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Old brands reborn
THERE'S nothing cool about the ice business, except of course for the ice.
But the four-generation family-owned business Tuck Lee, which has made its fortune selling something so basic as frozen water, has continuously pulled new tricks out of its sleeve since 1935, by diversifying into products such as bagged ice, ice sculptures, and beverages.
Most recently, they have partnered with a new local ice company, Plink, to launch what they call "the future of ice" - one filled many colours and flavours, as well as individually wrapped cubes.
Which may sound like a gimmick until you start to wonder where the ice in your drink comes from.
That was a question which dogged Plink's founder Richard Hall, who was in the travel and airline industry for over 25 years. Says the 53-year-old New Zealander: "There's been a number of surveys about fast food operators and the quality of ice they serve. It's not so much the quality of the ice, but the way it's handled. Putting hands in with the scoop and all that, to me that's akin to someone putting their fingers in your drink."
He continues: "So we started on this quest to make the safest ice possible - one you can open yourself, like a pack of butter on a plane," and that's how Plink came about.
For now, they produce a range of sealed portable ice trays made of recyclable plastic, with individually portioned ice cubes. Each tray has 15 pyramid-shaped cubes each containing 15ml of water.
Tuck Lee Ice's general manager Jeremy Hauw - one of the members of the family - points out that ice is often a forgotten ingredient in our daily food and drink. He says: "A lot of consumers at home have problems making their own ice because it absorbs the smell from the food in their freezers, like fish and poultry. But with Plink, you won't have that problem."
Quips Mr Hall: "Our key audience is made up of people who are busy, and don't enjoy the taste of fish in their drink. If you're going to buy something like a Suntory Yamazaki 18 Year Old, why would you put something less than great inside it?"
So far, they've stocked Plink at over a hundred 7-Eleven outlets islandwide, retailing at S$2 for two trays (30 ice cubes). In another month or so, these ice cubes will slowly become available at supermarkets as well.
According to Mr Hall, they don't intend to stop at just Singapore, either. By the end of this year, he aims to have it overseas as well - in Malaysia, the Philippines, the Middle East, and Hong Kong.
From next week, they will also start introducing sugar-free flavoured ice cubes - a lemon-lime flavour, and a peach flavour - that can be used as a garnish for cocktails, or even just to add flavour to plain water. For instance, lemon-lime could be used with beer or coke, while peach would work in iced tea, he says.
Explains Mr Hall: "We took the lead from what happened with water, ice cream, yogurt - all those boring industries that were asleep until somebody came and thought to put different shapes and sizes and prices and colours and flavours. Now where would you be without 30 different flavours of yogurt?"
So don't be surprised if the shelves at supermarkets start stocking up ice cubes in flavours such as coffee, chocolate, and even green tea. In fact, Mr Hall hints that a chilli ice cube might be in the works as well. Spicy ice, anyone?
Reeling in fishy business
THE cash registers at bak kwa stores have finally slowed to normal pace, and other snack producers are likewise closing shop. But F&B entrepreneur Derek Ong is already looking to, quite literally, greener pastures - the Hari Raya holidays and beyond.
The 28-year-old believes that his fish jerky snacks - a halal bak kwa alternative - isn't necessarily limited to the Chinese festive season, or any holidays, for that matter. The royal family of Brunei is a fan, we're told, and a representative picks up regular batches throughout the year.
"Our product is a great representation of local culture - it's got Chinese influence, it's Muslim friendly, it's healthier because it's fish grilled with no preservatives, and just a wholly multicultural offering," he says with the aplomb of one used to business pitches.
Mr Ong is the second-generation owner of family business Ocean King. The story begins in the 80s, when his father Ong Eng Guan started a seafood trading enterprise in Chinatown. The company held a monopoly on turtles, and peaked in the 90s, when they supplied to Japanese-owned SOGO department stores.
The fish jerky was invented when the older Mr Ong was looking for ways to reduce wastage. "After filleting the fishes, there's a lot of mince waste. We used to eat it ourselves, but my dad later came up with the idea to make it into bak kwa," explains the heir.
The product was launched officially in 1998, after a decade of experimentation. "The earlier attempts were disastrous, and were very flimsy, like otah. Even as a kid, I would tell my dad that the quality was unacceptable," recalls Mr Ong.
Ocean King has seen a sea change since. The younger man took over in 2011 after his National Service, deciding that life as an office drone wasn't for him. He has been working on the product alongside gigs at F&B groups, and is in the process of divesting his shares in a couple of small restaurant businesses.
Today, the products are packaged in smaller, golden vacuum-sealed packets, and comes in a royal blue gift box, if you like. The Ongs have also switched to using wild-caught whole fish loins, and improved the recipes.
There are three options - Norwegian salmon with nori, spicy tuna seasoned with sambal, and the marlin, grilled with the family's secret bak kwa barbecue sauce. The lattermost has the closest flavour and consistency to its traditional pork cousin, with a caramelised crust and a juicy bite.
Prices are relatively cheaper: the jerky slices go for S$8/100g for the marlin or chilli tuna, and S$9/100g for salmon; there's a mix-and- match option available (500g) at S$38, while a gift box (600g) retails at S$68.
"If you consider food costs, pork usually retails at S$4 per kg whereas fish, especially Norwegian salmon, costs anywhere between S$10 and S$20 per kg, so our margins are very thin compared to the overly-inflated bak kwa prices," says Mr Ong. "Even though we're producing a luxury item, it's still a new product so we're keeping prices down to encourage people to try it."
Plans to expand are in the works - while Mr Ong isn't keen on a brick-and-mortar store, he's looking to shift production overseas, and is in talks with various distributors. Ocean King also partners with Yue Hwa emporium during the festive season, and will be featured in upcoming food fairs. Who knows, they might even set up shop in Brunei, given that they are one of the royal family's favourite things.
By Tan Teck Heng