When Ishpal and Serina Bajaj approached a mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to open a vegan ice cream shop, they were frowned upon.
“They pretty much laughed, like no one would eat plant-based ice cream,” Ishpal said.
“I think the whole perception was that herbal products [desserts] were based on sorbets and fruit.
But the couple managed to whip up an ice cream that was not only vegan, but “tastes like any ice cream,” Serina said.
When they finally found space in another mall, Ishpal and Serina knew they were on the right track.
“The support has been great…we were making around $8,500 to $10,000 a month,” Ishpal said.
Now, the co-founders of Kind Kones said they are bringing “20 times” that, with four stores in Malaysia and Singapore.
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Their “first mover advantage”
When Serina had her first child in 2017, she developed a dairy intolerance, which prompted her to experiment with vegan ice cream at home.
The biggest challenge? Understand how to create a plant-based dessert, without compromising on taste.
Serina said, “Coconut is a huge ingredient for us. But how are we going to mask that coconut flavor, so it tastes as neutral as possible?”
“It was hard, mostly trial and error back then. But now we know how,” she added shyly, without divulging the secret recipe.
While Ishpal and Serina knew their ice cream tasted good, they worried whether a vegan dessert would appeal to the general public.
“Back then, veganism didn’t really exist in Malaysia…you get a pint of ice cream in the supermarket that was maybe soy-based,” Serina explained.
“And veganism was associated with bland, grassy food…we had this idea to start Kind Kones and make it a small business.”
It was a “bet” for Ishpal and Serina – who had no experience in the food industry – to invest over $140,000 in Kind Kones in its first year.
But they soon realized they had a “first-mover advantage” with plant-based ice cream made from all-natural ingredients.
“We had people coming and [tell us] they never ate ice cream because there is dairy in it,” Serina said.
They also realized that their dessert appealed not only to people with a plant-based lifestyle, but also to people with skin conditions such as eczema and other allergies.
“Children [are] a huge market for us…parents fed our kids our ice cream because it also catered to allergies,” she said.
Stick to their guns
Before starting her own business, Serina grew up in the fashion world in Thailand, thanks to her family retail business.
Her business background may have been an advantage, but she also realized that the food and beverage industry is “brutal.”
“When you go out shopping, you’re in a really good mood. But when you’re hungry…you expect when you pay for something, it’s perfect,” she explained.
Although the couple developed ice cream recipes that tasted just as “gourmet” as the non-vegan options, their products didn’t appeal to all palettes, Serina added.
“There are certain flavors that will never taste like conventional ice cream…for example, our strawberry ice cream uses real strawberries and we sweeten it with bananas,” she explained.
“It takes some getting used to. But I think that’s what we want to do – we try to deliver real taste.”
Another common complaint? The price. The couple admitted that their ice cream was more expensive than other brands.
“We have a price premium…everything in there is expensive. We make everything, our nut milks aren’t store bought, for example,” Serina said.
In response to inflation and rising food prices, Ishpal said they also had to deal with the “obvious and increased prices”.
“But we’ve introduced a junior scoop… so you have an option [and] it’s not too heavy on the pocket.”
Nonetheless, the couple have always chosen to stick to their guns in the face of challenges.
“You absolutely have to develop thick skin and know that you can’t please everyone. You have to stick to what you’re good at,” Serina said.
This approach appeared to pay off as Kind Kones doubled its revenue from 2020 to 2021, Ishpal said.
“This year, we are on track to double our revenue again.”
With fresh funds in the bag, Kind Kones has set itself the goal of putting its frozen treats on supermarket shelves in Malaysia and Singapore.
“It will also be much more easily accessible to people,” Ishpal said.
The future looks bright for the couple, who are aiming to expand to other Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand and Indonesia.
According to a 2021 joint report by PwC, Rabobank and Temasek, there is a growing demand for herbal products in Asia.