Breaking food stereotypes is one of the major challenges that innovative artisanal food producers face
That was certainly the case for home-based Five & Two Foods after it launched its bacon jam range.
“They [customers] thought it was bacon with strawberry jam,” explains co-founder Georgina Fernandez, 44.
There was uncertainty over how to respond. Fernandez recalls discussing the problem with her husband and business partner, John Peter, when they first started the business in 2013.
“I remember him telling me to change the name to bacon spread. But I said no – I’m adamant, I want to have the word jam,” she says. “People have got to get used to it, like how people got used to peanut butter. It’s not butter with peanuts in it.”
The two stuck to their guns and continued to build their range of savoury jams, from spicy spreads to others infused with whiskey, beer and stout. They also produce Asian bacon, Sichuan bacon and curried pork varieties, all of which are preservative-free.
Five & Two Foods jams are versatile. Cooked with spices, oil, chillies and a choiced infusion, they can be used in pastas and rice, or as a condiment. They can even be paired with dessert or dairy.
Georgina says people are slowly coming to understand the flavours but it’s still a hard sell.
“We did a bacon jam with chocolate, but people don’t understand because when they think of anything to spread with chocolate, they think it’s like nutella,” she says.
“But it’s not, because it is an infusion of dark chocolate and coffee with bacon. Deep dark flavour goes very well with things like cheese, or vanilla ice cream.”
As tough as it was, the two food lovers and home cooks persisted with their plan to create a niche product for the Malaysian market. The biggest hurdle for any small batch producer or artisan, John says, is to break into the mass market. When Five & Two Foods launched, John says many other artisanal food producers were going out of business because they couldn’t compete on pricing.
“We needed to find something that is different and not mass produced. And when it is sold, people are not going to complain too much about the price because they can’t get it anywhere else,” he says.
Larger corporations are able to produce more efficiently, giving them a price advantage. “You can’t compete with mass producers, they will always be able to surpass you.”
A scientific process
Georgina and John met online and have been married for 14 years. Their love of cooking at home fuelled their relationship and soon gave birth to the business they describe as their “baby”.
They both have some 20 years of work experience, which means they can bring a range of knowledge and skills to the business.
John comes from an academic background, having lectured in science, physics and mathematics, while Georgina’s expertise lies in advertising and creative marketing.
But they both place great emphasis on consistently delivering a high-quality product – in Georgina’s words, theirs is not a “chin chai” (half-hearted) way of cooking. Every ingredient is measured down to the last gram, Georgina says.
“We have Excel sheets for recipes, which is what I imagine Coca-Cola or KFC would do. It’s down to that. It may be prepared at home but it’s a downright professional chef-ready product.”
Five & Two Foods has also spent thousands of ringgit to obtain health and safety certificates for each variety of bacon jam they produce, despite not being required to do so by Malaysian health authorities.
The founders did it though because they felt they needed to go that extra mile to invest in testing and offer high-value artisan products to customers.
Each bacon jam is sent to a private laboratory for bacteria count, nutritional value and shelf life tests, as well as calorie count testing. Products can be tested for a three-month shelf life, six months or up to a year, and the cost ranges from RM 1,000 (SG$340) to RM 3,000 (SG$1,010) or more, depending on the length of shelf life required.
These tests significantly increase operational costs, and Georgina and John say that not all producers are willing to invest the money. Georgina says she knows that some producers also copy nutritional information from other brands.
But Five & Two Foods are not compromising on the safety of their meat products, so these expensive tests matter and are worth the investment.
They welcome stricter regulation on artisanal food products to ensure quality and safety for customers.
Similarly, the company applies strict principles to hygiene standards, preservation and sterilisation techniques for the jars of bacon jam, down to making sure each jar has correct pH levels.
Diversifying and expanding
Five & Two Foods has gone through its share of setbacks and costly mistakes. But over the past six months, it has managed to break even for the first time. Sales are reasonably healthy but are seasonal. Based on a past news report, the company’s monthly sales in 2016 averaged around 400 jars of jam, but could more than double during festive seasons.
It is all part and parcel of the business and for now, the two want control of the recipes, operations and business. They are not open to third-party investments.
But, looking ahead, that position may change. John admits selling pork products in majority-Muslim Malaysia is a challenge so they have had to come up with other ideas.
They do catering for small dinner parties, provide daily dinner deliveries, and party or wedding gifts. On top of the bacon jam range, they sell bacon stix, savoury cookies and alcohol-laden cakes.
And they are setting their sights on beef bacon.
“We have done the recipe testing and development. We believe it will work in this market,” explains John. If the beef business takes off, they will set up a new kitchen and obtain Halal certification. The potential to expand is immense, as it would also open up opportunities not only regionally, in Malaysia and Indonesia, but also in the Middle East.
Their pork arm of the business may even be turned into a franchise model so they can concentrate on the beef side of things.
But at the moment, the Peters are not worrying too much about the future of Five & Two Foods.
Georgina says they just hope that as they get older the business can sustain their moderate lifestyle and allow them to help the community they live in.
“Yes, you do have to think of the future, but as your mode for living should be daily,” John says. “Don’t think too far ahead – then you get depressed.”