The first time we had Ice Cream Cookie & Co.'s ice cream sandwiches we were hot, sticky, and desperately in need of a pick-me-up between meetings. Since then we've always kept an eye out for these guys, so when we realized that Natasha Chiam made the under 30 mark... naturally we had to talk to her. While trying to get Natasha to spill on her kitchen secrets - folks it did not happen, the only thing we succeeded at was making ourselves crave ice-cream at 10am - Natasha gave us some humbling lessons in being a boss and working 20 (!) hour days.
Q: How did you get started with The Ice Cream Cookie & Co.?
A: It really started with a craving; my boyfriend and I used to really want to eat it and I used to do a lot of baking to destress in my previous job. So I made cookies and my own ice-cream with a hand-mixer for our family and friends. I did our first event at the farmers’ market at Loewen Gardens. That was also just for fun; a whole bunch of family and friends came down to hang out for the day and that was the first outside-of-the-home event that I did.
Q: What’s your background like?
A: I was born in Singapore and moved to Australia when I was about six months old. I grew up there till about three, four years ago when I moved back. I trained as a lawyer and had worked in Australia for a little while. I was converting to do the Singapore bar here but my heart wasn’t really in it so I was looking around for something else to do. At that time I had a blog of my own where I was doing a lot of writing and that’s how I landed my former job. I was a journalist working for Female magazine doing beauty. I was there for about two years.
We started the business in September 2012 and I only left Female in 2013. I spent quite a few months doing both and it got to a point where I couldn’t manage doing a good job for both so I had to choose one. I still freelance sometimes. When I first moved here I thought I would only be here for 3-5 years, because that’s what a lot of young Australians do – they move overseas for a couple of years and return home to settle down. But with the establishment of The Ice Cream & Cookie Co. I guess I’ll be here for a while.
Q: Why did you decide to work on both jobs together instead of leaving Female and focusing on The Ice Cream Cookie & Co.?
A: When I first started I didn’t think this was something I was going to do full-time. I wasn’t one of those people who said I’m going to start a business. It just happened very organically.
I very quickly learnt that I couldn’t manage both because I would turn up to work with flour on my pants and things like that, so that’s when I decided to do this full time. One of the pastry chefs is actually my cousin, so she joined us quite early on and we moved into a small production kitchen early last year.
And in February this year we made the move again because we outgrew our old spot.
Q: How did people react to you wanting to do The Ice Cream Cookie & Co. full-time?
A: I think most people have been really supportive. The industry I was in before is quite a creative industry where many people do things on the side so they’re open to people moving around. Some of my previous colleagues have ordered from us for parties so they’ve definitely been supportive.
My parents were in a chocolate retail business when they were younger and my Dad has always said that he would never want to run a business again because it’s too much hard work, but I think they’re really happy for me, especially now that the hours are shorter than when we first started.
Q: How many hours were you working before?
A: When we first started, we’d work from morning till really late at night. And because we were at farmers’ markets on the weekends I’d be working on weekends too. It was really tiring for the first six to eight months, especially when I was doing it full-time. I guess when you’re in it full-time you know that you have no other source of income so you really have to make it work.
But it’s fine – when you enjoy what you do you don’t really think about the number of hours you put in. Which is why when I look back I don’t think I was putting in 100 hours a week but more like I was building this thing.
Q: And the hours are more manageable now?
A: Yes, thankfully. We still do a lot of events but we have people to help us out with those. Of course if it’s not them then I’ll be doing it.
Q: What was your initial investment?
A: Our initial investment was in the five-figure region and then we did top up again so the total investment is probably a low six-figure sum.
We’ve always been cash-flow positive because we’re quite a conservative business. We started from a small place and moved to a bigger kitchen only when we outgrew that space. Our investing was also done in two rounds. I do take risks but having not come from a F&B background I didn’t want to go all in.
As you know, we’re a B2B business so as we get more cafes and customers we also are able to better nourish our business by upgrading our equipment and hiring more people etc.
Q: What were some of the initial challenges of starting Ice Cream Cookie Co.?
A: It was a new industry to me. I didn’t come from a hotel or F&B background so there was a lot to learn. Luckily my pastry chef who is with me was very well-trained; she trained in Paris and actually worked at a bakery there before coming back to Singapore.
