The firm is best known for its gluten-free, MSG-free, low-salt, low-fat, premium instant noodles range which has gained significant traction in the UK and US, and the firm’s Founder and CEO Damien Lee already has plans in motion to conquer the Asia Pacific market.
“We’ve been in Australia’s Woolworths and Harris Farms for a while but now just partnered Monde Nissin to expand into independent supermarkets like IGA and Ritchies to expand our reach, and are also looking at entering New Zealand in October, Hong Kong in Q4 and are in discussion for Singapore and Malaysia right now too,” Lee told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“Mr Lee’s instant noodles are unique as we use freeze-dried ingredients – lots and lots of freeze-dried ingredients – as opposed to dehydrated ingredients with lots of seasoning.
“This locks in all the nutrition and flavour of the food, whether it is vegetables, meat or anything else, and also maintains the shape and integrity of these – so when you add in hot water, the ingredients will be as fresh as when they were picked out of the garden or sliced at the butcher, and is why I dare say our instant noodles are restaurant-like quality.”
In Asia all its beef and chicken will be Australia-sourced, with all beef 100% grass-fed and all chicken RSPCA-certified. All noodles in this initial range are rice-based.
What the advanced tech and premium ingredients usage means of course is that Mr Lee’s instant noodles are priced higher that regular ones, and indeed Lee added that they are ‘proudly the costliest instant noodle worldwide’, for good reason.
“In Australia, we’re about A$4.00 (US$2.94) per cup, which has seen some complaints as people are used to dollar instant noodles – but our target with this range is still the premium crowd looking for a better instant noodle alternative,” he said.
“We have gone all the way to also differentiate our production line and tech to am ‘individual dosing’ method, which will guarantee our consumers the same experience every time they buy a cup from us.
“This means that instead of what most companies do which is put all the ingredients into one vat and dispense everything into the cup at once or give this in sachets, we’ve designed the line such that each individual item is measured exactly into the cup, e.g. 5g beef, then 4g broccoli, then 3g beans etc. as it moves down.
“This adds quite a bit of cost, but greatly increases the integrity, quality and nutritional value we can put into every cup – there’s about 10g of protein per cup for the rice noodle range.”
There are currently four flavours of Mr Lee’s Noodles on sale in Australia – Coconut Chicken Laksa, Zen Garden Vegetables, Hong Kong Street Beef and Tai Chi Chicken.
“In Q4, we’ll be adding another two flavours: Warrior-Fighting Shrimp and Dragon Fire Vegetables – basically tom yum and hot and sour flavours,” said Lee.
“Both the Zen Garden Vegetables and Dragon Fire Vegetables are Vegan Society-registered, and to our knowledge are the only two instant noodles in the world to have done so.”
When queried about the challenges of entering the Asian market, where awareness and income levels can be very different from the Western markets, Lee added that the team was aware of the potential issues a premium brand could face here.
“Mr Lee’s is likely to be a much more niche brand when it comes to Asia, especially due to the income level differences – and this is why we’re also looking to first focus on key markets with a higher income demographic like Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and so on first, where consumers are more affluent and can afford to eat healthier,” he said.
“We’ve definitely already seen how COVID-19 has caused people to pull back from luxury brands and experiences – e.g. going back to dollar ramen – out of fears for household income, and this has been a challenge for brands like ours.
“That said, we’ve never tried to be a mass market product and I believe that we have potential to appeal to the mid-to-high income young professionals group, the health-conscious group and any consumers who have coeliac disease as we are also certified safe for those with this illness.”
That said, Lee added that he was also considering a more Asian-focused line that was less-costly and ‘better-for-budgets’ but could still carry the same quality.
“We’ll have to be more strategic about pushing into Asia due to the tightened pursestrings at this point – so this would be our ‘Emporio Armani’ answer to the ‘Armani’ we have in the current rice noodle range,” he said.
In terms of flavours, Lee believed that the Warrior Fighting Shrimp and Dragon Fire Vegetables were expected to perform the best in Asia once launched, as he had developed these for the Asian palate.
“The Coconut Chicken Laksa does the best in Australia, but I believe that the tom yum and hot and sour flavours will be stronger in Asia, as the Asian consumer is much more used to spicier and stronger flavours,” he said.
New product development
Although best known for its noodles, Mr Lee’s is at its heart a broader foods company, and is planning to return to this with a new cup congee range which will first be launched in Australia and the US in October.
“We’ve got the IP for this instant congee tech as well and the basics will be the same – freeze-dried ingredients, ambient storage, ready in four minutes after adding hot water,” said Lee.
“There’s also another ramen range we’re looking at now for those who don’t like rice noodles – this one has been a big challenge for us in terms of finding the actual noodle. We’ve taken a year and a half just to find this and have gone all through China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Korea just to find the right one, but have finally shortlisted three and will be deciding on this soon.”