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Uncle Saba’s: Poppadom maker grows despite pandemic

First published in The Straits Times on 17 September 2021.

Mr Sreenivas Saba, co-creator

Instead of cowering when the Covid-19 crisis hit last year, Uncle Saba’s Poppadoms chose to add pop and crackle to its business strategy.

The result: The Singapore brand not only beat the odds, but also increased its revenue and expanded its business.

How? The six-year-old brand made innovative moves, from sending samples to Instagram influencers to introducing its snack to the United Kingdom (UK) via a gin and snack box subscription service.

“Before the pandemic, we were more traditional in how we produce and distribute,” says Mr Sreenivas Saba, 32, who co-created the brand with his father, Mr S R Saba, 81, founder and chairman of Bhavani Foods Group.

“Adapting to the pandemic definitely changed my mind about what is possible.”

Recalling his anxiety at the start of the crisis, Mr Sreenivas says that the Bhavani Foods Group — a food and beverage distributor founded in 1978 — was supplying Uncle Saba’s Poppadoms to 25 countries before the pandemic.

“But some of our markets disappeared because of logistics issues and distributors that were afraid of lockdowns and being stuck with unsellable inventory.”

Trade shows, its traditional means of meeting prospective clients, were also suspended.

Determined to keep growing the business, Mr Sreenivas, who is now the company’s managing director, doubled down on the brand’s undisrupted markets — comprising countries that had plans to deal with the pandemic — and pursued new ones to broaden its customer base. 

In Singapore, one of the brand’s key markets, it approached its existing customers such as supermarket chain Cold Storage, to get the snack into more of their stores, branched out into 7-Eleven outlets for the first time, and partnered with caterers to supply over 10 migrant worker dormitories.

“In times of uncertainty, the prudent thing is to go to your longstanding customers and see if you can grow your business together or discover new opportunities with them.”

Innovating for global growth

Uncle Saba’s Poppadoms also focused on breaking into more markets to make up for the lost ones and add revenue streams.

“If you can get into the big markets, even if you capture just a tiny fraction of the population, that’s still a lot of customers, especially for smaller businesses like ours,” he explains.

Mr S R Saba

With travel restrictions putting an end to overseas in-person meetings and trade shows, Mr Sreenivas explored alternative methods of finding new customers.

He tapped on online channels, including those that match food companies with distributors, to reach out to potential partners.

To expand overseas, he sought help from enterprise development agency Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG), which connected the brand to foreign distributors and retailers and advised it on navigating their markets.

Through these avenues, the brand entered supermarkets and other stores in several major markets, including Germany, Australia and Indonesia, and is on track to launch its snack in a large supermarket chain in Belgium by early next year.

Uncle Saba’s Poppadoms also took unconventional entry routes. With recommendations from EnterpriseSG and the Singapore Tourism Board, the product became one of two local snacks featured by the UK Craft Gin Club in its Singapore-themed subscription box last month.

The club sends gin and snack boxes every month to nearly 100,000 subscribers in the UK. Customers in the UK can now buy Uncle Saba’s Poppadoms from its website, and the club’s members get a discount.

“This is a great way for us to gather feedback before we approach UK supermarkets, which can be conservative and unwilling to take on untested products,” Mr Sreenivas says.

The brand’s annual revenue grew by over 30 per cent last year because of such initiatives. It expects its revenue growth to exceed 50 per cent this year despite serving only 20 markets, five fewer than before the Covid-19 crisis. 

The pandemic “flicked a switch” in his mind, says Mr Sreenivas.

“Before, I didn’t do things like look for customers online as there was no need. Now, I look at every single resource available to put me in touch with overseas customers and distributors, and make the most of them.”

Poppadoms with a personal touch

Besides embracing unconventional methods to enter new markets, the brand created localised flavours, rebranded its packaging and made other changes to grab consumers’ attention and position it for long-term growth.

The new flavours are chilli crab and tom yum for Singapore, and tomato ketchup for the Middle East.

Mr Sreenivas also tapped the influence of social media. He contacted and sent free samples to more than 100 social media influencers across Singapore and Malaysia who champion healthy foods.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Mr Sreenivas is optimistic about the brand’s prospects.

“We achieved many firsts during the pandemic, and there will be many more to come.”

An ecosystem for growth

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an ecosystem to grow a brand, says Mr Sreenivas.

When he wanted to promote Uncle Saba’s Poppadoms in Europe last year, he contacted EnterpriseSG for help. Its offices in Europe introduced him to local distributors and retailers, and gave him valuable advice on tweaking the product for the respective markets.

This included substituting palm oil used to make the snack with another oil, since palm oil is frowned upon by European consumers due to its sustainability issues. “We also changed the seasoning to remove certain ingredients that are not allowed over there,” he adds.

He notes that small and medium enterprises can access a wealth of support in Singapore, from EnterpriseSG’s Enterprise Financing Scheme, to industry networks, and universities, schools and research institutions that are open to partnering them on product development projects.

Uncle Saba’s Poppadoms, for example, recently completed a project with the Food Innovation and Resource Centre, a joint initiative by EnterpriseSG and Singapore Polytechnic, to ensure the snack is less prone to breakage during transportation.

The brand is also giving back by participating in the ongoing Asia’s Great Snack Challenge, organised by EnterpriseSG, as a corporate partner. 

The challenge, which opened for applications in June and ends in December, aims to help teams develop their ideas for snacks, and includes mentorship from industry experts and a final pitching session to conclude the challenge. 

Mr Sreenivas will mentor two finalists in business development, branding and marketing, and may collaborate with some finalists after the competition. 

“So many people have stepped up to help us in our own journey, so we want to pay it forward,” he says. 

“There are so many things in the Singapore ecosystem we can draw on, and cooperation benefits all of us.”