I guess the challenges in the market was that ice cream sandwiches were sort of a new idea here – people couldn’t really identify the product and were a little bit resistant to trying it at first. Overcoming that and explaining how to eat it is something we’re still working on overcoming.
Q: So as someone who isn’t trained, do you think people need formal school training to be in this industry?
A: I think it isn’t necessary because it comes down to being passionate about what you’re doing and making a good product. But I think it really does help. For example, if I’m testing a cookie it can take me ages to test it – I’ll test it 10 rounds and it still won’t be right. But when I give it over to my pastry chefs they’ll get it within 2 rounds because they just have that knowledge. So while it isn’t necessary it’s definitely beneficial, which is why when we hire people we choose them based on their training and experience because it’s always going to help. Yes you can learn the ropes yourself but it’s going to take that much longer.
Q: And do you ever feel deficient in the kitchen?
A: Well I know I’m not as good as the pastry chefs so I don’t even try to compete with them. I just try to bring what I can to the table, which is why I focus on the day-to-day operations and reaching out to our partners.
Q: How did you begin developing your flavours?
A: I did a lot of reading on the Internet where we tested a kit of famous cookie and ice cream recipes. We tested a lot of recipes before we found something that we were sold on, and till today we continue to edit all our recipes to suit our format. If you go to a normal gelato shop the ice-cream is quite soft because it’s scooped and served straightaway. Whereas with ours the ice-cream needs to be scooped and shaped into a sandwich so having a soft ice-cream isn’t going to work.
Q: Were there any flavours that didn’t make the cut?
A: Yes, we were trying very hard to make a red velvet cookie but that didn’t work. We don’t use any artificial flavourings and colourings, and we tried to make a red velvet cookie that didn’t use any artificial colours by using beetroot and other natural dyes, but we couldn’t get something we were happy with.
Q: What kind of mistakes did you make in the beginning?
A: In terms of marketing, we started off very classic. Our logo for example is very classic and simple. And the reason for that is that we didn’t want to be like a lot of the bakeries out there that are more girly. So initially our marketing was quite classic and simple, but like I mentioned before, people didn’t know what our product was so we had to change our strategy to make the product very clear to people. The fonts, the pictures etc. are very bold and clear.
Q: How have your production methods changed?
A: In terms of production, everything is still handmade. We bake the cookies, someone scoops the ice cream and puts it in the middle. There are machines that do it but it’s not the same. It takes a while to learn how to scoop the ice cream into the perfect ball so you get a perfectly balanced ice cream sandwich, but we’re sticking to the method.
Q: How has the journey been?
A: I mean a lot of people would say it’s a roller-coaster but it really is. When I first started I would do all the baking. I would come back from work and bake till the wee hours of the morning and then wake up and go to work. But we’ve been lucky enough to find two really good pastry chefs so we have a pastry team and a small ice-cream team and a group of people who do food assembly.
Q: Any low points?
A: Well this happened more often in the startup phase but it was really tiring to come back after a long day in the kitchen to a list of outstanding tasks and unread emails.
Another low point is that we deliver our ice-cream sandwiches and I used to do more of the delivery in the beginning. It’s surprising that a lot of people treat you really badly because they think you’re just a ‘deliveryman’. I have a lot of respect now for delivery people and workers, or people whom society doesn’t look well upon, because I know how hard the work is. Security guards used to tell me to walk around the back because I couldn’t be seen in the main lobby.
Q: What are your days like now?
A: We work out of a production kitchen in an industrial area so I go in the morning to the kitchen. I used to do a lot of production but now I am more hands-off and go to meet cafes as well as talk to people who enquire about events and stuff like that. But I make it a point to go to the kitchen everyday.
Q: And your team is full-time?
A: Yes most of our team is full-time, but we do have some part-timers. We have a lot of interest from students who want to intern but we’re quite selective about who we want to join the team because we want everyone who works for us to want to be there and be passionate about making ice-cream sandwiches and baked products.
We’re growing team and like I mentioned before, we want people to want to be there. We also want them to be able to contribute to ideas and want to change the ice cream scene in Singapore by coming up with new concepts and experimenting with new ideas.
Q: Do you miss being more hands-on?
