SME Spotlight

Whipping up sweet success with novelty

In conjunction with the World Intellectual Property Day celebrations this month, SME Spotlight is showcasing four local firms at the forefront of innovation and creativity. In the second of a four-part series, Marissa Lee speaks to Momolato founder Sharon Tay about how it protects its brand.

Ex-investment banker Sharon Tay started Momolato in January 2014 to sell gelato and popsicles. Momolato operates mainly as a wholesaler that offers innovative ice cream flavours, like cereal milk, miso with strawberries, salted egg yolk and durian gu
Ex-investment banker Sharon Tay started Momolato in January 2014 to sell gelato and popsicles. Momolato operates mainly as a wholesaler that offers innovative ice cream flavours, like cereal milk, miso with strawberries, salted egg yolk and durian gula melaka sorbet, and to date, has 50 flavours it can do.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Q How did Momolato come about?

A I was an investment banker for eight years. We helped governments and corporates issue bonds. I even wrote a book on the Asian high-yield bond market, together with my boss, that was published by Wiley.

But I really wanted to create my own brand. It's always been a dream. If I were to be working so hard, I might as well work harder for myself. So, why not have my own branding? In January 2014, I started Momolato to sell gelato and popsicles.

Q Where did you learn to be a gelato chef?

A I picked up my skills from the Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy. I spent a couple of months there. After that, I went to the Apicius culinary school in Florence to improve my pastry skills, so we can also make gelato cakes.

Q Why did you choose to specialise in gelato?

A Around January 2013, when I was still in banking, I began my pastry training part-time, at night. I wanted to specialise in mousse cakes and frozen confections, and that ignited a passion for working with ice cream.

Q What IP protection have you bought for Momolato?

A The very first thing to trademark is your name, and the IP we applied for is a trademark. It cost us about $900.

I feel that our branding is synonymous with innovation - we won the Asia Pacific Gelato World Tour in March last year. We came up with our own flavour - coconut gula melaka (palm sugar) with caramelised crispy tofu skin.

We don't want another Momolato out there offering sub-standard products and saying that they're us.

Q But you can't patent your flavours?

A It's very hard to patent flavours because you have to patent the process of doing it.

If you invent a special machine to do something, then you can probably patent that technology.

But if we do designer popsicles like this, it doesn't mean that someone supported by a chain can't come into the market with the same popsicle as us, and more marketing dollars.

This is something that I feel very strongly about - that there is no protection for independents.

Q So, how do you survive the cut-throat competition?

A That's why we exist as a wholesaler. We'll offer you very innovative flavours that you can offer first, that you can boast about first. Other people can follow, but you are the first.

When we first started, we were a little shop at Singapore Management University (SMU). But we closed that and now we work a lot more with cafes, restaurants and hotels.

We also have a vintage cart at W Hotel, where we sell innovative popsicles. Today, we already have 50 flavours that we can do.

Q Why did you close your shop at SMU?

A Unfortunately, people perceived us to be SMU students, so we hit a glass ceiling in terms of branding. People felt that because you're located in SMU, that means your quality is bad.

Q How do you market Momolato now?

A We do not have a retail store. We have pop-up stores every two weeks and that's a way for people to know us, to know that we do supply. For every pop-up that we do, we try to introduce a new flavour. Four of us on the production team come up with new ideas and new flavours on a bi-weekly or monthly basis.

Q How is Momolato different from the other gelato wholesalers?

A People come to us because we offer them a whole series of flavours that are hard to construct.

They will tell us, we want something funky that we have never tried. So, we do things like cereal milk, miso with strawberries, salted egg yolk or durian gula melaka sorbet. We try to jazz things up for people.

Q How much have you invested in Momolato so far?

A $200,000, minimum. We just took over a central kitchen and we're going to buy more equipment. If you're talking about breaking even, hopefully by the turn of the year.

Q Would you ever go back to banking?

A I still have job offers. It's tempting to go back to a job and make a minimum five-figure salary, but you cannot consider a Plan B because then, you lose your total commitment.

I spent last Christmas and the whole of December by myself, maybe with a friend, in the kitchen working, because my staff took a holiday to go back home. And for one and a half years, I was also doing deliveries because of staff turnover.

This is a job where you need to be here full-time. You need to meet clients and you need to chase events.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline 'Whipping up sweet success with novelty'. Subscribe