Yes, that pun is intentional because Kin Hoi — which means ‘eat shellfish’ in Thai — specialises in Thai-style shellfish, and the star of the show is their gargantuan cockles.
One would expect the founders — Daniel Teo, 37, and Atchara Nimnuan, 36 — to have been in the food scene for quite some time thanks to their booming business but surprisingly, the two are only just starting out.
They first met in the media industry where Daniel was the director and head of international business at a digital entertainment company and Atchara was one of the top consultants for a prestigious social media firm. Who knew that a few years down the road, they would be business partners selling cockles together? This is the story of their unconventional journey, obstacles and all.
Wanting to chase the dream of helming her own F&B establishment, Atchara quit her job in Dec 2019.
She set up a stall at Singapore’s Chatuchak Night Market last year selling beef cubes. Unfortunately, her business was affected by the pandemic as the event closed prematurely due to public health concerns.
For a while, Atchara was jobless, but this didn’t deter her from trying again. A few months later, she tried to open another stall hawking Thai food, which was also where she met Daniel.
“That’s where I first tried her chilli!” He chirped excitedly when she brought it up.
Prior to this, Daniel and Atchara got acquainted while they were both in the media industry. However, after bumping into each other at Atchara’s stall, the pair started chatting and the idea of starting a business together popped up.
“She told me that she likes to eat shellfish and asked me if Singaporeans did too. I told her that we did, but we are very conscious about whether these are clean, especially when it comes to blood cockles or see-hum. And to simply solve the problem, we decided to make sure the cockles were clean and tried selling these online,” said Daniel with a chuckle.
Their background in social media also proved to be useful and they used their skills to gain more exposure online for Kin Hoi.
It is unsurprising that working in the F&B scene is completely different from the corporate life that Daniel and Atchara were used to, especially when they first started out.
Instead of rising early for the morning office commute, they now do so to receive their fresh shipment of seafood.
Initially, Daniel would wake up at 6am and head to the market to source the best cockles available. However, he soon felt that this was not sustainable in the long run and started looking for other more feasible methods.
“I spent two to three days calling people, I camped at Senoko Fishery Port, I wanted to find out who are the people bringing in the seafood. I even followed the truck driver who delivered the cockles. I did so until I realised that I should just find the direct importer,” he said.
Eventually, he managed to get the contact of someone who owns a fishing fleet and began to directly import the seafood from them.
But this didn’t mean that life got any easier. As the cockles usually reach Singapore by 3am daily, Daniel and Atchara still had to wake up early to receive the shipment at around 6am to 7am.
“I still remember staggering to my door and seeing cartons and cartons of live cockles,” Daniel recounted.
The early hours weren’t just the only thing that the pair needed to get used to — they both had to manually go through each batch of cockles.
“One by one, we cleaned the cockles individually. It was crazy work, but we just did it.”
The physical labour even left cuts on their hands which Daniel describes as “those similar to what you get when you play the guitar”.
Things were even harder for the petite Atchara who wasn’t used to such hard physical work. And despite having doubts of his own, Daniel tried his very best to keep both their spirits up.
“She cried and told me that she wanted to stop. But I tried to motivate her. She could have gone back to that social media company and continued earning her comfortable six-digit salary. But we have to encourage each other.”
“One time while I was opening the cockles, I remember thinking ‘this is not my life’. But we took it slow,” Daniel laughed.
Now, if you were to ask Atchara if she has any regrets in quitting her stable job to work in F&B, she will confidently tell you that she doesn’t.
“It’s a good time to do so because I am getting older and if I don’t start now, when will I ever do so?” she told us with a twinkle in her eye.
The F&B industry isn’t all just about cooking and preparing food. Other concerns that business owners fret over include weighing risks and making big decisions.
After contacting his supplier, Daniel was told that he needed to commit to a minimum order of one tonne a month, which was quite a large amount for a business that was just dipping its toes into the F&B scene.