A: Well I’m still very hands-on because I care deeply about the quality of our end product. We’re lucky enough to have more people on the team these days. If I’m in the kitchen now, it's usually for product testing or training new staff. But yeah I guess there are parts of it I miss; scooping cookies can be quite therapeutic. And kitchen work keeps you fit. When the business is small it’s like your little baby, but we’re lucky enough to be at a different stage now.
Taste-testing has always been my favourite part of the job and I still get to do that now, ha!
Q: How are you like as a boss?
We also try to do fun things together. A few weeks ago we all took a day off and went to the new aquarium at Resorts World together. I think it’s important to build a strong team because you work in such close quarters in the kitchen.
We all work really hard so it’s expected that you work hard and achieve the right results.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to someone who’s a new boss?
A: I’m still really new at it so I don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice!
I guess what I try to do is to create a workplace where people want to come to work because I’ve worked in places where half the people would rather leave on Friday than come in on Monday.
The second thing is that you need to be firm. It’s difficult for me because I’m quite a soft person and we’ve had people come in where they’re great people but they can’t achieve the results we want to see. It’s tough because you need to maintain your standards but you also need to allow room for your staff to be who they want to be.
Q: What’s in your future?
A: Our focus is still the ice-cream sandwich but we are also coming up with new desserts, like ice cream pies. We currently do a jumbo ice-cream sandwich but our pastry team has been working on a twist on that.
We’re also working on different flavours – we’ve covered the “classic” flavours like vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate, so now we’re doing more inventive flavours. We recently brought back butterscotch bacon and we’ve done earl grey with lemon zest cookies.
Q: What do you see yourself doing in 5 years?
A: Hopefully I’ll still be doing this. At the moment our short-term goal is to partner with more cafes and lifestyle shops, but we also plan to have our own retail space eventually.
With retail and wholesale you’re constrained by different things. With wholesale we always need to think about how our products can be frozen and pre-packed so other people can serve it easily. But retail offers you more flexibility because you can do a flavour of the day, and you can be more reactive to current events. For example, there’s an Australian ice-cream shop that recently did a Game of Cones series based on all the characters because the latest season of Game of Thrones.
Q: You mentioned you work a lot with cafes and other lifestyle partners. What do you look for in a partner?
A: Oftentimes there will be people who share the same ideals as our company. Most of our stockists are small, independent café owners who appreciate that our products are handmade and are made locally. A lot of commercial brands of ice-cream pump in a lot of air – if you look at their list of contents it’s usually 50% air but because we use a gelato machine, our ice-cream only contains 20% air. So the people we work with are more concerned with quality than with mere profits.
Our partners have been very helpful because they understand what it’s like to run a small business and we both look for opportunities to help each other out.
Q: How did you learn the ropes of being a wholesaler?
A: We were lucky in that the first few people we supplied to were our friends or friends of friends. But after that we had to look into things like government regulations and boring stuff like that. So F&B establishments are governed by NEA, but wholesalers are governed by AVA so it’s a different authority altogether. You just have to read the website – and I call up the guy a lot to ask questions.
Q: And was it always on the cards to have an online business or was that something that happened organically?
A: Yes, I think it’s important to be online. A lot of businesses these days start online and we were one of them. Our strategy was always to be visible online, which is why we have Facebook and Instagram on top of our website.
We also wanted to be online because we didn’t want to be just another supplier to our partners. A lot of wholesalers don’t have an online presence at all so they lack that connection with the end customer, but we wanted to be able to drive our customers to our partners’ cafés.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in this industry?
Because of my job I’m constantly meeting people in the industry and I find that the people who make it in the long-run are the people who invest in their product and have a team of people who cares about what they put out. Only focusing on the numbers and the margins means that at the end of the day you may not have something that you can actually sell.
Q: What is success to you and do you think you’ve achieved it?
A: I think success is being happy about where you are. Because of my law background I guess my idea of success used to be getting X amount of bonus, being able to afford a house and a car, but I quickly learned that a lot of people aren’t happy with that – it actually stresses them out.
It might sound really corny but I’m really happy because I get to wake up and go work on my own business with a really cool team who actually likes to hang out with each other. Obviously you still need money to survive in this world but I think that as long as you have a certain amount that you can get by on that’s good enough.