PETALING JAYA: You either love it or hate it. That’s the risk Aesos Lai is willing to take with his line of durian-related products that many are often hesitant to try.
That said, just as many are hooked after the first bite of chocolate or the first sip of coffee.
Speaking to FMT recently, Lai, a former branding and marketing specialist said this pleased him no end as he has always felt proud of being Malaysian and for doing his part in promoting the country’s King of Fruits to locals and tourists.
But his business journey was not always smooth sailing, with many ‘prickly’ ups and downs.
Dressed in a shirt bearing images of the Malaysian flag and the durian fruit, the ever-smiling Lai, 60, said that way back in 2010, he was selling magnets and keychains to tourists until he realised that visitors from China rarely bought these.
Then a friend suggested durian-related products, convinced this would appeal to them instead.
So in 2014, together with partner Eddie Wong, Lai opened “Durian Kafe” in Central Market, Kuala Lumpur. Once business stabilised, the duo started their own brand so they needn’t rely on suppliers for stock.
They travelled to Thailand to source for products not available in Malaysia. Naming their business “Sunshine Kingdom”, they sold durian wafers, cookies, candies as well as mango- and mangosteen-related products.
“We eventually had about 100 products, with 40 being durian-related,” he shared, adding that they even began to manufacture the products locally.
Among these were durian coffee and durian pralines, which Lai assured are delicious though they may sound bizarre to some.
Their efforts paid off. Today the duo has received 30 awards for their products, including one from the Malaysia Book of Records in 2018 for “The most number of durian downstream products.”
In the same year, they also received the “Star Outstanding Business Awards” (SOBA) in the “Best in Marketing” (silver) category.
“It was one of the proudest moments in my life because to me, SOBA is one of the most important branding awards,” Lai said, adding that in the following year, they bagged the gold award in the same category.
He is especially proud of their product packaging, some of which feature his image and that of duo’s parents and parents-in-law.
“In Chinese culture, filial piety is important, and we wanted people to know that we honour and love our parents,” Lai shared.
As business boomed, their products became available in major airports in Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi, Sabah and Penang. Today tourists make up 95% of their customer base.
Down, but not out
And just like that, the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020. With borders closed and airports deserted, it was a struggle to keep the lights on and they resorted to taking loans from banks.
When the pandemic showed no signs of letting up, they were force to lay-off some staff. And they even cut back on the number of products they offered. Then came the real kick in the gut – the closure of their café.
“I did not expect that it was going to be that long,” Lai said of the pandemic, adding that despite the dismal state of affairs, he still refused to give up and began brainstorming about other products they could offer. They settled on non-durian chocolates.
He visited a number of local manufacturers and engaged four of them to produce chocolates for them. It turned out to be a lifesaver.
When travel restrictions were finally lifted, these same chocolates became popular among tourists from India and Vietnam. “It now makes up 80% of our business,” he said.
Today, along with durian-related products, Lai and Wong market a variety of chocolates including tiramisu almond as well as milk and dark chocolate bars.
And now, with the tourism industry on the mend, Lai is optimistic about the days ahead.
He is also thankful for the support of Persatuan Pembangunan Artisans (PPA), a local NGO that provides artisans a platform to expand their distribution channels through an online platform, several physical stores in the Klang Valley and pop-up events.
“They have actually helped us a lot when it comes to exposure and are very supportive of local businesses because they understand how hard we work.”
For Lai, the proverbial phrase “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is apt. He has not only weathered the pandemic as a business owner of tourism-related products – he even published a book!
Titled “Respect 1,000,000”, the book is a compilation of inspirational stories from his friends.
Quoting a line from the book, he concluded: “Never, ever give up. You just need to believe that everything is possible.”
Purchase Sunshine Kingdom’s products from its website.
Read more PPA stories and get to know its artisans by clicking here.