Singaporeans love durian immortally, despite having a reputation for being a "smelly" fruit.
Perhaps that is why Ah Seng Durian has the confidence to open not only a second point of sale, but also a durian café in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This infamous durian stand opened its new Café Durian Lab and a second branch in Bukit Merah last week.
In addition to being a renowned durian seller in Singapore, Ah Seng Durian is also notorious for a 2019 tax evasion scandal. The brand's founding brothers have avoided over S $ 160,000 in taxes over the past six years.
Despite the scandal, it looks like the brand will bounce back as its business grows.
The new café is heavily influenced by Mao Shan Wang (MSW) and offers MSW shortcakes, durian tarts and even the currently popular roasted cheesecake at prices between 5 and 12 US dollars.
The reception of the pastries was positive. On the opening day of the café, over 120 pastries were sold out by 2 p.m. This is quite a success in Covid-19 conditions as traditional F&B companies struggle to make a profit.
Durian Lab may be jumping on an outdated trend
Durian pastries are not a new trend. Food blogs like DanielFoodDiary have commented on the rise of durian cafes in recent years.
However, unlike bubble tea or Korean barbecue, the durian cafe trend has slowly subsided amid the appeal of newer food trends.
Entrepreneurial cafes like Double Durians and Mao Shan Wang Cafe have closed despite the management skills of established F&B groups like Four Seasons Durian.
Strategically targeting a specific customer base, however, cafes like Ms. Durian have been able to withstand the ever-changing waves of the F&B industry.
Ms. Durian / Photo credit: Daniel Food Diary
This durian café is aimed at a predominantly female population group with a varied selection of durian-themed puddings and craquelins.
It's a safe introduction to the often smelly, sticky business of eating the king of fruits, which is banned on public transport because of its stench.
Durian pastry shops seem like the tastier, everyday alternative to the raw fruits.
An attempt to modernize a 40 year old company
Similar to other traditional F&B brands like the 40-year-old Four Seasons Durian and the 100-year-old Tong Heng Bakery, the opening of the Durian Lab appears to be an attempt to modernize an old-school durian stand.
In 2002, Four Seasons Durian successfully converted an atypical fresh fruit stand into an island-wide franchise selling durian-infused products such as durian puffs. The fruit stand was originally founded in the 1970s.
Ah Seng Durian also has a long, illustrious history as one of Singapore's most trusted durian sellers.
Ah Seng and his younger brother "Ah Chung" opened in the 1980s and initially sold Kampung durians in their parents' grocery store.
Image Credit: Goody Feed
29-year-old Leonel Shui, second generation owner of Ah Seng Durian, followed in the footsteps of other historic companies, reporting that the Durian Lab opened to upgrade the brand's look and feel.
The brand has already received a digital facelift over the years.
Ah Seng Durian has earned a strong social media presence on Facebook and Instagram with over 65,000 followers. The Durian stand even has its own website.
Ah Seng Durian has teamed up with modern day local cafes like Flor Patisserie and Keong Saik Bakery to create Durian Lab's menu and reinvent the taste of fruit for the millennial cafe-hopping crowd.
The aim is to encourage people who do not want to eat durian to try more modern, durian-themed desserts and to provide a function space for businesses. It also helps that Ah Seng's second point of sale is right next to the cafe.
Ah Seng Durian captures a new, younger audience with a café and ensures its survival for years to come.
Can Singapore's love for durian beat the pandemic?
Ah Seng's strong brand name among the rabid durian fans is a huge draw for local foodies.
However, opening a retail store during the Covid-19 period is a huge risk for any F&B player.
Durian Lab Interior / Image Credit: Eatbook
According to a spokesman for the Restaurant Association of Singapore, 70 percent of companies in the F&B sector said sales fell by over 50 percent in July.
Many F&Bs have also turned to grocery delivery to save sales. Over 10 new delivery drivers have joined the sector and the sector is expected to be valued at $ 464 million (S $ 635 million) by the end of this year.
Unlike other F&B companies that have jumped on the grocery train, Durian Lab is currently only available for food and take-away. However, the brand appears to be bucking the downtrend in the F&B sector.
Despite a delayed opening that spanned eight months, Durian Lab reported that the limited-inventory baked product sold out within hours of the opening. Despite poor labor market conditions, baristas are even actively hired.
As it is now durian season, this could explain the high demand for durian and durian-based products.
Since durian is a seasonal fruit, it's hard to say whether durian rennet will continue to thrive. However, if it does, it would be an impressive feat for any F&B company in this current climate.
Selected image source: kkelvin blogspot / Seth Lui