KUALA LUMPUR, March 16 — Fancy homemade spicy chilli oil, the sort a Sichuanese would approve of? Or fluffy, rainbow hued mantou buns, with no artificial preservatives or colouring? Or any manner of artisanal foods and ingredients that you’d be hard pressed to find in a supermarket?
This is where Pingmin Grocer comes in, as a showcase for small food producers with a difference.
Estica Teh (creator of the 白白 PutihPutih edamame milk brand) and Terrance Lim (who owns The Sherry, a café in Taman OUG) co-founded Pingmin Grocer to provide a platform for new food and beverage (F&B) entrepreneurs who are often just starting out.
The duo first got the idea for Pingmin Grocer during conversations with their market vendors. Teh says, “We hope to help all these handcrafted, home-based businesses do even better during this difficult time, by offering resources and networks that we have.”
Vendors on the Pingmin Grocer platform include Da Niu Bake Pie, for Jingzhou style guōkuī flatbreads; Zi You Shi², purveyors of ginseng kombucha and bakkwa pineapple tarts; MengTong.Co, which makes traditional Perak fried snacks in KL; and many others.
Teh shares, “Those of us who got affected during the first movement control order (MCO) were looking for alternative sources of income to sustain our living. Many started their own brands, often with good products but lacking experience in marketing and selling.”
The two of them had earlier launched Pingmin Market as an offline marketplace where vendors could display their wares as pop-ups, including at Lim’s café. Quirky strategies such as “High Tea to Go” became popular.
Once the first MCO started, however, such in-person events had to be put on hiatus to comply with social distancing rules. Instead they turned to their Pingmin Market Facebook group to provide a free online platform for their vendors to showcase their products.
Teh adds, “As time passed, we discovered that many business owners experienced difficulties with arranging delivery. So we formed Pingmin Grocer where we market, sell and deliver the products for vendors who joined our platform.”
Taking things once step further, Pingmin Grocer even formed their own delivery team – largely made up of drivers and riders who became jobless once the pandemic started last year – to handle delivery of their orders, rather than depend on third-party delivery apps.
Teh shares, “It took us three days to structure the entire order and delivery workflow. Vendors felt surprised and couldn’t agree more that Pingmin Grocer would help them handle online orders so they could better focus on producing good products for their customers.”
This seems such a small thing — removing the need to market and sell one’s products directly — but it alleviates one of the biggest burdens faced by first-time F&B entrepreneurs.
Many got into the industry out of a love for what they enjoy eating and making; the fear of making it a business is what prevents many from even getting started or expanding.
Which is not to say the vendors are entirely left out of the process. Pingmin Grocer acts almost as an incubator space for these small players, albeit without the support of grants, so that they can hit the ground running and slowly pick up the tools of the trade.
Focusing on what they do best — the making — while paying attention to how the professionals (i.e. Pingmin Grocer) helps them sell their wares — the marketing. Clearly it doesn’t have to be a Maker vs. Marketer conundrum; newbies can learn to do both, albeit step by step.
Of course, the Pingmin Grocer co-founders have themselves learned a lot from those they are helping.
Teh shares, “We have a vendor — Jamie Lim of Zoey’s Homemade — who is a single mother who produces a series of healthy foods and mantou specially for kids. Not only is she offering healthy products made from real ingredients, she eventually grew her team where most of the team members are single mothers too.”
What inspired the Pingmin pair is the way Lim crafts her Zoey’s Homemade line (named after her daughter Zoey) and how she helps those who are in need.
Teh says, “We believe it isn’t about how wealthy you need to be in order to help but your willingness to help others. Even with very limited resources, we can still help each other. And of course, customers appreciate the Zoey’s Homemade brand and Jamie’s courage — everyone likes her products so much.”
With the second round of MCO earlier this year, Pingmin Grocer had to halt their pop-up markets (under their Pingmin Market label). Instead Teh and Lim pivoted to producing frequent Facebook Live shows to share news about their vendors’ products and to educate viewers (and prospective customers).
The quick switch is due to a lesson they themselves learned from their vendors: to always remain lean and agile. Teh observes, “We believe no one should stop learning.”
For them, this meant stepping outside their comfort zone and bravely putting themselves on the line, the same way their vendors did. In this case, walking the talk meant getting online via Facebook Live to “showcast” – to showcase and broadcast.
Teh explains, “We showcast brands who have joined our Pingmin Grocer umbrella or some other brands that we think is good and worth sharing with the public. ‘Live’ channels are another way to deliver the story of a brand as well as to allow our consumer experience be more about the product itself.”
The only constant is change, as they say, so Pingmin Grocer is prepared for further challenges… and opportunities. Teh says, “As people start to go out and dine-in is available, our online sales will definitely slow down and this is totally within our expectations.”
Therefore for the rest of the year, Pingmin Grocer will focus on restarting and expanding their offline marketplace (i.e. Pingmin Market). Teh shares, “We plan on bringing this market to every state of Malaysia once interstate travel is allowed. This will enable crafters and artists to showcase themselves in the markets and promote the tourism industry of smaller areas at the same time.”
Therein lies the magic of Pingmin Grocer: by helping small food artisans to grow their businesses, they in turn help others like them and have the potential the spur the economy in their own delicious way.
Pingmin Grocer & Pingmin Market
FB: facebook.com/pingmingrocer/ and facebook.com/pingminmarket/