Five months after founding her own ice-cream company, Aillyn Ang’s 320Below was ranked as the TripAdvisor #1 restaurant in Singapore. Her unique liquid nitrogen ice cream creations featured on local sites like Citymads, Shiok.sg and Youth.SG, and impressed even the likes of Singapore’s most prominent local blogger, Ladyironchef, who voted their Thai Coconut ice cream as one of her all-time favourite.
Aillyn’s success was not something she would have dreamed of in her early years. The youngest of three siblings, Aillyn was only able to get a Diploma in Business Studies from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, after her eldest brother signed on with the Singapore Air Force to help supplement their father’s irregular income.
“I did not go to University because, at that time, a Diploma was already sufficient to get us a decent job, and I wanted to be independent as early as possible to not burden my parents and brothers,” the mother of one said.
A year after marriage, Aillyn’s husband was offered a job in Beijing, and the couple relocated. She found a job as a Personal Assistant to the Chairman of the largest Mercedez-Benz dealer group in China, and worked in this position for 17 years.
During this time, while working in the corporate world, Aillyn had her first foray into the F&B industry. Together with a partner, she opened a Thai restaurant in Beijing that was well received. However, the business had to close when they failed to find anyone to manage it full-time.
This experience taught Aillyn a lesson for her future business – if she wanted to grow a company to a much bigger scale, she would need to be actively involved, full-time.
On one of her overseas trips, Aillyn stumbled upon the concept of using Liquid Nitrogen to make ice cream. Inspired by her childhood love for chocolate ice cream, as well as the fact that this was something not yet available to the Singapore market then, she began to develop her idea and find partners.
The first person to come on board as a partner was her boss in Beijing, who also invested in the business. Partnering another good friend with 30 years of F&B experience and inviting a young chef, looking to venture into new ideas, to be part of the R&D team, they soon discovered the secret to making good ice cream.
“Through 6 months of R&D, we realised anything can be made into ice cream, using liquid nitrogen as a freezing agent, just as long as you have a good chef that cooks the puree.”
In Sep 2012, 320Below opened its first Singapore outlet in Mackenzie. It was an economical decision to start the shop in an area that had a small kitchen behind for preparation of the puree. However, things did not get off to a smooth start.
The lack of customer traffic to the store meant they were highly dependent on regular customers and referrals. Furthermore, their second outlet at Tampines 1 closed barely two and a half years after opening, because of the increase in rent.
Aillyn found it taxing to manage the business while still working in China. Remembering the lesson she had learnt from her restaurant in Beijing, she told her boss it was time to make the change.
“I told him it’s easy to find a person to replace my PA role, but it’s not easy to find someone whom is a good partner and looks after the business and its growth,” she said.
After returning to Singapore, things started to look up for the business. Barely a month after their lease for the Mackenzie branch expired in Sept 2014, they moved operations to their new flagship outlet at One KM mall.
With the opening of branches at The Central, Clarke Quay, in mid-September 2016, and in Clementi Mall in mid-October 2016, 320Below will soon serve customers and ice cream lovers in the East, Central and West of Singapore.
After covering the broad sectors of the island, 320Below began their first overseas expansion to 1 Utama Shopping Centre, Selangor Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in June 2015. This self-owned outlet is managed by their Malaysian partner, whom is supervised and guided by Aillyn. She desires to stabilize all the outlet operations, so that the managers can be more independent and perform like business owners.
Aillyn hopes to build the brand presence in Asia within the next three years. Their total turnover achieved to-date is reaching $3mil and 320Below has commenced their franchise marketing efforts, seeking opportunities in Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and China.
“We are also keen to explore partnerships collaboration with the franchising trend seems to be slowing down. Many landlords prefer to sign tenancy agreement with the brand principal rather than with franchisee,” she said.
The young and growing company turns four this year. As a group, they have total of only six full-time employees, and are heavily dependent on part-timers. Interestingly enough, 80 per cent of their part-timers are long serving, meaning they keep coming back to work during their school holidays, or on weekends and evenings when school re-opens.
This is in no small part due to how Aillyn treats her staff like family. Even after 3 years, the hands-on entrepreneur who gyms six times a week is still seen standing at the cashier attending to customers.
“I believed respect needs to be earned,” said the Aillyn, who recently became a Christian. She often gets her hands dirty along with the staff under her, mopping the floor to clearing the tables.
One of the things that help Aillyn stay sharp in the business is keeping her ear to the ground. She enjoys listening to the comments of staff, customers, and part-timers (who also represent the age group that makes up the largest segment of her customers). She regularly does her own market surveys too, going around to different cafés to try and see what they have to offer to attract customers.
“I never stop learning from others, even if they are not my competitors. I believed there is always something out there that is different which I can learn from,” Aillyn said.
Aillyn’s motto in life is to focus on what she is good at. She knows she has found a way to make good ice cream, and she desires to focus on growing this rather than diversifying too much, though the market demands for this.
At the end of the day, she enjoys making people happy with her product.
“For me, I always feel a sense of achievement when a customer leaves a comment to complement our ice cream, either on our social media, or when they come to me personally before they leave the café,” she said.