A Singapore Government Agency Website
How to identify
Official website links end with .gov.sg
Government agencies communicate via
websites (e.g. go.gov.sg/open).
Secure websites use HTTPS
Look for a
lock () or https:// as an added precaution. Share sensitive
information only on official, secure websites.
How 99 Old Trees is connecting with young durian lovers
Their love for durians inspired founders Kelvin Tan (centre), Avinash Mahendram (Nash) (left) and Jeffrey Ngadiman (Right) to start up local durian wholesale supplier and retailer 99 Old Trees. (Source: 99 Old Trees)
Tucked away in the Pahang countryside is a durian farm called Fook Gor Durian Farm. The mountainous area houses exactly 99 durian trees, which have consistently produced high-quality durians for over 25 years now.
An avid fan of the fruit, Kelvin Tan, the co-founder of 99 Old Trees, regularly travelled to Pahang, Malaysia in search of high-quality durians. There, he befriended the owner of Fook Gor Durian Farm and was inspired to bring Pahang’s quality durians to Singapore.
To pursue the venture, Kelvin engaged two of his friends, Jeffrey Ngadiman and Avinash Mahendram (Nash), and together, they pooled $60,000 of their savings together to purchase equipment and delivery vehicles, and fund their durian wholesale business.
To pay homage to the roots of their durians, the trio of budding entrepreneurs decided to name their brand, “99 Old Trees”, after the 99 trees on the durian hill. Cutting out the middleman, they established a direct bridge between Fook Gor Durian Farm and the Singapore market, forming a local supply chain that allowed them to sell fresh durians on the market 12 hours after the fruit is harvested in Malaysia.
Now, with their quirky motto “Live, Laugh, Liu Lian”, local durian wholesaler and retailer 99 Old Trees is serving up South East Asia’s well-known king of fruits with a slice of humour.
Spiking demand and thorny problems
“The durian business is actually quite a low-capital business,” Kelvin noted, explaining that the team adapted swiftly and their small business grew quickly. In the beginning, the team adopted a completely online business model and experienced initial success during the first two durian seasons.
However, problems with deliveries quickly sprung up, as customs delays led to late deliveries and order cancellations. This made them realise that they needed to set up a physical durian shop in Singapore.
The 99 Old Trees team posing for photos outside their shop, located at 1 Teo Hong Road (Source: 99 Old Trees Facebook)
In 2019 when COVID-19 hit, many businesses struggled to make ends meet during the lockdown. The team was initially worried that with the economic recession and tourism grinding to a halt, people would be more hesitant to buy durians, given the high price of the fruit. But they were surprised to find that business actually improved during the pandemic.
99 Old Trees is known for their “durian party” service, where their employees crack open fresh durians on the spot during events (Source: 99 Old Trees Facebook)
“But I guess our locals couldn’t travel abroad either, so they had the extra budget to spend on quality food and experiences domestically,” said Kelvin.
Unlike many other traditional durian sellers, the brand had already established a budding online presence prior to the pandemic. 99 Old Trees had its own website, where customers could order durians and arrange for pick-up and delivery. The online store also featured frozen durians and durian pulp packed separately for easy collection.
“Prior to the pandemic, about 35 per cent of our sales were through online channels,” noted Kelvin, “And when the pandemic hit, our customers were already familiar with our online service, so that really helped us to tide through the pandemic.”
The modern durian seller
Now as the brand has become a household name, one of the team’s biggest ambitions was to target millennials and Gen-Zs, an unengaged but growing fraction of the market.
“Our biggest aim is to reach out to young customers because we wanted to create a new generation of consumers,” said Kelvin, who explained that as a young man, buying durian from fruit stalls and suppliers seemed like an intimidating endeavour.
“Even in my twenties, I found shopping for durians to be very difficult. I did not know where to find good durians or cheap durians and I felt awkward communicating with durian seller uncles,” Kelvin shared. “I worried about what to say to them, and whether they would find it difficult to understand me, given my limited use of Hokkien. I was also afraid of getting scammed, and forced to pay high prices for low-quality durians.”
As such, the team made it their first mission to dispel the image of the unapproachable durian seller, setting up an open, transparent system that made the process of purchasing durians a lot simpler. The team opens and weighs their durians in front of their customers, and their product and durian prices are displayed clearly in the store.
An Instagram post from the 99 Old Trees account that plays on a popular gaming chair brand (Source: 99 Old Trees Instagram)
The brand is also very active on Instagram and Facebook, as they strive to make social media their gateway to connecting with young durian lovers.
