The co-founder of specialist seafood distributor Art of Salmó speaks about the unusual start of the business, her love of the Venetian pub crawl and why the world is her oyster.
Options: You co-founded Art of Salmó in August 2019. Can you share with us the main highlights as well as challenges when establishing the business?
Phyllis Teh: Personally, there are two. The first was hitting 15k followers on our social media in less than two years, and the second was being invited to speak at the Virtual Seafood Luncheon by the Norwegian Seafood Council in November last year. The key challenge that we faced, in short, was introducing an alternative way of buying fresh foods. Malaysians still prefer heading to the shops to ‘see and touch’ before buying and many were apprehensive initially about buying from us when they realised we only operate online without a physical store, with freshness being a key concern.
Furthermore, we only sell one type of fish — fjord trout or salmó, in Catalan! Fortunately, our customers were very generous in sharing their experiences with us to their friends and families, and our business grew through word of mouth. We are also blessed to have many key opinion leaders among our customers, who often posted about us on their social media. That really helped influence public perception, and establish our reputation as a reliable and trustworthy online store. But, of course, we could only get such positive feedback because we ourselves have very strict quality control procedures to ensure that every single piece of salmó is fresh upon delivery.
What prompted you to start a business specialising in just fjord trout? It is an unusual business move.
It all started when a fishmonger approached us to set up an online store to sell seafood. But just as preparations were underway, he pulled out of the endeavour. My business partner and I felt that it was a waste to just toss this whole thing aside, so we decided to continue with it — but focusing only on one product: fjord trout. Why? The plain and simple reason is that I love eating it! But beyond that, we realised there was a demand and market for good quality trout in Malaysia. The main problem was that it was either very difficult to find or really pricey. So that became our motivation to set up Art of Salmó — to provide Malaysians with good quality fjord trout at an affordable price.
Has the pandemic helped or hampered business?
It helped us. As travelling was not allowed, many people started cooking at home and also going online to source for food. That was when more and more people came to know about us. In addition, people were increasingly concerned about their health and the food they consumed, so many turned to fjord trout as it is really nutritious! What also appealed to our customers was not just the quality of our salmó, but also the convenience of preparing a healthy meal. Every piece of salmó we sell comes with a ‘magic sachet’, which is a seasoning packet comprising a variety of herbs and spices, making life a lot easier for working adults or parents who don’t have time to cook. With our fish, you can get a healthy nutritious meal done in 15 minutes and we do foresee a growth in demand for such conveniences.
Tell me a little about your own living space, particularly the kitchen.
Well, to be honest, I can’t cook very well, which is why Art of Salmó was born as it is all about easy cooking. As for my kitchen, I only have the basic pots and pans as that’s all I need until I learn how to cook properly. The one thing I must have in my kitchen, though, is an air fryer.
What apps or tech tools have helped you work better in the new normal?
It was mainly Shopify. We used it to build our website and integrate the entire shopping experience, from selecting items on the menu to delivery preferences and payment. Shopify allowed us to give our customers an easy, hassle-free ordering process. And, of course, social media as well, cause that’s where interaction with the public is more accessible.
How has the pandemic changed the way you live and work?
I think, like most people, the pandemic made me very aware of a lot of things I took for granted, such as having a cup of coffee at a café or even spending time outdoors. I also realised how fragile life is and to cherish all the time I get to spend with my family and loved ones. In terms of work, I used to be someone who liked to stick to the planned course of action without any deviation. However, the pandemic has trained me to be flexible and be quick in adapting to changes.
Your company’s name is Catalan in origin. Tell us a little more about your interest in different countries and cultures.
Yes, we used the Catalan word ‘salmó’ in our name. I used to travel frequently, believing that if the world were a house, Malaysia would just be my bedroom. So travelling the world is like getting to know my own house while experiencing different cultures, broadening my mind and looking at things beyond my own comprehension. But, of course, the best thing about travelling is that I get to taste the different foods of the world. My favourite city thus far is Venice — it is rich in history and the food is amazing. I would go back there just for the cicchetti and ombré, their version of a pub crawl!
Where would you most want to travel to once the borders open and why?
Besides Norway, I would say Mongolia for Genghis Khan, hearty mutton dishes and buuz dumplings.
This article first appeared on Feb 1, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.