Meet the Student-preneur Who Has Localised Churros
“I have always wanted to be financially independent and self-sufficient, not needing to rely on my parents for money, so I can travel to places I want and buy the things I like,” explains Crystal Cheng, who is also the Public Relations Director of SMU Eagles Inc., the SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business’ entrepreneurship club.
And she does so with plenty of creativity. After returning from a trip to Europe upon her graduation from Temasek Polytechnic, where she witnessed the different ways the Spaniards enjoy the simple fried dough pastry (think a dusting of cinnamon sugar when in Barcelona, or consuming them with hot chocolate in Madrid), she decided to come up with a Singaporean version of the snack. And so Loco Loco was born, a homegrown maker of fusion churros, infused with uniquely Singaporean flavours such as pandan, gula melaka, and most recently, salted egg yolk.
Crystal’s culinary adventures are not a sudden development, however, as she started her first business Bakes & Crafts in 2013, selling more traditional pastries that she learnt to bake on YouTube. Realising the competitive nature of the industry, she decided to overhaul her business and came up with Loco Loco instead.
“We’re looking into entering shopping malls, so we hope that a clearer branding will help,” she says of the catchy name that is starting to catch onto Singaporeans.
We sit with her to chat on the ups and downs of the student-preneur life; how and why an undergrad would choose to sweat it out at pasar malams.
Photo by: All Aflutter SG
1. How often do you set up shop at pasar malams or bazaars?
We work at pasar malams back to back, in fact, as they are great platforms for selling our products and reaching out to heartlanders. The Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar is just another pasar malam on a bigger scale. We also attend Chinese New Year bazaars at the Marina Bay Floating Platform.
2. The F&B industry is a competitive one to be in. How does Loco Loco cope?
We focus a lot on the branding and the quality of the product. Being in a pasar malam, competition between churros stalls is high, but not tight. We are creative and ensure we are very different from neighbouring vendors in all aspects. We also have a very strong branding, so in terms of competition we’re still not too bad.
3. How do you differentiate yourselves from the many other F&B concepts in the market?
Being at the pasar malam gives us an added advantage as we do not have to burden ourselves with overheads or contracts and obligations to operate for years. Hence, such flexibility allows us to pass on the cost savings to our customers. We are also known for our fusion churros, similar to what I’ve mentioned above, the Singapore version of churros, such as pandan churros with gula melaka and salted egg yolk churros.
4. What are some challenges you faced when setting up Loco Loco?
Some of the main challenges we faced were high rental costs. It is commonly thought that rental at pasar malams is cheap, but the rental for the usual spaces, such as those near the MRT, is approximately $4,000 for 16 days excluding the electricity costs and the cost of having a sink at our station. Places like Geylang Serai cost about $15,000 for 32 days, also excluding electricity and utilities. Thankfully we didn’t have to pay the entire rental bill upfront and in that sense, it is quite flexible.
Secondly, we also had manpower issues. It is very hard to find someone who is willing to work in such a tough environment without regard for the pay. Most of the people working for us are my partner’s friends and friends of friends.
5. Why do you choose to sweat away in a pasar malam despite being en-route to earning a degree at SMU?
In my opinion, a degree is just a degree. I chose SMU not because I wanted to pursue a higher qualification, but because I wanted to meet more people and benefit from the opportunities that SMU can offer—such as being able to go on student exchanges, and joining SMU Eagles Inc. Entering SMU with such an open mind widened my options beyond simply the corporate workforce or the usual career route. My business degree would also provide a safety net if my entrepreneurial journey doesn’t work out. I love the knowledge I have gained, and enjoy the real-world simulations that the classes in SMU offer—I don’t wish to lose touch of these valuable lessons even if I am a successful entrepreneur.
6. You have an online store and an active Facebook page. How important is social media to the growth of your business?
Good and bad reviews spread extremely quickly, so we are constantly improving ourselves. We received feedback that the salted egg yolk sauce we made was diluted when we first started selling it. Therefore, we slowly improved and tweaked the recipe. Many of the customers are also regular ones. Social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat help a great deal, but the biggest contributor to our business is still through word-of-mouth.
7. How often do you come up with new recipes and variations on the churros you make?
My partner and I make it a point to appear once a year at the Geylang Serai Bazaar. Every year, we’ll roll out something new because it’s a bazaar that garners a lot of media coverage.
8. You have had several pop-up stores all over Singapore—how does having a brick-and-mortar store compare to running pop-ups?
We have no fixed costs or overheads, so if a particular pop-up is not making money, we can simply close it within a month or two. Most of the time, we absorb it as a marketing cost, as the pop-up increases our brand awareness amongst the public, enabling more collaboration opportunities at private events such as weddings. We also do live cooking sessions and caterings for various corporate events.
9. What do you think F&B businesses need to succeed in this market?
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