Scaling up food solutions for growth

With expert advice from IPI Innovation Advisor Dr Ong Mei Horng, HarriAnns Nonya Table found innovative ways to enhance its heritage food product portfolio and strengthen its market position during the challenging pandemic period.

For small business owners looking to scale up their companies, there never seem to be enough hours in a day to check off the growing to-do lists. Juggling ongoing projects and fighting fires while managing daily operations, most entrepreneurs are left with little or no time to think ahead and map out new growth strategies—even if they can take their businesses to the next level.

One such company, HarriAnns, is a homegrown family business that takes pride in its traditional Peranakan food products and lives by the “Happiness is Handmade” philosophy. CEO Alan Tan and Director Sharon Goh had long understood that while preserving tradition was important, introducing changes would be essential for the company’s continued progress and growth. By seeking guidance from IPI Innovation Advisor Dr Ong Mei Horng, HarriAnns was able to pursue productive partnerships, enhance their technical capabilities and fast-track growth despite having the same limited hours in a day.

Healthier heritage snacks

For HarriAnns, incorporating innovative food science and technology solutions into the manufacturing process was necessary to scale and expand their customer base, but it was equally important to preserve the essence of Peranakan food. “It was a balancing act between innovation, the authenticity of the food and consumer acceptance,” shared Dr Ong.

For instance, confectionary products such as cakes, cookies and Nonya sweets were some of the company’s staples, but their high carbohydrate content and glycemic index (GI) meant more health-conscious consumers typically avoided them. To reposition HarriAnns as a healthier and cleaner label, Dr Ong suggested collaborating with Alchemy Foodtech, whose commercially available fibre blends have been clinically proven to lower the GI of carbohydrate-containing items.

Months of research and development (R&D) later, HarriAnns and Alchemy Foodtech have jointly developed a special fibre blend that works well with organic ingredients from the original recipes. The blend allows HarriAnns to retain the taste and texture of the company’s signature products like its iconic pandan chiffon cakes as well as sweet and savoury glutinous rice, but with a healthier twist.

Heartened by the fruits of their labour, Tan and Goh decided to build up the company’s in-house food science capabilities by hiring a food technologist. Having joined HarriAnns in December last year, the new hire has already accelerated product development, including a series of ready-to-cook pastes.

“Dr Ong played a significant role in defining the candidate’s skillset required to match HarriAnns’ business needs that would fit well in an SME working environment. Having a food technologist allowed us to hit the nail on the head faster and explore different varieties of products,” said Goh.

Consumer packaging matters

While expanding overseas remains a long-term objective for HarriAnns, establishing the brand locally was a prerequisite to pursuing that goal, especially with F&B businesses struggling during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Following Dr Ong’s advice, Tan and Goh redesigned HarriAnns’ packaging for several food items including their signature Nonya laksa paste, adding nutritional panels for a clean label branding. They then sold these rebranded products on the company website, where they generated much interest online and crucially brought in revenue during the pandemic slump. Today, these pastes are also carried by retailers such as NTUC Fairprice on their online platforms.

The ability to advise on both food technology and business matters is a manifestation of Dr Ong’s extensive career in the food and beverage (F&B) industry. Incorporating scientific expertise with business acumen, she has primarily focused on R&D but has also led product development at companies such as F&N, Nestlé and Vitasoy in Europe, Oceania and Asia markets. These experiences translate into comprehensive insights that she readily provides as a consultant to a variety of SMEs, venture capitalists and research centres. Dr Ong encourages collaborations through her diverse network and opens up opportunities for SMEs to better position themselves in the competitive F&B industry.

“We used to do a lot of things ourselves, but we didn’t realise that there was a large opportunity cost and we might be chasing the wrong things,” said Tan. “An IPI Innovation Advisor can really help you to conceptualise what you’re lacking and steer you towards the right direction.”

Is your company looking to expand its product offerings? Find out how you can incorporate the latest food science innovations to appeal to consumers with help from an IPI Innovation Advisor here.

About the Featured IPI Innovation Advisor, Dr Ong Mei Horng

Dr Ong Mei Horng is currently a Food Specialist (SMF) and Innovation Advisor (IPI) for food enterprises (MNC, SME/LLE and Start-ups) and research agencies. She helps F&B companies to innovate and transform their business via the development of new products & strategies, food services and technologies. She is a certified assessor for the international standard for Industry 4.0 i.e. Smart Industry Readiness Index (SIRI) and would like to support food companies towards the adoption of the Industry 4.0 advanced manufacturing. In addition, Dr Ong is also a part–time lecturer in Food Science & Technology Dept, NUS, and an expert advisor for the USA Soy Export Council (USSEC) – Asia Soy Excellent Centre – Food Protein in Singapore.

About the IPI Innovation Advisors Programme

IPI instituted its Innovation Advisors Programme, in partnership with ESG, in late 2019 to enable business transformation among small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as they embark on product, process or business model advancements. A pool of Innovation Advisors, who are experienced industry professionals with strong technology expertise, connections and business acumen, will be able to help these companies achieve accelerated growth.