“To achieve one tonne a month, I had to sell 30kg of cockles a day. But I just took the risk, which actually forced me to market my products even more because I had already committed to the decision.”
This gamble paid off because the demand for their food began to increase. But this brought on new issues for the pair to tackle, and they realised that they needed a central kitchen to sustain their growing business.
Hunting for one wasn’t a walk in the park either and while Daniel found a number of options, he felt that most of them were rather expensive for the amount of space.
In the end, it turned out that he didn’t have to look too far because all along, their central kitchen was fated to be at the current coffeeshop that Kin Hoi operates in.
“I was walking past and saw this empty space, so I talked to the coffeeshop boss. He initially told me that it was already taken but I told him to just try my food. He agreed and gave me a chance,” recounted Daniel. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Kin Hoi’s physical stall alone pushes out 90 to 100kg of cockles a day while the pair has limited its home delivery services to 20kg to avoid overworking themselves and staff. Who would have known?
Despite the booming business, the duo has faced their own fair share of nasty, unreasonable customers over the course of the past four months.
Daniel explained that sometimes — especially during the weekends — his stall will have very long queues and the occasional impatient customer.
“People will get angry. We’re Singaporeans! We get angry,” he said with a chuckle.
He recalled an instance where a customer did not believe that he had been served a kilogram of cockles, which was supposed to amount to around 40 pieces of shellfish.
“He made me count the cockles one by one because he said ‘this doesn’t feel like 1kg’. So, I counted.
“Do you know how many cockles I counted in the end? 47,” Daniel said with a shake of his head.
And that wasn’t the worst part — after forcing him to count all those cockles in front of everyone, the customer said he didn’t want to purchase them anymore because he claimed that they had been contaminated while Daniel was counting them.
Another unpleasant incident involved a lady who complained about Kin Hoi publicly on Facebook just because the cockles were sold out by around 8.30pm. This was even after they had put up a notice at 8pm saying that Kin Hoi was out of stock for the day.
“She scolded me and told me that I don’t know how to do business and that I don’t know anything about supply and demand.”
“You’re just a hawker,” added the woman in the post. Those words stung Daniel and stayed with him till today.
Despite that, Kin Hoi has its own fair share of friendly customers who have helped to spread the word.
The pair also has a number of supportive family and friends who have encouraged them from the start.
Some of them are in the industry too, and have provided them with tips and tricks to grow their budding business. Daniel even has a friend in Los Angeles who checks up on him every week to make sure he is doing fine.
“The support pillar is there. It’s really great, I’m very blessed,” he said with a grateful smile on his face.
While cockles are undoubtedly its main selling point, Kin Hoi plans to continue expanding its menu so that diners will have new things to look forward to.
There are a number of unique dishes that the folks at Kin Hoi have created themselves, such as the luxurious Tom Yum Collagen Soup with Deep Sea Indo Pacific Prawns. You can check out the rest of the offerings on Kin Hoi’s website.
When asked about plans for future outlets, Daniel said that they are open to the idea, but they don’t plan to rush the process.
“I want to, but [Kin Hoi] is still four months old. I want to build my brand. I want everybody to know if we are going to open a restaurant, it will be more awesome than what we are today.” Judging by the food, it’s obvious why people are going crazy over Kin Hoi’s seafood.
If you’re a fan of cockles like we are, we highly recommend having a go at their Signature Half Shelled Cockles ($10/$19) that pair beautifully with Atchara’s special homemade chilli sauce that she created with her mum’s help.
Apart from cockles, we also love their Gong Gong ($16). I personally am not a fan of this type of shellfish but the ones at Kin Hoi have made me change my mind.
If you don’t enjoy eating shellfish or have an allergy, fret not as there are also other Thai-style dishes to try, such as the Thai Honey Grilled Pork and Melting Beef.
Address: Block 6, Holland Close, Singapore 271006
Text: Melissa Teo/AsiaOne