‘Love at first bite’ was what happened to Lee Li Ping when she had her first frozen yogurt — or froyo — while still a student in Los Angeles. She is now dedicating her life to the tasty treat
Lee Li Ping started her frozen yoghurt business right after she came back from the US, fresh out of university. “At first, I was wondering what all the hype was about, because a lot of people were lining up for it,” she remembers. “But when I first went to try it, I thought that it was actually pretty good. And since then, I just started going back every day.”
In 2010, Lee opened her frozen yogurt business Sogurt at her first store in Bukit Timah. It is one of the pioneer froyo brands here, offering customers not just a tasty cold treat in Singapore’s hot weather, but allowing them to also customise their own dessert to their liking.
“I thought the self-serve froyo bar was genius! Not only do I get to enjoy my favourite product and topping, but I also get to fully customise it. I enjoyed the entire journey and the experience of being able to create my very own froyo cup. It liked that I had no constraints and no limitations,” says Lee.
Previously, Sogurt had 15 stores around Singapore but now the brand has decided to consolidate everything into Lee’s new concept Kara Café and Dessert Bar. Located in Bukit Timah, it serves affordable food (and froyo, of course) and is a popular spot for students and adults, even packing in patrons on a weekday afternoon.
Still, Lee’s journey into business was not always smooth sailing. After being comfortable in the top spot for five years, Lee finally met her match when Spanish froyo brand Llaollao (pronounced as yao-yao) entered the Singapore market.
“Our primary competition that kicked us in the butt was Llaollao. And that was due to a combination of factors. When Llaollao came to Singapore, it was at a time when we had been around for about five years and I was focusing more on expansion, rather than product, brand or customer experience. So, when they came about, they just shot through the roof and we did lose a lot of customers. That was quite hard on us,” says Lee.
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Before Llaollao, the Sogurt brand was considered the market leader in froyo products in Singapore, even taking out other competitors off the market.
“Llaollao gave us a run for our money, but it did give me the opportunity to take some time to rethink and relook our whole brand and business model again. It was then I realised that we should go back to our original mission of who we are and what we are about,” says Lee.
“I realise we should not compete head-to-head with Llaollao. And instead, we went in a different direction,” she adds.
With the competition pressure and taking a step back to reassess her business model, a new product was introduced — hard serve froyo. With soft serve froyo, customers can only get their dose by physically heading down to a Sogurt outlet and customising their own cup of treats. But with the prepacked hard serve froyo, customers can easily bring home a sweet treat and enjoy it at the comforts of their own home.
The beauty of the hard serve froyo is not just that it could be easily bought and kept at home, but Lee says that with the help of their food tech partner Faesol, they were able to concoct a pre-mix recipe for the froyo so that it will be easier to come up with new flavours, while also being able to make the froyo more healthy by adding in live culture, probiotics and prebiotics, which are good for digestion.
This process however is not possible for the soft serve froyo due to the heat emissions from the soft serve machines that will destroy the live culture and healthy bacteria.
Sogurt launched its ‘Sogurt 2.0’ campaign on Jan 29, boasting a refreshed branding aimed at catapulting froyo into the future of e-commerce. The campaign spotlights Sogurt’s halal-certified probiotic froyo icecream in all-new, vibrant packaging that epitomises the brand’s ‘Happy Gut, Happy Life’ motto. The brightly coloured products are also extremely social media-friendly.
Amid stiff competition and the stress of creating a new product, Lee also realised that maintaining a physical retail presence in Singapore is unsustainable, especially for small businesses. “We are a family run business and sustaining a physical retail space is very expensive. It eventually became too heavy on our personal finances,” says Lee, adding that high rental and manpower costs were a burden.
“I work very closely with my dad on this business. He is the other shareholder in this,” Lee explains. At one point, she had the thought to bring in external investors to expand the brand, but with guidance from her father, they managed to keep the business within the family. As an entrepreneur himself, Lee’s father helped share his experience and help keep the business running through the challenges they faced.
Eventually, Lee decided to ease her burden and shut down all of the Sogurt stalls and consolidate them into a flagship concept at Kara Café. “The café has an all-day dining menu and the Sogurt bar is located at the back. The aim is for people to come and have a meal and create a whole brand experience around it,” says Lee.