From durian puns and jokes to social commentary, the 99 Old Trees’ brand of tongue-in-cheek marketing features captions that are clever and colloquial, exuding an approachability that is uniquely Singaporean. The team consistently dishes out interesting, trendy memes on their Instagram account, with many 99 Old Trees employees being the subject of these posts.
A durian king meme featuring a word play on the Musang King and Sultan King types of durians created by the 99 Old Trees team for their Instagram (Source: 99 Old Trees Instagram)
Chuckling as he reminisced about their iconic posts, Kelvin noted that people who work in the durian industry tend to fit into a certain profile. After all, the controversial fruit has as many haters as lovers, and only true durian lovers would choose to visit or work at a durian store.
“Our customers usually come cheerful and excited, and so do our employees,” said Kelvin. “It’s a joyous thing to be able to work with durian, and I think that’s why our team is made up of cheerful, outgoing and naturally happy people.”
While Kelvin is the mastermind behind the brand’s wild sense of humour, everyone on the 99 Old Trees team contributes ideas for social media. Their team dynamic shines through in the playful interactions documented on their Instagram, and it is clear to see that the heart of this team is what makes their brand so relatable.
When life gives you durians…
You make a menu. At least that’s what the 99 Old Trees team did when they encountered a manpower problem while navigating the off-peak durian seasons.
Ultimately, durian is a seasonal fruit. Apart from a bumper crop from June to September, durians are only available during a couple of minor seasons in the year. This made it challenging for the 99 Old Trees team to hire permanent staff, and provide their employees with work throughout the year.
A 99 Old Trees Instagram post utilising the brand’s unique sense of humour to attract and recruit new employees (Source: 99 Old Trees Instagram)
“It is very difficult to hire people with experience with durians,” said Kelvin, who noted that manpower is a recurring problem even now. “Although we were paying high wages during the durian season, not many people were willing to take on the job, because we couldn’t guarantee them full-time employment.
To provide their full-time employees with permanent employment, 99 Old Trees decided to expand their types of durian products, opening a dessert store to create jobs during the off-peak durian seasons. Many of 99 Old Trees’ employees now take on dual roles, from opening durians when they are in season, to waiting on customers in the Stinky cafe during the off-peak seasons.
Started in 2019, Stinky by 99 Old Trees is marketed as an “atas”, or a more fashionable sister to the 99 Old Trees brand. While the sub-brand maintains the signature tongue-in-cheek marketing, its Instagram feed is slightly more elevated, with a clean, minimalist aesthetic.
Photo shows the Stinky by 99 Old Trees team posing for a group photo in the newly-opened Stinky cafe (Source: 99 Old Trees)
The shophouse cafe also features an Instagrammable minimalist aesthetic, with bright and spacious indoor and alfresco dining, warm lighting and botanical decor, little subtleties that make Stinky approachable to the Singaporean youth.
To create their dessert menu, 99 Old Trees collaborated with Chef Seah Yang Chiak, more affectionately known as “Chef Chiak”, who received culinary training in Paris, and is known for his eponymous patisserie. The team spent months experimenting with flavours and conducting taste tests, before settling on its signature line of products.
Kelvin shared that his personal favourite item on the menu was the durian mousse, which was taste-tested by the team’s friends and families and voted the best recipe out of many experimental prototypes they had.
The store’s most popular dish, however, is the Stinky Bomb, a choux puff topped with a craquelin crumble and piped with rich Mao Shan Wang durian cream, partially because of its affordable pricing.
Stinky’s best-selling dessert, the Stinky Bomb is available at the affordable price of $1.90 each, with a minimum purchase of two puffs (Source: Stinky by 99 Old Trees Instagram)
“We update our menus every now and then because we like to innovate and keep things fresh for our customers,” said Kelvin, who added that the team had designed durian flavoured dog biscuits for pet-owners to treat their pups with.
For a long time, Stinky has lived under the shadow of its durian wholesaler counterpart. But as the country is adapting to the endemic stage, Kelvin notes that Stinky is slowly standing on its own feet, establishing itself as a well-loved local durian dessert store.
“It’s going to take time to gain traction,” said Kelvin. “But we hope that people will recognise both our efforts in developing high-quality durian products, and the creative ways we use to stay relatable, and relevant to our fellow local durian lovers.”
Learn more about 99 Old Trees and its business journey from Kelvin in this video:
From licences, and government assistance schemes to personalised business recommendations, GoBusiness features a plethora of resources to help you run and grow your business. Visit GoBusiness for more information.