KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 10 — There’s a certain magic about rediscovering an old favourite you never knew you lost.
I was at a neighbourhood café, ordering coffee when I noticed a small signage offering “small batch, artisanal ice cream” — which had a distinctively familiar ring to it.
Closer inspection revealed a name that conjured up visions of creamy, luscious scoops: Forty Licks Ice Cream.
The brainchild of Cheam Tat Wei, Forty Licks Ice Cream first drew fans eight years ago with remarkable flavours such as Earl Grey and Salted Caramel.
These flavours are everywhere now, of course, but when I first encountered them at Cheam’s pop up stall in a weekend market, it was an intriguing concept. Back then, ice cream meant vanilla, chocolate and strawberry — and was almost certainly mass produced.
Cheam went in a different direction, churning his heavenly pints in more handcrafted fashion. I even had the opportunity to witness first hand how he made his roasted Thai tea ice cream and his yuzu umeshu flavour, a blend of the Japanese citrus and Japanese plum liqueur.
It has been almost a decade since Forty Licks was first founded. Cheam has been busy growing his small batch ice cream business, one pint at a time. Customer growth was led by their wholesale clients expanding their operations as well as word-of-mouth referrals.
Cheam says, “We also tried a few things along the way, setting up an ice cream truck which we ended up using more for delivery and have since sold. It’s been replaced with a smaller van which is more practical. We played around with the idea of making popsicles, but the cons outweighed the pros so we stopped.”
Today the iconic rainbow-striped van is a familiar sight in various neighbourhoods. Forty Licks has supplied to more than 100 cafés in the Klang Valley, Ipoh and Penang, while also catering to private and corporate events; the latter has since ceased because of the movement control order (MCO).
All this while remaining a relatively lean and thus agile operation: growing from a one-man show to now a team of five running a small production facility. This sense of prudence and growing slowly as necessary, without scaling up exponentially, would prove to be a lifesaving decision.
When the MCO was first announced, the ice cream purveyor’s first reaction was “‘Oh no, we just received a batch of milk, what are we gonna do?’ Luckily our product has a long shelf life, so we decided to just make a ton of vanilla ice cream and keep it in the cold room.”
Initially Cheam chose to stop production during MCO. As a wholesaler, he was concerned that their customers would either be closed or only do deliveries, and thus wouldn’t be ordering ice cream. Eventually, after the second MCO extension, they got restless and decided to do home deliveries.
“My wife helped out with our social media postings, to announce we were starting home deliveries. We also started working with IDC (Ice Dreams Café) — they were doing delivery via Beepit — and who has now become an ice cream delivery mart, stocking and delivering multiple brands doing delivery,” says Cheam.
Response for the ice cream deliveries were encouraging and soon Cheam had to recruit family members to help. Once dine-in was allowed again, Forty Lick’s wholesale orders began picking up again, slowly returning to pre-MCO levels.
Future-proofing a business is not something every entrepreneur considers, sometimes until it’s too late. Given how the pandemic is wreaking havoc with everything from the supply chain to sales volume, Cheam has had to plan for disruptions rather than assume things will revert back to normal eventually.
He shares, “I think because we are still a fairly small company, we have been able to be very nimble and make quick decisions. So we are trying to open up more sales channels, working with various different people.”
Currently Forty Licks is working with a new partner to get their pints into supermarkets, adopting an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) approach by producing for a few brands, as well as investing in more research and development (R&D) to create different ice cream flavours to target niche segments.
The latter, in particular, is crucial since Forty Licks has never been the loudest kid on the block; the ice cream market has become saturated since the early days when Cheam first started.
He says, “Branding was never our strong suit. It was always the product first for us. Quality and consistency have always been our focus. Knowing our customer base and their needs is very important.”
Positioning Forty Licks as a small artisanal wholesale producer, Cheam wanted to produce high quality ice cream comparable to big brand premium ice creams, albeit at good value. As a small producer, Forty Licks is also able to customise flavours and sell them exclusively via a B2B (business-to-business) model.
Cheam explains, “For example, we make a Whisky Raisin flavour for Yugo, Milk and Honey for 103 Coffee, Brown Butter ice cream with Salted Caramel and Brownie (among other flavours) for IDC. Along the way we’ve also made some funkier flavours for some customers, such as Tom Yam and Green Curry ice cream for a Thai restaurant, and even a Wagyu ice cream for a BBQ restaurant!”
The process to develop new flavours is an easy mix of both research and trial-and-error. When a customer requests for a specific flavour, the team will try to match current costing to maintain the same price.
“If, however, the ingredients are more expensive, we will discuss alternatives or a price increase. We then formulate a recipe, run a test batch, try, get feedback and decide from there. To continue testing, to scrap it or if the customer is happy with the recipe, we can proceed.”
Take the aforementioned wagyu flavoured ice cream. The first step was to figure out how to incorporate the flavour — generally the simplest way is to either mix the flavouring into the mix or steeping the milk to get the flavour. (For instance, steeping Earl Grey tea leaves in milk for hours and straining the milk.)
Cheam recalls, “In this case, we couldn’t really steep the beef in the milk — cooking wagyu pieces in the milk and discarding it would have been way too expensive — and we couldn’t really blend the meat into the mix. So we tried substituting part of our cream in the mix with rendered down beef fat.”
Fortunately, their customer was a BBQ restaurant and had excess beef fat. The result was a salty-sweet and savoury ice cream, which had hints of beefy flavour from the wagyu fat but without an exorbitant price tag.
Cheam is already looking forward to the long term. He says, “We would like to open one or two ice cream parlours under our brand Forty Licks, like a flagship store to showcase our ice cream, but this would be dependent on finding the right operating partner who is in sync with us.”
To grow Forty Licks as a business, Cheam also wants to expand into other channels. Beyond getting into supermarkets, he hopes to launch different lines of ice creams as well as other food and beverages.
“I have realised after running Forty Licks for a few years what my core strengths are, and would like to focus on that: Working with other people to create and churn out quality products.”
This reminds me of a conversation Cheam and I had over six years ago. When I asked him about the provenance of his business name, he told me “Forty Licks” is derived from the retrospective album of the same name by The Rolling Stones.
There’s also a saying that it takes 50 licks to consume an ice-cream on average. Cheam had hoped “for my ice-cream to taste so good you’d only need 40 licks or less to finish.”
Well, now we know his ice cream needs only 40 licks or less to finish but his business will go the distance, for years to come.