Sunday, July 12, 2009

When it comes to the crunch, it’s Julie’s!

All it took was the perfect crunch and a new brand of biscuits was born. Sunday Metro catches up with the man behind the brand who is still nibbling away at his own biscuits.

HOW do you chomp your way through 50 biscuits in two days and still keep trim? Ask Su Chin Hock, the man behind the household biscuit brand Julie’s.

In his line of work, there’s lots of nibbling – a few butter wafers after lunch, some cream crackers between meals and maybe some love letter rolls in front of the TV at night.

Man behind Julie’s: Su Chin Hock noticed the dearth of locally-made biscuits and decided to make his own.

“There is no secret. I just reduce my rice portions and go for brisk 5km walks four times a week,” says the managing director of Perfect Food Manufacturing, which produces 50 tonnes of biscuits a day. He is obviously very disciplined in his exercise regime as he has maintained a constant weight of 74kg since going into biscuit-making in 1984.

When asked which is his personal favourite of the 30 varieties under Julie’s, he says he has a soft spot for the peanut butter sandwich biscuit which has been instrumental in propelling the brand beyond Malaysian shores. Su shares that after he tried a version of the peanut biscuit by another brand, he decided he could come up with something better.

After close to 60 tries to perfect the recipe with a research and development team and his former partner, William Teh, a baker, Julie’s peanut butter biscuit was born.

Why Julie’s? Was the brand named after someone in the family?

“No, I just wanted a pleasant sounding English name that is easy to remember, not a Chinese name,” says the entrepreneur who was far sighted even then with plans to promote the product internationally.

Get cracking: A worker stacks up cream crackers for packaging. The factory uses 20 metric tonnes of flour daily for crackers alone.

Su, who tested and tasted every recipe, says he was striving for “the perfect mouth feel” in a biscuit which had to have that “special kind of crunch”.

“Baking can be very subjective, so you have to go back to the traditional method of putting it through a taste test,” he adds. It is one thing to perfect the crunch but another to persuade others to feel the same way. The sundry shops were initially sceptical about the locally-produced biscuit and the relatively high retail price. But they were sold on the first few chomps.

All lined up: Cream crackers fresh from the oven on their way to packing. The production line in this cracker plant is similar to the other 16 lines spread over three factories in Alor Gajah.

So good were the biscuits that the retailers did much more of the sampling than the customers. What kickstarted the demand for Julie’s on a large scale was when an agent from Singapore put in an order that filled a trailer. With this show of confidence, sales of the peanut butter biscuit finally took off.

Three years later, the demand was so good that an entire truckload of his biscuits were “hijacked” en route to Kuala Lumpur. “We couldn’t do anything because the ‘hijackers’ actually paid the driver for the entire content of the truck plus extra to drive the lorry back to the factory.”

It turned out that demand for the peanut butter biscuits had overshot supply and that hungry retailers were resorting to desperate means to keep their customers happy.

Then imitation became more than just flattery. Unscrupulous suppliers were lining the top of their own tins with Julie’s peanut butter biscuits to deceive consumers.

“What I did then was to increase the number of pinholes on the biscuit and I made this known to the sundry shops so that they could differentiate the original from the pirated ones.

“It wasn’t cheap as changing the roller cost me close to RM30,000. But it solved the problem,” recalls this accounting graduate of Singapore’s Nanyang University with a chuckle.

But it was no laughing matter growing up in poverty with 10 siblings in Bachang and having to walk 3km to a nearby biscuit factory for a tin of biscuit crumbs for RM1.

Daily tests: A tasting team checks the biscuits for Julie’s ‘special kind of crunch’.

“We were poor,” says Su whose parents were vegetable farmers.

The youngest and the most promising member of his family, he was able to pursue his studies in Singapore when his elder siblings chipped in to finance his education.

There, he met and married Lee Soon, a Singaporean, in 1974, and they have two sons, now 28 and 25.

Today, he owns three biscuit plants covering 5.3ha and 1,000 staff overseeing 17 production lines.

Success has been hard earned for this entrepreneur who started off in the tiling and construction businesses prior to establishing his first biscuit factory in Alor Gajah.

“What spurred me to get into the biscuit business was when I realised that 95% of the biscuits on the shelves were imported. This got me thinking: Why can’t Malaysians produce good biscuits locally and export to the whole world?” he says.

Julie’s peanut butter sandwich biscuit, which has a signature trademark of eight biscuit holes.

But it wasn’t easy convincing retailers and customers to give locally-produced biscuits a chance. Some agents even suggested that Su should omit mentioning that Julie’s biscuits were manufactured in Malaysia on the packaging.

“The hardest market to penetrate was Japan because they were very particular about food manufacturing processes. This made me push for higher standards in the factory,” says Su.

And the maintenance of the hygiene factor is something that Su has heavily invested in. The floors in all three factories are dirt-and-crack proof, being made up of costly ucrete for which the standing space of one person costs RM8 to lay.

Workers are required to wear face masks, gloves and shoe covers in areas where they are exposed to the biscuits and everywhere you turn, there is someone washing his hands. Workers are not allowed to wear perfume and even the slightest suspicion of a cough or sniffle will see an immediate transfer to a department free of biscuit exposure.

But what was beyond Su’s control was the melamine contamination crisis that took a terrible toll on his business and caused his factory to close down in October last year.

At that time, Su was attending a retreat in Kuantan when he noticed three missed calls from his elder brother, his wife and a director. “I knew that this was not a good sign so I took a taxi back to Alor Gajah (where the main Julie’s factory is located) and sent all the products for testing. Three days later, we found out that the raising agent from our Chinese supplier was contaminated with melamine.”

The company suffered more than RM10 million in losses due to a ban on Julie’s products late last year.

Su’s eldest son, Sai Seak Chyuan, was by his father’s side during those trying months when the factory was ordered to cease all production by the health authorities.

He recalls that the house practically became a command post as his parents battled frantically to save Julie’s.

“What I did was to stand back and evaluate the situation. There is this Chinese saying: ‘As long as you can remain alive, you should not fear the journey ahead’ and that is the outlook I adopted,” shares Su.

When dealing with stress, he has this simple advice. “If you feel that you cannot go on, go home and take a nap. When you wake up refreshed, your mind will be clearer.”

Now that things have cleared up and Julie’s is once again on the shelves, Su is definitely breathing easier.

According to Lee Soon, her husband is back to his two favourite past times, karaoke and reading; Chinese classics like The Tale Of The Three Kingdoms and Sun Tzu’s Art Of War have become his favourites. He also has a new venture in a restaurant called Geographer Café in Malacca’s famous Jonker Street.

Otherwise, this health food advocate who insists on serving organically-grown coconuts at his café can be seen tucking into a meal of hearty Nyonya fare at Aunty Lee’s, a restaurant in Ujong Pasir run by a husband and wife team. Su claims the place has the best assam fish in Malacca.

To look at the story in The Star, click on this link:

Published in The Star on Sunday July 12, 2009.

1 comment:

kawaii said...

nice write up on those yummy julies...
doing a piece on off shore islands anytime bout life of an islander? =)