KUALA LUMPUR, July 20 — I’m an eternal optimist. Months after the last lion dance I was still on the lookout for a bottle of “Chinese New Year” Smooshie Juice. Tangy and subtly sweet, this seasonal natural juice blend of mandarin oranges, lychees and goji berries had rapidly become a favourite drink of mine.
Of course, the reason this was a limited edition blend is the mandarin oranges so crucial to its production (providing more depth of flavour than ordinary oranges, in my humble estimation) are only at their best during the angpow celebration period, according to Lin Lee and Wan Chiun Low, founders of Smooshie Juice.
Launched in 2011, Smooshie Juice supplies all-natural bottled juices to various cafés around the Klang Valley. Using only 100 per cent pure, fresh juices and yoghurt, these juice blends come with no added sugar, preservatives, artificial colouring or flavouring.
Currently Smooshie Juice offers eight different juice blends concocted from local and imported fruits. Lee notes, “We develop the recipes carefully according to the compatibility of the flavours of each individual fruit. We squeeze and blend daily as we believe the juices taste best when they are at their absolute freshest.”
The donkey and the giant
The girls behind this local start-up have an easy way about them, often laughing or finishing each other’s sentences.
Low explains, “We were classmates growing up in Penang, and later we both studied in Australia together. In fact, it was in Sydney and Melbourne that we discovered good quality, freshly-squeezed juices with no additives.”
An accountant by profession with experience in corporate IT sales, Low takes care of the operational part of the business. “I do everything from developing recipes and processes, to sourcing for supply of the best quality fruits.”
Her partner quips. “She’s the no-nonsense, practical half.”
By comparison, Lee is the creative yin to her partner’s yang. She spent 10 years in Australia studying and working as an architect and designer before returning to KL. At almost six feet tall, Lee is nicknamed “Giant” (since high school) while Low is charmingly referred to as “Donkey”, possibly due to her pragmatic nature.
Low adds, “It helps that we grew up together as we run through ideas quickly. We understand each other better, sometimes lapsing into Hokkien without noticing. Work-wise, we know exactly what to expect from each other.”
Even with the strong camaraderie, the early days for the Smooshie Juice girls were far from smooth-sailing. To begin with, the close friends did a lot of brainstorming for business ideas when they decided a nine-to-five career wasn’t for them.
“We had so many crazy business ideas in the beginning!” Lee exclaims. “One abandoned idea was to do soups. Then we decided to accompany our soups, we should have freshly-squeezed fruit juices. That was the spark.”
Low nods, adding “When we first came back to Malaysia, we couldn’t find fresh juices the way we used to in Australia. Here the juices may be tasty but they tend to be sweetened... or foreign brands. We wanted to enjoy local, tropical fruits too.”
Therefore in August 2010, the entrepreneurial pair decided to quit their day jobs and spend the next six months studying the art of juicing. Lee recalls, “We went all over the country looking for Malaysia’s freshest fruits, and spent lots of time in our kitchen concocting numerous recipes.”
“We started with a small home juicer and soon wore it out trying to pulp everything including lemongrass,” Low confesses. “Once we turned the juicer a bright yellow by adding cumin to one of the recipes we were trying out.
Everything came out yellow after that.”
On average, they go through a day’s worth of experimenting before a recipe is formulated. Lee explains, “The biggest challenge isn’t finding the right flavours – I think we have a good palate for that – but rather getting the quantities right.
“It needs to be adjusted according to the time of year, especially for seasonal fruits. A good example of a fruit which varies greatly is the orange – which can go from very tart to very sweet. Then there’s the size of the oranges, etc.”
How do they know they’ve gotten the recipe right after a long day in their testing kitchen? Lee jokes, “We know for sure when we have fruit pulp everywhere, especially on ourselves!”
The daily juicers
The girls are very proud of their team of “Smooshers” at their HQ, juicing and blending on site to ensure delivery of freshly-made juices to their partner outlets every day.
Low shares, “It was really serendipitous how we found people for our Smooshie Juice team. When we first started, we happened to notice an orang asli village in Damansara Perdana where our HQ is. We placed flyers in mailboxes to try hiring some workers and got a very good response, surprisingly.”
“We then proceeded to audition our potential recruits,” says Lee. “It was like MasterChef; we gave everyone a pineapple to cut – and hired those who seemed to have a natural knack for it!”
Unconventional recruitment drives aside, Smooshie Juice is currently an all-women enterprise. “We now employ three very efficient and reliable ladies from the orang asli village, two of them makciks in their late 40s.”
One of the crew, Rika, was groomed to become their office manager after the girls taught her to use the computer to print out orders and to communicate with them through Whatsapp.
“We have grown very close to our team, and love spending time with them,” Low says. “We take them out for movies – the delight and look on their faces when they wore 3D glasses for the first time was priceless!”
A-peeling to the right crowd
In a little over two years, the Smooshie Juice girls have had to learn a lot about engaging the correct audience, and doing so mostly by word-of-mouth instead of traditional advertising and promotion.
“Most of our customers don’t realise this but we first started with a Smooshie kiosk at Berjaya Times Square. We were there for about a year when we realised retail wasn’t the right business model or target market for us,” Lee shares.
“Customers there kept asking if we could add more sugar to the juices, which would have been pointless given our pure juices philosophy.”
Towards the end of their lease, they decided to pivot their business using a different approach. Low says, “We tried supplying our juices to existing cafés instead, beginning with The Red Beanbag. Smooshie Juice as we know it today took off from there.
“Today our juices are available in various partner outlets all over the Klang Valley. We are also available at select Boost Juice kiosks. We complement their existing juiced-on-the-spot model with our grab-and-go bottles.”
One key feature of the business that helped to catch the finicky consumer’s eye was their Smooshie Juice mascot, a simple squiggle using the letters in the word “Smooshie.”
“We wanted the logo to be simple to represent our message of a 100 per cent pure and fresh fruit juice in a bottle. It also needed to connect with our customers,” Lee says.
“In fact, we didn’t design it with kids in mind but children have really taken to it. One of our most dedicated fans is only two years old! He looks forward to following his mom to all our stalls at various events and markets.”
The truth behind fruits and fame
Low always finds it funny when her friends envy her “easy job.” She insists, “It’s not glamorous at all! Imagine trawling supermarkets with huge trolleys or hopping from pasar to pasar to look for the freshest, most flavourful fruits.”
“My aunties will often ask me, ‘Eh, you don’t want to be an architect any more ah?’” adds Lee, laughing.
Given another chance though, the girls wouldn’t change a thing. They are grateful for support from their loyal fan base of customers, family and friends.
I count myself amongst them and can’t wait to try the next seasonal Smooshie Juice flavour. Maybe I can persuade them to try adding some durian …
Smooshie Juice is available at The Red Beanbag (Solaris Dutamas), Artisan Roast HQ (Section 13, PJ) Artisan Coffee Bar (Bangsar Village II), Artisan Roast Coffee (TTDI), MollyDooker’s Coffee Bar (Damansara Heights), myBurgerLab (Seapark, PJ), Bread Basket (Menara Tan & Tan), Boost Juice kiosks at KLIA Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT), Mid Valley LG, One Utama Shopping Mall, Bangsar Village I and Publika.
This story was first published in the print edition of The Malay Mail, July 19, 2013.