Homemade food has the power to connect people with their culture and create a thriving community around both new and familiar cuisines. Small businesses in the food industry play a unique role in shaping our neighborhoods — and our palates. For Holly Ong, co-founder of Sibeiho, building a sambal sauce brand is about bringing the flavors of her Singaporean childhood to the North American market with recipes made for seasoned foodies and busy home cooks alike.
Over the last few years, hot sauces have taken their rightful place at the head of the kitchen table. Seventy-four percent of Americans put hot sauce on their food. A deliciously spicy, relish-like sauce, sambal is poised to take the condiment aisle by storm, much like its cousin sriracha. Sibeiho’s collection of sambal sauces are made from recipes Holly and her co-founder, Patricia Lau, inherited from their families. The pair prioritize local ingredients, creating small batches of sauce from their commercial kitchen in Portland, Oregon.
Through her journey from working in Nike’s marketing department to putting on supper clubs for friends and family, and eventually starting the Sibeiho brand, Holly has a lot to share about building a thriving business on a foundation of passion.
Developing a recipe for success
Sambal is the pesto of Southeast Asia, with a range of variations across Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Each region and household has its own take on the recipe, but key ingredients can include garlic, onions or shallots, and chili peppers.
Holly and Patricia found that Singaporean foods were harder to find in the U.S. (which Holly attributes to there being fewer immigrants from Singapore than other Southeast Asian countries). To get their fix of their favorite foods, the pair started running supper clubs for friends and family featuring beloved Singaporean dishes — with a side of homemade sambal. The sambal was a major hit with their guests and Holly and Patricia sensed that they were on to something.
Many of the sambals stocked in grocery stores are filled with artificial ingredients, and Holly and Patricia saw an opening in the market for a sauce with a homemade touch. It was important to the pair that they offer sambals that are as fresh and healthy as the sauces their aunts and grandmothers made.
One of Holly’s major considerations when starting the brand was ingredient availability. Oregon and Washington happen to be the largest producers of onions in the U.S. which enabled Holly and Patricia to source this essential ingredient locally, something that was also important to them. Easy access to high-quality organic onions also allowed Sibeiho to continue to scale. With a reliable source of this ingredient, Holly is confident that they can continue to grow while relying on their local onion crops.
The agricultural industry ecosystem in Oregon has also been beneficial for supporting their business development. Holly and Patricia leveraged experts at food science programs at the universities in the state to help them develop shelf-stable sauces from their home recipes. They also participated in Built Oregon, a consumer product startup accelerator where the Sibeiho team was able to access mentorship and business support.
Building a passion-driven business
Start with customer validation: test ideas (and recipes) with a potential customer base and see how they respond.
Explore resources when it comes to professional development, including local accelerators and university or college programs.
Consider all avenues for funding the business and prioritize investing in growth, even if it means strategically leveraging debt.
Pivoting from corporate to kitchen
Building Sibeiho is Holly’s second career. Before starting the company, she worked for Nike in brand management and bringing products to market. However, after years of working for a Fortune 500 company, Holly was looking for more personally meaningful work. She and Patricia — who she was working with at Nike — bonded over their homesickness for Singaporean food, and Holly found that making and sharing the cuisine she loved fulfilled that desire to do something she was passionate about.
Holly’s job at Nike involved customer validation and understanding what consumers were looking for. This corporate skill set transferred seamlessly into her work as an entrepreneur. Her experience helped her see an opportunity to capitalize on her culinary talent while she and Patricia were running their supper clubs for fun. The supper clubs also provided an avenue for customer validation and established an audience of sambal converts who were likely to spread the word about the sauce.
“The reason we chose sambal over running a restaurant or making something else was that it’s the condiment that we would have in our fridge to do a very quick meal, to not have to think very hard, to create something healthy to feed the family,” Holly says.
Opting to create consumer packaged products rather than expanding their supper club also helped the company stay flexible during the COVID-19 pandemic. While their supper clubs were canceled, Sibeiho continued to sell sambal as well as takeout tingkat boxes — multi-tiered lunch containers similar to tiffins used to carry small meals. Customers signed up for weekly emails with the latest menu and were able to pick up the tingkat boxes from Sibeiho’s Portland storefront.
Both the tingkat boxes and sambal fit perfectly into a market flooded with increasing demand for ready-made foods. One of Holly’s young customers said that her mom had been putting Sibeiho’s sambal into crockpot chicken meals, a dish that had become a family favorite. The tingkat takeout boxes were also popular with parents overwhelmed with caretaking while working at home through the pandemic.
Finding a place on grocery store shelves
During the pandemic, Holly and Pat attended virtual trade shows to begin the process of getting Sibeiho sambals into grocery stores. “Food is a very personal choice,” Holly says. “We were asking consumers to try a product that they’ve never seen. We needed them to [take] this leap of faith with us to try something new.”
As luck would have it, since restaurants were closed during the lockdown, home cooks were more inclined to try new recipes and seek out unique ingredients. The pandemic conditions propelled interest in sambal while Oregon’s foodie culture created an environment where local grocery retailers like Market of Choice and New Seasons were excited to carry Sibeiho sauces.
One of the things that Holly wishes she had done differently while managing the business through the pandemic was leveraging small business loans. The tingkat takeout boxes provided most of the revenue for the business while Holly and Patricia worked to get Sibeiho out to grocery retailers. Holly was hesitant to take on debt, but she learned that she could use smaller loans to cover cash flow and invest in equipment and supplies the business needs to continue to expand. Taking on a small business loan in the future will allow Holly to purchase more commercial kitchen supplies and get started on new projects without waiting for the capital to come in.
Sibeiho is a labor of love that honors childhood memories and the joy that comes from bringing new cultural cuisines to a hungry customer base. Starting this business has allowed Holly to reconnect with her roots and engage with her community through food. With a continuous learning mindset, Holly and her team plan to uncover better ways to drive their business forward and make sure that Sibeiho sambal is soon a kitchen staple across the country.
Learn more about Sibeiho and find their sambal sauces here.
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