Interview with durian entrepreneurs

Whether to continue the family business is a thorny issue among the younger generation, with some preferring to find their feet in society.

For 30-year-old Alvin Teoh going into the family business of selling durians and fruits wasn’t part of his plans. After helping out with selling durians at his elder brother’s fruit stall Fruits Top 1 Department Store in Geylang, he stayed on and even expanded into the durian catering (think a party but with durians instead of food).

DURIAN 36, the durian catering business that Alvin and his brother-in-law Billy Lau co-founded, is the supplier of premium durians for RWS Durian Fest 2016. For the event, the company is bringing in 21 tonnes of durian which is about the weight of three elephants.

Alvin shares how he got into the business, how the durian industry has evolved and the difficulties of running plantations the size of 25 football fields.

DURIAN 36 co-founders Alvin Teoh and Billy Lau.
DURIAN 36 co-founders Alvin Teoh and Billy Lau.

We heard that this is a family business. How did the family get started in this business?

It was started by my elder brother, Teoh See Aik, almost 20 years ago. Back then, durians weren’t so popular and he was working for a durian vendor. After a year, he started his own stall and grew it into what we have today.

Alvin Teo (middle) with local celebrities Pornsak and Chua En Lai.
Alvin’s elder brother Teoh See Aik with local celebrities Pornsak and Chua En Lai.

As weird as this may sound, we need to ask: Is there anyone in the family that doesn’t like durians?

We all love durians, but we don’t eat it every day. Probably because we see and smell them every day.

After your studies, you could have chosen a more ‘glamorous job’. Why did you choose to take up the family durian business instead?

I never thought of it actually. Initially I was just helping my elder brother, as he was short-handed. My brother has to take care of the plantation so I helped with the selling. I’m glad to be in the durian business as it offers me more freedom, unlike a 9-to-5 job.

You get your durians from your plantation in Johor and other farms in Pahang. Tell us more about the plantations.

A few years into the business, my elder brother noticed the growing popularity of durians. So he started investing our profits into plantations.

We have about 50 acres which is about the size of 25 football fields of plantation in Johor and Pahang. Most trees are D13, Mao Shan Wang, Jin Feng and some other varieties.

fruits top 1 tree facebook
One of the trees in the plantation.

How do you ensure the quality and quantity of your durians? Especially for big events (such as the RWS Durian Fest).

Quality durians come from a proper management of plantation. With the extreme weather nowadays, we have to know the counter measures to combat the challenges of drought or rainy season.

We also maintain a very good relationship with all our other durian suppliers, as we deal with integrity and trust. Thus, they never let us down when we have requests for more supply.

Durian stalls pop up like mushrooms in Singapore. How challenging is the durian business here and how do you stay on top of the competition?

Yes, there’re a lot new durian ventures and we could feel the competitiveness. For us, we’re focused on providing our customers with quality durians. We’ve branched out from just having a stall and created the durian catering side of the business.

What used to be the favourite durian(s) in the past? Has that changed – what durians are trending now?

Back then, Sultan (D24) or XO were the most popular durians. Today, Mao Shan Wang has gained a lot of attention. Still, everyone has their personal preference.

Durian harvest has been delayed this year due to the exceptionally hot weather. What were some of the tougher and more difficult years you/your family faced in the past 18 years?

In 2013 and 2014, durian supply was exceptionally low. But back then there wasn’t so much buzz about durians and it was treated like a normal fruit business. Now even the newspaper is reporting on low durian supply.

Any plans to expand the business?

Right now, no. We’re paying more attention to the durian party and event catering.

For the uninitiated, all durians look the same. How do you tell what durians are sweet/bitter, have creamy/dry meat?

It’s all about the experience from opening durians over the years. There’s no way to know a durian characteristic without knowing its breed. Even we can’t tell before opening a new type of durian.

Howver, here are some tips: When you knock on the durian husk using a durian knife, the hollowness of the sounds will tell whether the durian is wet or dry with a 80% accuracy.

And generally, white flesh comes with a bitter taste, or somehow bitter, while yellow flesh has a tendency to be sweet with hinge of bitterness or plain sweet.

If someone is interested to start a durian selling business today, what is your advice to him/her?

Good luck, be nice, and be honest, and have patience.

durian 36 shop

 

Durian Fest 2016

Dates: 18 , 19, 20, 21 Aug (Tickets selling out fast!)

Time: 6pm – 7.30pm  or  8pm – 9.30pm

Venue: The Coliseum, Hard Rock Hotel Singapore

Price

RWS-Invites-Silver-200pxPACKAGE DEAL:
2 Durian Fest Adult Tickets + Free RWS Invites Silver Membership (Worth S$196)

S$160
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RWS-Invites-Silver-200pxRWS Invites Membership RENEWAL EXCLUSIVE:
2 Durian Fest Adult Tickets + Free Renewal of RWS Invites Silver Privileges (Worth S$196)

S$160
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RWS-Invites-Silver-200pxRWS Invites Member (Membership number required for booking.)

Adult: S$80 | Child: S$40
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Public

Adult: S$98 | Child: S$48
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For reservations or enquiries, please email rwsinvites@rwsentosa.com or call +65 6577 9788.

Click here to find out more about RWS Invites Membership

 

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