February 26, 2016
By Jovita Ang
The world is huge on the healthy movement now; green smoothies, superfood salads, morning yogas, gluten-free diets, juice cleanses. A quick scroll through Instagram and you’re greeted with the likes of a well-plated #avotoast, and #greenjuices and skinny lattes (hashtag coffee) in numerous fashion. As in the words of VOGUE, “wellness is the new luxury status symbol”. The healthy movement community is a force to be reckoned with. And I’m all for this trend.
Healthy eating is a lifestyle, a process; it is not evergreen. While eating the rainbow comes as a natural for some, convenient meals like instant noodles and sugared cereals make up the everyday meals for others. Prior to starting The Edible Co., a company that prides on its homemade granolas, founder Genevieve Lee was never a healthy eater, and paid little attention to what she fed into her body.
11 years ago, her dad suffered from a heart attack which shook her hard and from there on, her diet took a different turn. Typical meals went from heavily seasoned products like canned food and commercial sauces of all sorts, to wholesome real foods, all handmade with love.
With great pleasure, we met up with founder of The Edible Co., Genevieve Lee and talked all things healthy eating and her ultimate goal for the business.
1. How did The Edible Company come about?
The journey started with making granolas about 11 years ago when my dad suffered from a heart attack. That was a wake-up call for me to pay attention to what we’re consuming. However, the company only started incorporation in 2012. He’s diabetic. I was in my early twenties, and like many young adults, I consumed a lot of junk and processed food, unaware of what my food is consist of, until I had a talk with my dad’s nutritionist. She walked me through what my dad’s dietary restrictions and the importance of reading food labels. It was then that I realize that we eat a lot of crap (laughs)! I went home and threw away half of the items in our pantry. With my dad being bed-rested for 2 months, I decided to take a whole 2 months leave and made everything from scratch; tomato and chili sauce, mayonnaise, food that he normally likes to consume. Granola came about because my dad eats a lot of breakfast cereals, which after reading the labels I realised just how much sugar was in there. So making muesli and granolas came about quite naturally. That went on for a couple of years and became Christmas presents for my relatives (for many years in fact) (laughs)! It became a frequent notion for my relatives to hand me their empty bottles and have it refilled. That made me very happy because they are the people who definitely need to eat healthier with age catching on. At that point, my mum pointed out that my ingredients were costing me more money, but I’ve never thought to charge, especially not to family. Somehow in 2012, I became jaded with work after being a freelance editor for about 8 to 9 years. Passion and inspiration in that area were dwindling and I needed something that could add zest my life and something to feed my soul.
I’ve always wanted to start a business but didn’t know what kind of business yet for the longest time. Then the idea of developing my own food brand came about. I bought my company’s domain and the very next day went to quickly have it registered. I know I had to do it fast because I might just change my mind!
2. What was a typical meal like for you when you were younger?
My mum cooks a lot at home, and mostly from scratch. But there are days we use canned foods to supplement whatever we had. I’ve never been a fan of fast food, but growing up I had my fair share of McDonald’s, spam and such. When my mum is not home, it’s always instant noodles and all that bad stuff.
3. Share with us your cooking/baking background.
The push factor was out of love and care for my dad after his heart attack. Making sure he was eating right and getting what his body needs, had become the top priority for me.
4. What do you normally have for breakfast now that you’ve started eating healthier?
It’s really granola! (laughs) I’m not saying it because I’m selling it but I have granola pretty much every alternate day. Other days it’s mainly oatmeal topped with fruits and nut butter or toast with eggs. Once in a while I allow myself to have a chwee kueh or some other local delicacy. I believe in eating in moderation.
5. Have you had any really nasty kitchen mishaps?
A LOT of my batches got char-burnt and I acquired many “battle scars” overtime. When I first started, I baked with my home oven, thinking I would only sell ten bags. Due to the space constraints at home, I had a lot of burns and was constantly having plasters all over me. Or when I’m melting Gula Melaka, it’d simply splatter onto my arms.
6. Where do you source for your ingredients?
All my ingredients are from the local suppliers. I get my oats from a local supplier who sources them from Australia, and dried fruits and nuts from the same supplier. I used to travel all the way to Malacca to buy the Gula Melaka from a specific store. But I stopped doing so last year because their supplies were always inconsistent, perhaps due to being a small plantation. I now source them from a local supplier even though my preference are the ones in Malacca.
7. Share with us a little bit about your flavours.
A whole year was spent developing flavours. The first three flavours were Cranberry Almond, Maple Honey Nut and Coconut Gula Melaka and they all have very different stories. Cranberry Almond started as Christmas gifts for family and friends. Maple Honey Nut came about because there were quite a number of people who don’t like raisins and dried fruits and this flavour caters to consumers who prefer an all nut version. Coconut Gula Melaka came about because my mum, who’s Eurasian Peranakan, always has Gula Melaka in her fridge. You could consider this flavour as homage to her heritage. I developed Cacao and Roselle when more and more consumers started requesting for a chocolate flavour. Wolfberry and Ginger was an idea from my husband, who wanted to incorporate an Asian element to the collection.
