Merchant Stories: Real stories from real people – successes and struggles from the small business owner. We’ll let the story do the telling.
Editor’s note: Roxie was rather shy about putting up her picture – it’ll make sense as the story unfolds – but she was more than happy to tell her story about her struggles and how she stepped outside her comfort zone to start Fruce.
Love & Hate for F&B
Roxie loved and hated the F&B industry, and that was why she wanted to change it.
Roxie loved the food industry for the endless creative freedom it offered. Singaporeans love their food, meaning the F&B industry was fiercely competitive and wild, giving rise to genius ideas and bold takes like rebellious peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or crazy rainbow unicorn cakes. Like going on a new adventure each time, these new concepts were fresh.
You could taste the passion that went into every meal, the dedication that led to these crazy ideas succeeding. And she wanted to be right there, in the thick of it. Her past working experience took her across every aspect of F&B, from small indie cafes to big brands and enterprises, and she enjoyed every moment of it. It was in her roots, as her family also did F&B.
But because of all the competition in F&B, players in the industry were cowed and complacent (Roxie felt). Crazy, wild ideas were a rarity, the exception; instead, everyone would rather play safe and simply copy a winning formula: the same ingredients, the same flavours, the same marketing concept. Nobody dared to be different; all the ideas felt stale.
Nobody dared to be different; all the ideas felt stale. That was the opposite of what Roxie fell in love with, and why she hated the industry.
Bubble tea was a great example. Singaporeans love bubble tea. A foreign brand entered Singapore with their trademark brown sugar milk drink, and two-hour long queues formed as Singaporeans rushed for a taste (and for the Instagram picture).
It took less than two weeks before big brands, small shops, established chains and indie spots all offered their own version or spin or ‘homage’. Even food bloggers and journalists began following the trend, curating their own listicles of favourites. What was once fresh became commonplace, unoriginal, stale.
Spot the difference.
For Roxie, food could surprise and delight and amaze. The problem was that too often, it didn’t. Food that was just following formula was the opposite of creativity, it was just copy-cat and catch-up. She took it as a sign that the industry had become complacent, was ripe for shake up, and around this time she met her co-founder Brian who felt the same.
A Fresh Concept with Fruce
Roxie didn’t want to be another also-ran; she wanted to strike out with something original, something for others to try to follow and copy. Together they wanted to start something special and unique, something that wouldn’t fit nicely into a category.
The concept for Fruce was born, blending dessert and drinks to create a new product category while still being familiar to customers. Fruce used coconuts as the main ingredients, blending in tropical fruits and Japanese sauces – that was Brian’s contribution, and his skills at experimentation and concocting fresh flavours, never seen before on the market.
Fruce’s first flavours. (My favourite is the pandan coconut) via @fruce.sg
Roxie’s contribution was her business nous, her ‘superpower’ to sense what flavours would be a hit with customers and sell well. All they needed was one chance; if people tried Fruce once, Roxie was sure they would become regulars.
But before they could sell their drinks, they needed to attend business pitches and meetings, convince mall landlords and speak to big groups of people. Roxie considered herself an introvert, and persuading people wasn’t going to be easy; but she was determined to succeed and went for it.
Rejected, again and again, by landlords
Malls were always looking out for fresh ideas and interesting stores to generate excitement and bring in the crowds – so Roxie was told. At the same time, malls needed to make money from rental. Established brands had proven track records of customers and sales; Fruce had neither.
Roxie & Brian visited plenty of malls across the island to pitch. Every mall rejected them.
To the mall landlords, Fruce was too big of a gamble. If they shut down in six months — as many other fledgling new F&B outlets and restaurants had — the malls would have missed out on a lucrative lease.
But Roxie had faith. She pushed herself to be confident, persuasive, and convincing in front of the landlords, not an easy ask for an introvert. She had her secret weapon, bringing along Fruce’s signature dessert-drinks. She was sure it was only a matter of time before someone took a chance on them.
Finally, after half a year of constant rejections, a mall offered them a spot.
Roxie turned them down.
The spot that was offered was in a secluded corner of the mall. Roxie knew from experience that the location would not succeed without foot traffic or visibility. She refused to settle for what her instincts warned her against.
The bold move paid off; finally, she was offered a better location for their store, and finally, Fruce had a home.
Fruce finally opens. Via @fruce.sg
And the industry threw the next challenge at Roxie.
“Can we survive?”
Fruce finally opened, but staff kept leaving. Roxie found it hard to motivate them to stay. Like the landlords, some of them had no faith in Fruce or its future. The staff were worried about their job security and progression: what if Fruce shut down in six months — as many other F&B outlets did?
