Salted but not sated

With his Salted Egg Potato Chips (and fish skin), Irvin Gunawan might look like he is riding the crest of a food fad for everything salted egg flavoured, but he remains vigilant over the quality of his products.

Irvin’s salted egg potato chips (right) and fish skin. PHOTO: IRVIN'S

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - There are bottles of it circulating around Singapore like contraband. Everyone who's had a taste of it - even those who haven't - want to get their hands on it. But most can't. Instead, they're forced to stare longingly at someone else's Facebook post of garish, yellow powder-coated potato chips, taunting them from clear plastic containers emblazoned with the annoyingly presumptuous label: "Warning - extremely delicious".

Irvin's Salted Egg Potato Chips (and fish skin) are the snacks of the moment and stars of an unlikely business success story enjoyed by a one-time zichar-restaurant-owner-turned-tidbit-mogul.

He is Irvin Gunawan, a 30-year-old Indonesian-born owner of Leban HK Cafe in Jalan Leban - a quiet suburban neighbourhood known for its handful of home-style restaurants and bakeries. The charred wok hanging on the kitchen wall, condiment containers and a lingering smell of cooking oil are all that remain of a day of frenzied frying to meet overwhelming orders for the snacks for Chinese New Year. Hopeful strangers pop in every once in a while, only to be told the shop can't handle any more orders until March.

"I'm not the social media kind of guy, so I wasn't aware of what was happening (with the salted egg craze) when we developed this. We did it with a blank canvas and stumbled upon this product that connected with people. We didn't even do any paid marketing at all. If I had known it was going to be successful in bottle form, I would have done it years ago," says Mr Gunawan.

Every morning, their chef spends about six hours in the kitchen with his two or three helpers, frying potato chips and fish skins before coating them with their golden salted egg sauce. "We can't make enough because it's all home-made. If we can get the process, recipe, and consistency down, then we can produce more. But for now we can't," says Mr Gunawan.

Mr Irvin Gunawan (left) and his brother Ircahn. PHOTO: IRVIN'S

He is almost nonchalant about the success of his salted egg snacks business, which is riding the crest of a food fad that has seen everything from cookies and ice cream to croissants flavoured with salted duck egg yolks. The Singapore-based university graduate now runs the business with his 27-year-old brother Ircahn, who joined last year to oversee operations, marketing, and communications. Their family - including their oldest brother who is a banker - moved to Singapore after the racial riots in Indonesia in 1998. They have spent most of their lives here apart from their university years overseas.

After obtaining his degree in commerce from Australia, Mr Gunawan ventured into the F&B industry, opening an Indonesian restaurant called Chilikong in the CBD in 2007. It didn't do as well as he hoped, so he closed it after about two years and started Irvin's Seafood Cze Char in River Valley in 2008. It was there that his Malaysian chef gave him the original recipe that eventually evolved into today's Irvins salted egg sauce, which is also sold by the bottle.

He eventually moved the restaurant to Upper Thomson and renamed it Irvin's Live Seafood House. At the same time, he opened Leban HK Cafe just two doors down. The seafood house closed in 2014 due to poor business, but that was also the year that they, on a whim, got the idea to coat fried potato chips with salted egg sauce and sell them in bottles. It wasn't rocket science, says Mr Gunawan, who doesn't even cook. "We used normal ingredients - the potatoes are from China, (while) the salted egg yolks from China and Vietnam, we get from a supplier. We just stumbled upon (the final recipe) by doing a lot of experiments."

The rest, as they say, is snack history. Ever since the brothers launched the chips at their cafe, sales have multiplied by five or six times, and exploded during the current festive season.

"Honestly I don't know how we maintain the quality, it's just a recipe we've been using for many years," he admits, adding that he should have gone to culinary school and learned how to cook so he could man his own restaurant.

"I know there are different kinds of salted eggs - from very yellow ones to very red ones. We use something in the middle - an orangey one. I'm not a chef who knows all about the ingredients, we just got a bunch of ingredients from different suppliers and then we test cooked them until we found the one we wanted to stick with. It was all based on our tastebuds."

Home-made quality

Demand has been growing at a steady pace since they started selling the snacks, and they are looking around for a bigger kitchen to carry out the production. Of course one of his main concerns is that the quality of their product still has to remain home-made - something he promises customers he will be vigilant about, even as he starts to expand his inventory.

"I hope people will remember Irvin's and relate us to making good products. We want to be like Apple - focusing on one product at a time. If we have something good, then we'll add it to our inventory. We'll probably do that once every half a year," he says.

Aside from rushing to fulfil Chinese New Year orders, they're also busy rebranding their snacks and hope to come up with a new product by June this year. "What do you think of salted egg pork skins?" he grins.

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