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Food innovation when tradition meets science

It's one thing to have a successful business, but scaling up or expanding overseas sometimes requires a whole new approach to doing things

WHEN it comes to scaling up and expanding overseas, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the food and beverage (F&B) industry face some unique challenges, such as their products' perishable nature and customers' ever-changing palates.

However, several SMEs have overcome these challenges with the help of the Food Innovation and Research Centre (FIRC) at Singapore Polytechnic, as they shared in a dialogue jointly organised by The Business Times and the Future Economy Council on Oct 1.

Titled "Innovation: The Key Ingredient in the F&B Industry Today", the event included a panel discussion on F&B innovation featuring FIRC director Koh Kok Sin, Irvin Gunawan of Irvin's Salted Egg and Audrey Chew of You Tiao Man. The discussion was moderated by BT digital editor Christopher Lim.

Launched in 2007, the FIRC offers consultancy, training, lab testing and equipment leasing services and has worked with more than 700 companies on more than 1,500 projects. Mr Koh noted that while some of the problems its clients face are similar, the solutions required are different each time, as every recipe is unique.

One such common problem is the short shelf life of food products, he said, leading to inefficiencies in the production process and difficulty in exporting the food.

"You have to hire more workers during peaks to increase production. But if we can extend the shelf life, you can produce beforehand or do it in a different way."

FIRC also helps F&B companies convert some products into convenience foods, allowing them to be exported overseas more easily while safeguarding the original recipes.

Mr Gunawan, CEO of Irvin's Salted Egg, sought out FIRC's help because his company's fish skin and potato chips had a shelf life of just three weeks, making it nearly impossible to export the snacks. In his case, the solution involved finding the right kind of packaging for the products.

"If you have a good barrier in the packaging, it doesn't allow water, air and sunlight to go through and you have a better chance for the shelf life," he explained.

"We tried different kinds of materials and flushed in nitrogen to replace the oxygen inside. It took a number of experiments to get to the one-year shelf life."

You Tiao Man's ongoing journey with FIRC to extend its products' shelf life required some reformulation of the recipe, said Ms Chew, the company's business development manager. She hopes to achieve a cold storage shelf life of at least eight months, and eventually extend that to two years, as the longer shelf life will significantly boost You Tiao Man's ability to export its products.

The initial decision to work with FIRC to improve the product was not an easy one, as Ms Chew's father was understandably upset about sharing his secret recipe.

"He wanted to disown me," said Ms Chew. "He said, 'this recipe has been with us for 60 years. I would not give it to anybody.'

"When I said I wanted to work with FIRC, he said 'No way.' But I persisted."

Ms Chew and Mr Gunawan agreed that innovation is key in making their companies stand out from the competition. For Ms Chew, this involves turning you tiao, a secondary product often eaten with other dishes like porridge and bak kut teh, into a primary product.

Despite her friends' and family's reservations about changing the traditional dough fritter, she came up with two new versions of you tiao: charcoal you tiao and wholegrain you tiao. The first proved a hit with several major restaurant chains, and the second earned a Healthier Choice Symbol from the Health Promotion Board.

"I plan to change the way people think about tradition," Ms Chew said. "Tradition is no longer just what your mother or father said, or cultural. We need to make it sexy. If you want it to have a long life and you want your company to go on forever, you change what you do."

You Tiao Man is extending its reach into the retail market for further growth. Its new company, Inspired Snacks, has invented a product called You Tiao Chips, and plans to work with FIRC to develop the snack further.

While Irvin's Salted Egg has introduced new products like salted egg crunchy rolls made from popiah skin, Mr Gunawan emphasised that innovation is more than just introducing new flavours.

"You have to adapt, you have to know how people's eating habits are changing. People nowadays are more healthy. So even though our snacks are not exactly the healthiest, our ingredients are all natural," he said.

"In Singapore, as a manufacturer, it's very difficult to compete with surrounding countries in terms of manufacturing costs, so we really need to depend on being the most innovative in terms of our products. A bit more expensive is okay, because (if) it's an innovative product, people are willing to pay more."

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