Let love in
These days, Lee’s focus is on bringing Sogurt 2.0 into e-commerce platforms. She says: “Over the years, we have witnessed an uptrend in brands shifting towards e-commerce locally and internationally.”
This move online will be headed by Sogurt’s business development director Loh Hanlin, who is also Lee’s husband.
The couple met in 2018 while volunteering as youth mentors at FamChamps, and Lee recalls that she made the move to “chase” him both figuratively and literally, as she chased him to the MRT station to chat him up and exchange numbers.
“Very quickly, we got to know each other and we realised that we resonate on the same level with quite a few things. We share similar passions for the youth community, “ says Lee.
Even after their several tête-à-tête at FamChamps, Loh would frequent Kara Café when he was taking a gap year from work. He would head to the café and immerse himself in a book, while stealing glances and having conversations with Lee whenever she was around.
The couple tied the knot last October. While they plan to have children soon, they are also working hard to further their e-commerce business.
“Our conversations went beyond our volunteer sessions and evolved into entrepreneurship and the sharing of business ideas. That was when we realised that there was a meeting of minds in terms of business direction,” remembers Lee.
Loh joined team Sogurt in 2019 to spearhead the brand’s e-commerce business. Armed with experience in business analytics and management consulting, he was instrumental in implementing a new business model that helps synchronise the brand’s in-store operations with its online platforms, as well as rapid digitalisation of business operations such as e-invoicing.
Thanks to Loh, Sogurt’s sales platform is now profitable and is seeing a 130% year-on-year growth. They also started dating around this time.
The couple explains that it was especially during the “circuit breaker” period that their e-commerce business boomed. Having already jumped on the e-commerce bandwagon early on, it was just a matter of marketing their products to catch consumer’s attention.
The circuit breaker also meant that social distancing measures were at its strictest and F&B outlets had to find new ways to generate revenue. Going online turned out to be a good idea and Sogurt’s products were marketed as the perfect gift for loved ones during the lockdown.
“The peak of our sales was during Mother’s Day. We had so many orders, we didn’t have the logistics to support them,” says Loh. Although sales from the e-commerce platform has now tapered down, online sales has already reached a new high, as well as a new bottom. “And this bottom is very sustainable and generates a very healthy income for us,” he adds.
Sogurt is now available in most of the large e-commerce marketplaces in Singapore, such as Shopee and online supermarket RedMart. There are also plans to bring Sogurt into supermarkets, petrol kiosks and convenience stores.
The science behind Sogurt
Sogurt is the first brand in Singapore to launch its probiotic froyo ice-cream. Packed with healthy bacteria that promotes gut health, Sogurt is also lower in sugar and is halal-certified.
The science behind Sogurt’s hard serve probiotic ice-cream is its proprietary pre-mix base of Sotangy, Socreamy or Sochoc, created together with local food tech company Faesol. The froyo adopts a similar manufacturing process as ice-cream and is a combination of premium ingredients, such as New Zealand skimmed milk, high-grade virgin coconut oil for optimal fat-burning, as well as yogurt that contains prebiotics and probiotics (live cultures).
The mixture is then frozen and constantly churned to minimise the size of ice crystals, giving the froyo a smooth and soft texture. While conventional methods of ice cream production involve pasteurising the entire ice cream mix, the Sogurt technology pasteurises all but the yogurt component. This meticulous attention to detail eliminates the yogurt’s exposure to high heat, keeping the healthy bacteria alive.
The freshly made froyo is then packaged into Sogurt’s refreshed packaging that comes in pint- and single cup-sized tubs, then frozen at sub-zero temperatures to set. The vibrant packaging epitomises the “Happy gut, happy life” motto, while making the products more picture perfect, It also makes for a beautiful gift.
Currently, the product range is available in seven flavours and can be purchased on Sogurt’s newly revamped website www.sogurt.com.sg, as well as on e-commerce platforms, such as Shopee. The flavours include Natural, Peach Mango, Strawberry Yuzu, Lychee and Berry Swirl ($4.95 per 120ml, $14.95 per 473ml), and premium flavours such as Premium Dark Chocolate and Premium Avocado Gula-Melaka ($5.95 per 120ml, $15.95 per 473ml).
Sogurt also plans to introduce more flavours soon, as well as sugar-free options.