Architect Turned Accidental LadyBoss: Phyllis Chua of Spinacas

Phyllis Chua Spinacas Red Vespa
Phyllis Chua Spinacas Red Vespa

What started out as a 2-month sabbatical in Spain spun into a healthy salad delivery concept for former architect Phyllis Chua. Inspired by her trip to Europe where she discovered healthy good food as a way of life and was exposed to a variety of fresh whole produce and readily available meats used in the salads, Phyllis attempted to recreate the meal experiences back in Singapore but without success.

“Salads that were nutritious and hearty just didn’t exist. Most of them were too protein-light and carb-heavy, and I would always be hungry by 3pm,” she remarked. It was then that the health and fitness fanatic begin creating her own salads, always adding more meat cooked in flavour-packed mixes. She packed some for friends to try and before she knew it, the LadyBoss was making deliveries around town on her red Vespa scooter, and Spinacas, Hearty Salads Delivered, was born.

 

You were an architect before this, what led you to the decision of becoming an entrepreneur? Was it something you have always thought of?

To be honest, I never thought of setting up my own business before; I really stumbled into it! I had just returned from my sabbatical in Europe and was sending out my CV to various architectural firms.
During the day, I made salad lunches for myself which was a habit I started in Spain. Since I was pretty free, I started making them for my friends too. They liked the salads enough to start buying from me, and this led me to deliver the salads on my red Vespa. That’s pretty much how I ended up starting Spinacas. You could say I am an accidental entrepreneur!

 

Spinacas Espresso Pork Ribs Salad
Spinacas Espresso Pork Ribs Salad

You started off by making deliveries yourself in your vespa, was it tough doing it yourself? Do you still make deliveries?

YES! Because when I started out, I had to pick up ingredients in the morning, make the salads and then send them out by lunch time. Then I would return to the kitchen, cook a batch of meats, and prepare for the next day. In between, I had to receive orders via email (before our e-commerce site) and do admin work. 16 hour days were common.
Now I have a rider who delivers and also kitchen staff to help me prepare the ingredients. I still work pretty long hours, but I focus more on the quality control of the salads, managing my staff, growing my business and creating new products.

I think it helped that I started out doing everything myself; this led me to know what worked and what didn’t. So when I had staff to take-over, I managed to transfer processes that I knew worked and were effective. This also helped to reduce inefficiencies and helped save costs.

 

What are some of the main challenges you face in starting this business?

The main one has been keeping kitchen staff. The F&B industry in Singapore has a very high turn-over rate and also a shortage of staff, and Spinacas encounters these same problems. I try to keep my staff by being more flexible with their working hours.

 

Is the kitchen your own and do you intend to have a food retail space?

Yes, we rent our own kitchen. While we get some drop-in customers, our focus has been and will continue to be a delivery model.

 

You were able to turn profitable within a short period of time which is amazing. How did you manage to achieve that?

I think it made a big difference that Spinacas was 100% funded internally. When you’re spending your own money, you become VERY focused on achieving profitability. I also kept things very lean and invested only things that really helped the business. Secondly, I think it helped that I started out doing everything myself; this led me to know what worked and what didn’t. So when I had staff to take-over, I managed to transfer processes that I knew worked and were effective. This also helped to reduce inefficiencies and helped save costs.

 

Phyllis Chua Spinacas
Phyllis Chua Spinacas

Are there competitors doing something similar and what would you say is your strength or unique value proposition?

Yes, more companies are offering healthy food now, some with retail spaces and others doing delivery. But I feel Spinacas is still pretty special because our strengths lies in two values:

1. Making genuinely delicious food – I believe it doesn’t matter how healthy your food is, but if it doesn’t taste good, people aren’t going to eat it anyway. I’m proud to say that our salads are not just healthy, they taste really good too. In fact, I eat my OWN salads everyday for lunch!

2. Being focused, and doing things well – We don’t want to be something to everyone, but prefer to be everything to someone. Take for example our menu – we only have 7 meat flavours to choose from. Even our toppings and dressings are fixed.
But by being focused, we keep our ingredient turnover high and very fresh. This also simplifies things for our customers, they just need to choose what meat they like and checkout. And it shows in our customer return rate, I have one customer who has ordered more than 150 times from me over 1 year; that’s 450 salads!

 

How has the journey been starting a business together with your spouse?

Its not been all smooth sailing, but definitely worth it. This is because I now see a different side of him (one as a business partner) from before where I only knew him as a husband. We are pretty disciplined at setting ground rules of when to be in partner mode or spouse mode. I think it also helps that even before the business, we have pretty strong relationship fundamentals in place and communicating pretty well already.

 

What are your plans in the near future and what do you hope to achieve within 5 years?

We’re looking to get a larger premise this year. I think there’s still so much more to expand on our current path that I would like to see how far I can push this delivery model.

 

Would you continue to rely on internal funding or would you explore fund raising? What would be your rationale for either option?

I think start ups fall into 2 camps – those that want to grow big fast and exit, and those that prefer to grow the business steadily and use that to support their livelihood. I am more the second type of business owner. I am OK to be self-funded for now. I like that this gives me the freedom to grow the business at my own pace and in the direction that I think is best.

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