I love IRVINS. I mean, as an ardent fan, I always ensure that there is an endless supply of Salted Egg Fish Skin stashed away in my store. However, despite how much a fanatic I claim myself to be, I realised recently from a media excerpt introducing IRVINS Salted Egg that I’m in fact completely oblivious to the brand and more importantly the brain behind this household name.
I’m probably not alone in this one and thus when the opportunity for an interview with Mr Irvin Gunawan arose, I immediately grabbed it and started the correspondence.
Now a family business run by three brothers, Irvin, Ivan (CFO) and Ircha (COO), the brand grew from one tiny kitchen with three workers to an empire with more than 300 employees in six countries. With such achievements comes valuable life lessons and interesting success stories doesn’t it? Let’s delve right in to understand more about the brand, its products and get a little juice on Irvin’s personal life!
Felicia Koh (F): How did you get into the F&B industry?
Mr Irvin Gunawan (I): F&B has always been a passion of mine since the days in university, I liked that it is a business that has direct real-time connections to customers and involves a lot of creativity. After I graduated in 2007, I initially wanted to open a chocolate cafe but that didn’t materialise. Instead, I opened an Indonesian restaurant called Chilikong that year.
F: What is your inspiration to start IRVINS Salted Egg?
I: During my time with the restaurant Irvin’s Live Seafood House sometime in 2014, salted egg crab was clearly the number one signature dish, so we thought, what other things can we put on the menu with salted egg? We created about 10 or so dishes, of which the potato chips and fish skin were the most popular. Since then, we started producing both products in tubs, selling them by the restaurant’s cashier counter and that took off almost instantly.
F: Why did you choose Singapore as a starting point to establish IRVINS?
I: My family was in Singapore in 2007 so I moved back here. Subsequently, I realised I was lucky to have set up the businesses in Singapore because the system and infrastructure are great and very clear cut, making it a fantastic environment. The government has been very helpful as well with its advisory support and grants.
Journey To Success
F: What do you think was the success factor that led to your brand’s rapid growth and the position it has today?
I: Courage. We are not afraid to give everything a try even if that means failing and making mistakes all the time. We’re also committed to delivering quality products. It is the high bar which I believe led to the rapid organic growth, especially during the initial phases.
My brother, Ircha, was really engaged with Facebook and Instagram. He handled social media by himself answering to every one of our customer’s queries and curiosities. We were serving with our hearts and really took care of each and every customer. I think this was really important in building the brand.
F: IRVINS Salted Egg is considered the pioneer and market leader of Salted Egg Chips and the brand’s popularity has also opened the market to several other competitors. What do you think makes IRVINS stand out from the crowd?
I: Quality. If you achieve and maintain that, you have a chance to last. It is a very competitive industry. In order to maintain our competitiveness, we have to continually innovate. It is definitely not enough to simply do the same things we have been doing in the past five years.
F: Life is about making choices and bets. What was the best and worst decision you have made for the company?
I: Well, I made a bad decision in relocating our Irvin’s Seafood Restaurant from River Valley where it was packed, to Upper Thomson where we struggled to bring in customers.
But then again, the Upper Thomson location was where IRVINS Salted Egg was born in the midst of that struggle. So it is hard to judge whether a poor decision necessarily leads to fortune or misfortune, that is the mystery of life.
Expansion Beyond Snacks
F: After IRVINS Salted Egg comes IRVINS Messy Kitchen. What’s the motivation and story behind setting up IRVINS Messy Kitchen?
I: We’ve introduced Messy Kitchen as we’re trying to shake things up a little—which is why it’s called Messy Kitchen! Our team is led by Chef Heng Yong Chua who played a key role in my previous restaurants. We wanted to showcase his talent and the team’s creativity and that led to the birth of Messy Kitchen.
It’s another food form in which people can enjoy salted egg and it’s also for those who are curious to try what the original IRVINS salted egg sauce taste like. In addition, we also have non-salted egg flavours like the truffle rice or noodle bowls and my personal favourite is the Spicy Truffle Noodle With Clam.
Coping With Unexpected Global Situations
F: Having been in the business for a period of time, what do you still find a challenge in the business?
I: In today’s world where we are so globally interlinked to one another by travel, supply chain or social media, you need to be on your toes all the time. Something that happens remotely in a certain country, COVID-19 for example, has huge implications for people and businesses in Singapore.
We always have to have backup plans and diversify our business offerings because adverse things can happen any day. There is a dynamism in business that is both exciting and frightening. Even with all our experience, it’s still difficult to predict the future, and in this challenging time with the virus, the challenge is how do you pick yourselves up and get the work necessary to continue to push ourselves to make better products and services for our customers.
F: With regards to the current situation in Singapore, how much has IRVINS been affected and what measure are you proactively taking to ensure that business remains viable?
I: The COVID-19 virus is definitely taking a hit on everyone including us. But in IRVINS we are positive this too will pass, and we are doing our best to think of new ideas, growing our local and international markets. On top of that, we have also been ramping up our delivery efforts—both local and international—so as to bring IRVINS closer to our consumers.
Getting to know Mr Irvin Gunawan
F: Out of curiosity, how often do you snack on IRVINS Salted Egg snacks? Do you have any other go-to snacks that you will munch on lazy days?
I: Around one to two packets each week, outside of the quality tastings that we do. I like to eat chocolates after meals and when watching movies.
F: If not for IRVINS, what would you be doing right now?
I: Probably travelling the world, writing travel guides and enjoying my life. Haha, but I know that’s not my purpose in life.
‘Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.’ – Napoleon Hill
If not for the countless attempts and multiple failures, IRVINS Salted Egg will probably not be where it is today. Like what Mr Irvin Gunawa mentioned, although it takes courage to succeed, there definitely needs to be hard work and perseverance to maintain it!