This was a chicken-and-egg problem for Roxie. If their staff were not invested in the brand, they wouldn’t deliver a good customer experience. Without the hard work of the staff, customers wouldn’t patronise Fruce.
And customers were not coming to Fruce in the first few months after opening. The F&B industry turned out to be right; consumers were not always receptive to new things.
Roxie believed they could build a customer base if enough people tried Fruce. So, she tried everything. She offered samples for passers-by in the malls. To get the word out, Roxie reached out to bloggers to offer samples and wrote to media outlets for tastings. She even went from store to store to every store in the mall to give samples to tenants and customers alike, just to get more people to try.
It was taxing, day after day, to meet with so many people, so many rejections. Roxie did not stop trying. The business did not pick up. At this stage, even their friends & families were worried for them. The mall worried over their shoulder about their minimum revenue targets.
It wasn’t supposed to be so difficult. They had skills, they had experience, they had an amazing product. They didn’t expect to have sleepless nights and moments of self doubt. They didn’t expect the doubters to be right.
They didn’t expect to have to ask themselves: “Can we even survive?”
She needed to, so she did
Roxie kept telling herself: she didn’t have a choice, she needed to push herself. Whether it was talking to people or making stressful decisions, she narrowed her focus to what was important: the future of Fruce.
She took up multiple roles to keep Fruce going; this was what being your own boss was about. She couldn’t celebrate her successful pitch for long; she had to step in to become the staff cashier, facing customers and curious passers-by all day. To get more reviews and visibility, she was her own PR agent, reaching out to bloggers, responding to people on social media. As the store manager, she had to keep interviewing strangers and train new hires. Never mind that she was an introvert. She needed to do it; so she did.
Her focus became laser-sharp: keep the business going. Every decision had to be weighed against income for Fruce, and keeping their doors open. Running out of funds meant running out of time, and they couldn’t spare a moment as they were approaching six months of limited sales.
The worst part was the easy way out. There were external investments hovering, tempting them. Investments meant money, and money meant more time for Fruce to succeed. But Roxie and Brian believed they could make it work on their own, that Fruce was something special they had, that was worth fighting for.
Through sheer tenacity and consistent hard work, they were able to stretch their initial six-month budget out to their seventh month. And then things finally started to pick up.
By the end of the seventh month, Fruce had actually surpassed their initial revenue projections. Their success came from focusing on the right things: their staff, their customers, and their core products.
Roxie knew firsthand what it was like to work in F&B, and focused on staff welfare and shared values. Her staff saw her hard work as a role model, and it rubbed off on them. The team bought into the team culture and worked together, efficiently like a family. Roxie says that even today, staff who leave are always welcomed back with open arms.
Team Fruce. Via @fruce.sg
Her team saw that she was always pushing hard to deliver the best quality, the best creativity to customers. Roxie knew that customers could be fickle, especially in the competitive F&B market, and easily tempted away by competitors with much bigger marketing budgets.
Loyalty was hard to earn and harder to keep, she knew. “They may be happy today, but they will not be here forever.” Which is why her and Brian never stopped experimenting, pushing to improve with seasonal offerings and periodic menu revamps.
Her customers felt their hard work, the limited-time coffee mixes and seasonal durian offerings were very well received. And the hard work paid off; the business finally turned around. And, when competitors opened to their left and right, Fruce actually saw their sales grow. There was more competition, but also more customers.
And Fruce was winning them over with their category-defying drinks.
Customers Crave Fresh Fruce
If you search for lists of bubble tea brands, or drink recommendations in Singapore, Fruce is often mentioned, somewhere near the top. On social media, people talk about Fruce using evocative words like love or cravings, and offer positive reviews of delight and surprise, paired with photos of their Fruce cup in hand. And if you head down to their outlet, don’t be surprised if you see fans make big orders.
An ardent fan shares her happy haul. That’s 1 kg of Fruce! Via Dayre
Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because Fruce now has a positive track record, mall landlords are reaching out to Fruce to offer spaces for a second location; a dramatic turnabout from when they first started.
F&B remains as competitive a landscape as when they started, though. A day before the interview, Roxie tells me, one of their competitors next door closed for good. When I went down the next week, a new competitor had already opened up in the old spot.
The fruits of her labour: customers queuing (via @fruce.sg)
Fruce is leading the pack now, defying categories but still ranking near the top of lists. Roxie has put a dent in the industry with her own interpretation of dessert beverages. She’s found a fresh formula, original and unique.
And now she’s found something to love in F&B again.
Finding a Fresh Flavour: Fruce
(click to jump)
- Love & Hate for F&B
- A Fresh Concept with Fruce
- Rejected, again and again, by landlords
- “Can we survive?”
- She needed to, so she did
- Finally, Success
- Customers Crave Fresh Fruce