KUALA LUMPUR, March 8 — The haze is back. The rains are not (yet). It’s unbearably hot in KL and we are all looking for some escape. Well, how about something sparkling and refreshing from a soda fountain?
At The Soda Factory in Taman Bukit Desa (located in the same row as the ever-popular Sanuki Udon), you can enjoy a bubbly soda straight from the tap or a velvety ice cream float. This Aussie-inspired diner also serves made-to-order sourdough pizzas and waffles for those seeking light bites.
Hobbyists turned entrepreneurs
The Soda Factory is the brainchild of Ivan Lee, Victor Tee and Tee Reei Toh. These young entrepreneurs also make The Potong artisanal popsicles and The Tapping Tapir bottled natural sodas (also available at the Soda Factory).
Lee, a former human resources consultant and apprentice chef, and Tee, an investment banker with a food science background, had met while studying in Melbourne; they were later introduced to Toh, a graphic designer, by a mutual friend in Malaysia.
“We discovered a mutual love for food, so when the opportunity to set up a food kiosk at the Food Bites market in 2012 came up, we jumped at it and introduced The Potong popsicles,” says Lee.
Initially the trio only tried it out as a hobby, a weekend venture at various markets and bazaars, but thanks to positive response from restaurants and corporate clients, they decided to go at it full-time.
“We were looking for something that no one was doing commercially, hence the popsicles. After holding booths at different events, we then tried out retail with a cart in Publika,” says Tee.
Toh adds, “Coming from different backgrounds really helps as all three of us contribute ideas to the business, whether it’s the R&D of the food and drinks or the branding of our products.”
Top of the pop(sicle)s
The decision to make popsicles was serendipitous. Lee recalls, “We had brainstormed so many ideas for the Food Bites market. One day, we drove up to Ipoh on a hawker food road trip and stumbled upon a traditional potong ice-cream seller on his motorcycle. We immediately thought of the possibilities of doing handcrafted ice-cream, Malaysian-style, ourselves.”
The newly-christened Potong team then returned to KL and underwent many hours of painstaking R&D and taste-testing. The results of their “laboratory” experiments are creative flavours such as Cherry Root Beer (a blend of classic root beer, vanilla cream and maraschino cherry) and Waterlemon Fizz (watermelon, lemonade and apple mint).
The trio have since successfully capitalised on the nostalgia many Malaysians have for the old-fashioned potong by updating the basic popsicle recipe using only 100 per cent fresh natural ingredients.
Lee explains making an artisanal popsicle isn’t simply freezing any liquid in a mould. “It takes a little more finesse to come up the right texture and density. A great product should have the perfect proportion of flavours using different fruits, herbs and spices. The pops should not melt away too quickly in our warm weather.”
The trio are unabashed food geeks: besides Lee and Tee’s formal food training, the entire team had studied gelato and sorbet making at Carpigiani Gelato University. They also go on regular food tours to enhance their knowledge; a recent one in Melbourne saw them learning more about espresso coffee.
The tap-dancing tapir
Next, the trio turned their attention to creating a drink product. Lee explains, “We decided to create an all-natural soda as we were already doing syrups for the popsicles so it was a seamless progression.”
Branding-wise, they wanted something uniquely local to reflect the home-grown nature of the sodas. Lee says, “Other specialty sodas in the market tend to be imported so we wanted to stand out. We thought of the tapir as it was an animal that wasn’t already heavily used. Also the name ‘Tapping Tapir’ is both a nod to tapping the soda from the fountain and the whimsical image of a tapir tap-dancing.”
Their chosen mascot also echoes a Malaysian-style rainforest theme, which represents the use of local spices, herbs and even flowers in their sodas. Currently they have six flavours, such as the refreshingly tart Hibiscus & Lime infused with aromatic clove, and Lemonade & Lengkuas, an old favourite given a twist by adding gingery galangal. They plan to introduce new seasonal flavours from time to time.
Design plays an important part in branding and differentiating their product lines. Toh shares, “I’m inspired by the nostalgic 1940s and 1950s, especially vintage photographs and paintings from that era. However, just like the food and drinks that we create, I’ll also inject a modern element to my designs.”
Comfort food, diner-style
After The Tapping Tapir was launched in late 2013, the trio immediately discussed the idea of a concept shop, an American-style diner given an Aussie-inspired makeover.
“We wanted a place where you can have good quality food in a casual dining environment, which was what we liked about the food scene in Australia,” says Tee.
At The Soda Factory, sodas are served straight from the tap or transformed into floats with a scoop of ice cream. My favourite is their Red Ruby; a dollop of vanilla ice-cream is added to their Grapefruit & Chamomile soda to create a more mature float for those who enjoy the bitter kick with a smoky hint of cardamom.
Besides their trademark popsicles and sodas, Tee uses his own sourdough culture to create rustic waffles and pizzas. He shares, “Our product concept is ‘naturally wild’ so our ingredients include organic flour and a sourdough culture that I’ve kept going for over two years, back before The Potong was even conceptualised!”
As the resident chef, Tee makes waffles that are denser than the usual fluffy version, to give them a bit of a bite. His pizzas are glorious concoctions: his Fiorentina pizza features spinach, olives, garlic, tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese with a single egg as its bull’s eye; simple and simply delicious.
Tee is a big believer in an efficient kitchen. He shares, “For example, we stop the fermentation in our apple and pear sodas by filtering the pectin out. A natural by-product is wild yeast which I can then use for my sourdough. This way we reduce wastage.”
The humble trio admits that they are still learning the ropes of the business. Lee says, “Every time we launch a new product, we are essentially starting back at square one, whether it’s the recipe and R&D or simply getting the word out. Though it’s always hard work, it’s always exciting too.”
I, for one, can’t wait to see what tasty treats these three come up with next.
The Soda Factory
No. 15, Jalan Bukit Desa 5, Taman Bukit Desa, 58200 KL
Open Fri-Sun 11am-10pm
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on March 7, 2014.