8. What is the development process like with each new flavour?
My husband helps me with the development of some flavours and due to our busy schedule, each can take up to a couple of months. From research and development to testing then finalising the product. We would always test the flavours with first the oats, next experimenting with different nuts, finally moving on to various dried fruits to see what works, whether or not the flavour coats well etc.
9. Will customers be expecting more flavours from The Edible Co. in future?
Definitely. Everything needs to evolve and move along with time, I can’t just stay put with five flavours. People want novelty, you just have to shake things up.
10. Is there anything you’d love to be able to incorporate or experiment someday at The Edible Food Co.?
I’ve been wanting to make granola bars for the longest time. But given our climate’s humidity, the manufacturing and storage makes this project a challenge. It’s perfectly fine if I make them for my own consumption, but I can’t place them on the shelves to sell. The retail solution is still undergoing planning at the moment.
Working with locally sourced spices is also something I’m very keen on trying. When I first saw Gryphon Tea’s Singapura Spice, I was so intrigued! Had Gryphon Tea’s founder TianWee not pass me one to try, I would be thinking twice after seeing curry leaves in it. It also made me see that really anything could work.
Another plan in the pipeline is nuts mix and incorporating rice puff. I do want to expand into other things as people love variety, even I myself! But of course, I have to set realistic timelines.
11. How do you think tea and granolas can complement each other?
I’ve always thought to infuse tea into my range of granolas, like how I offer my coffee granolas. Tea gives you that additional depth to play around with. To me, tea and granola belong to the same breakfast and tea time table. When I have my morning granola, I simply accompany it with a cup of tea.
12. Is there anything that most people don’t know about commercial granolas/muesli?
The amount of sugar they contain and how highly, highly processed they are.
My customers have feedback and said that my granolas are not very clumpy and sweet. In fact, my product sits on the fence of granolas and mueslis. These clumps are usually formed due to the high amount of sugar added, or by adding egg whites. But I want my products to be vegetarian so egg whites are out. I tend to lean towards less sugar so I always feel very conflicted because commercial flavours are stronger, people like granolas to be sweeter, but I prefer to have my products aligned with my beliefs. It’s a terrible feeling. I can be so adamant sometimes which makes me doubt if I’m cut for business (laughs)! At the moment, all is still good. I don’t know how it’ll turn out in the future but as far as I can, I will not change. I believe there are alternatives out there and a lot of education needs to be done. I should have named my product like some sort of hybrid between granola and muesli, instead of granola (laughs)!
- What is the greatest challenge you face as a start-up?
One aspect is to increase productivity, and of course, to be financially stable. To sustain a small food business in Singapore is so tough as there are so many licences, and this whole “local small batch producer” business is still rather niche. But aside from these, it is for people to understand why I’m doing what I’m doing, and why our price point is higher than mass produced products. I want to sell it lower, but I simply can’t. The current scale of my business does not allow for bulk buying or to import large amounts of ingredients from suppliers. I have to make consumers understand that there is no way I can price my granolas as that of the mass brands. I have to make my consumers see that there is a difference between a locally produced granola, versus one that was made in a factory a year ago.
- What is one thing you always tell yourself when things get tough?
Tomorrow will be better. I’ll find a way out tomorrow. And somehow, it really does.
- There has been an increasing emphasis on healthy eating. Consumers are also more informed about the food they put into their mouths. What are your thoughts about this?
Totally agree. People are more affluent and well-travelled. With the increasing number of food shows, it actually helped to open the mind. And the various articles surrounding health scares perhaps also made people realise the importance of eating well. People are no doubt more aware now, and I think if I started The Edible Co. 10 years ago, it would not have survived for even a month.
- Where do see The Edible Company in ten years time?
I’m not so sure for now, because everything might change. But I’ll always see my brand as a good food company. I want people to see my brand and know it is one they can trust. It’s my dream to always have my products all be handmade with love. I follow a lot of companies from Brooklyn, so many started small but when they grow, their number of ovens and amount of space increases. They don’t rely on added machines to increase productivity, they have more people making it. Some things just won’t be the same when you use a machine. It is my dream to grow The Edible Co. into a company of people that really care.
- Complete this sentence, “It makes me the happiest when…”
When I get to sleep in. (laughs) Ever since I started this business I just can’t sleep in, even when I actually don’t have much to do. I always feel like I have to be doing something.
- If you could go anywhere in the world right now, where and what would it be?
This is a tough one because my husband, a chef, and I would always talk about where to go next for a meal. And all the influences from so many cooking shows! The place we really want to visit is Japan. We love the Japanese tradition and attention to detail and perfectionism. If we could travel to Japan for a few good months that’ll be great. And all that ramen and not forgetting their handmade tofu, I love tofu.
Running a business is never easy. After three years into her entrepreneurship journey, it was only last year where the vision for The Edible Co. started to come into focus. 2015 was a year for founder Genevieve Lee to put things into perspective, to find her own footing and understand the direction her brand should be heading towards.
The Edible Co. delivers delightful granolas many adore and has since garnered its own loyal following. But as with any business, a good product just won’t cut. Marketing strategy, operational procedures, consumer demand, regulations and licencing issues are just a handful that has to be skillfully taken care of. Though still in its infancy stage, we’re excited to see where The Edible Co. will head towards next.