Charmy 'Snow Ice' Desserts
Stirring a Flurry of Interest
Taiwanese self-made entrepreneur Kao Wen-wan has successfully turned shaved ice with sweet toppings, a traditional Asian dessert, into an international brand.
Stirring a Flurry of InterestBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 510 )
The full-height windows of Charmy House, the brand new Charmy Snow Ice flagship store on Kaohsiung's Nanping Road, look out over 10 hectares of landscaped greenery in Aozihdi Forest Park. This elegantly styled "snow ice parlor" has nothing in common with traditional shaved ice stands – makeshift street stalls and plain garage-like mom and pop shops. The menu on the wall behind the long white marble counter holds even more surprises.
The milky-white snow ice is graced with an array of exquisite toppings, such as chocolate powder from famous French chocolate maker Cacao Barry or paper-thin slices of Italian Parma ham. In combination with the intensely sweet or salty flavors, the soft-textured ice makes for a mouth-watering sensory adventure. Of course, Taiwanese mangoes, lychees and strawberries also play a prominent role on the menu.
Kao, the 63-year-old founder and chairwoman of Charmy Food Industrial Ltd., is a petite person with a warm voice. Using a long-handled spoon Kao scoops a mouthful of green tea snow ice from a tub. "This flavor from our royal series is called Ujikintoki, but we use Taiwanese Oolong tea to make this green tea flavor," reveals Kao. Ujikintoki is a Japanese dessert mixing shaved ice, green tea syrup from Japan's Uji region, red bean sauce and condensed milk.
Kao has been quite busy recently, as she has just finished talking with her U.S. distributor, in town on business. The company's Japanese distributor, Marui Bussan K.K., has also thrown her a new challenge: developing an iced dessert that is rich in collagen and placenta extract, two popular ingredients in age-fighting nutritional supplements.
Kao takes such challenges in stride. After all, she started her entrepreneurial career with the development of "snow ice" some 40 years ago, which by now is sold all over Taiwan.
"My family used to sell cold drinks and shaved ice in Huwei in Yunlin County. We were a Hey Song brand beverage dealer and also sold shaved ice and herbal teas," Kao recalls.
In her early twenties at the time, Kao had always felt that traditional shaved ice was too cold in the mouth, whereas ice cream failed to quench the thirst. The term R&D was hardly in wide circulation back then. The young Kao only had the ambition to create a new kind of iced dessert with a light and fluffy texture that was neither harshly cold nor sticky.
With the support of her family, Kao set out to make the snowflake-like iced dessert of her dreams. In consultation with a machinery maker she designed an appropriate ice-making machine.
After experimenting with different formulas for over a year, Kao finally found the golden ratio for an ideal mix of ice, milk and fruit. The first generation of snow ice was born.
Kao followed a simple rationale. She knew that the weather was warmer in Taiwan's south so that snow ice consumption would be higher there too. Therefore, she moved her business from central Taiwan to Kaohsiung and slowly began to franchise her snow ice products. At its peak Charmy Snow Ice had more than 300 shops throughout Taiwan.
In the past there had been foreigners who had sampled Charmy Snow Ice in Taiwan and approached Kao to obtain overseas distribution rights, but at the time she did not have any ambition to expand her business offshore.
However, when the Jiji earthquake struck in 1999, devastating vast parts of central Taiwan, the company's revenue plummeted by 90 percent. This shocking experience finally galvanized her into action. She decided to expand overseas to make up for lost revenue.
From Three Flavors to Thirty Production Lines
In 2002, Charmy Snow Ice shops started to open in Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia.
What began with a small store next to a traditional market in Kaohsiung, making only snow ice in three flavors – milk, peanut and chocolate – has today grown into a multinational food and beverage brand with franchises in 15 countries.
Jonathan Lin, president of tea and juice vendor CoCo International Co. Ltd., believes that Charmy Snow Ice is well positioned to become a global success. "Charmy's distributors are all very internationally minded. The product is made in Taiwan, and the technology is available to store products properly during long transport," Lin observes.
Charmy Food's snow ice factory in the Ta-Fa Industrial District of Kaohsiung produces 10,000 cylindrical blocks of flavored ice per year to meet demand from distributors around the globe.
"Our customers can propose all kinds of new flavors, and I will definitely find a way to create them," Kao declares proudly. Kao once concocted a durian-flavored snow ice for distributors in Malaysia and Thailand, where the notoriously strong-smelling fruit is very popular. "In the end this was a failure, because its taste is so strong that it overpowers the other snow ice varieties," she recalls.
However, while Charmy Food's snow ice products have found a loyal following, the company still needs to work on its brand management and corporate image.
"Charmy's strength is their products, but they are kind of weak when it comes to brand management. And they have yet to determine their outlet design. It's about time they upgraded their shops and strengthened their brand," remarks Lee Pei-fen, secretary general of the Association of Service Industries Taiwan (ASIT).
In order to strengthen the brand image, Charmy stopped adding new franchises in Taiwan starting this year. At the same time it opened Charmy House in Kaohsiung as its first flagship store, in cooperation with Japanese distributor Marui Bussan.
"In the past we were like a paint vendor, who sells his wares and then leaves the painting to the customer. But now we are training to become a designer ourselves, to teach our customers how to open a classy snow ice parlor," Kao explains.
Aware of her lack of expertise in brand image and store design, Kao sought help from her Japanese distributor.
Last year, a businessman even flew in from Africa to sample Kao's snow ice in hopes of becoming a distributor. Nair Nanji, president of Kenyan mineral water producer Aquamist, had heard his son rave about Charmy Snow Ice after eating some while in Asia. So he took a 20-hour-flight to Taiwan to see for himself.
After eating four servings of snow ice, Nair rushed back to Nairobi and drew up a 20-page business plan. He expressed the hope that Charmy Food would set up a factory in Kenya to supply the African market with its snow ice products.
While the company presently lacks the resources to expand as far as Africa, one day not too far in the future consumers in Africa will probably get to taste the snowflake-like lightness of Taiwanese snow ice.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz