thinker says her husband is much more the doer of the two - the sort to jump in and try things.

But she says his spontaneity is balanced out by his steady nature, which helps keep the two of them on track.

"Whereas I can be intense and go into overdrive when I'm working, David is always quite reliably calm," she says.

"He keeps me from getting too high-strung and is the stabilising factor when it comes to work, our personal relationship or the way we parent our kids. It's something I am grateful for," she says.

And though the two treat each other as equals at work, she is firm that the final decision in the case of a business disagreement will always be his.

"Even though we maintain free rein in the different areas of the business we oversee, we decided from the start that only one person should have the final say," she says.

"David holds 51 per cent of the company shares and I hold 49 per cent. But secondary to that, I trust the way he makes decisions. I know they'll always be in the best interest of our business."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2015, with the headline 'Udder success'. Print Edition | Subscribe