Best known for its seafood products under the BoBo brand, Ha Li Fa dived into the plant-based space with the launch of a new brand named Eat, Plant, Love (EPL) last October.
“We have been making BoBo fish balls for close to 30 years. Ten years ago, we moved beyond fish-related products to chicken-based products; and in 2020, we went into the creation of plant-based versions of our best-selling items,” Randall Ang, Deputy Managing Director of Ha Li Fa and EPL, told FoodNavigator-Asia.
EPL believes that the best way to convince and convert consumers is through taste.
“At the end of the day, if the food doesn’t taste good — no matter how much you preach about sustainability — consumers won’t buy it.
“Plant-based fish balls are not new, but the conventional vegetarian ones have a strong soy flavour that many people can’t appreciate. Thus, we avoided soy protein and tried different ingredients, eventually coming up with a formulation that consists of fibre and konjac. But the real difficulty was in binding the ingredients and replicating the bouncy texture of fish balls,” explained Ang.
The entire process, which took two years, paid off as the products received largely positive feedback from taste-testers, investors, and consumers.
“Some customers said that our Plant-based Vegetable Roll tasted 95% like BoBo’s fish ngoh hiang (blended fish meat and spices wrapped with bean curd skin). Our investors, who have tried plenty of plant-based products, also commented that ours are one of the better-tasting ones in the market,” Ang shared.
There are currently seven products in EPL’s plant-based range, all of which are Halal-certified. Among them, four SKUs are retailing at FairPrice stores across Singapore, and online platforms Shopee and RedMart.
The brand is also now available in Cambodia, Brunei and Saudi Arabia, while expansion into Indonesia and Thailand are within sight.
Targeting both businesses and consumers
Speaking on the products that have yet to debut on retail shelves, Ang said: “For now, these items are exclusively for B2B sales because they were born from our F&B partners’ suggestions. For instance, we collaborated with a local noodles chain to roll out a dish featuring EPL’s plant-based fishcake, minced meat, and stuffed tau pok (deep-fried tofu).
In addition, Ang revealed that the firm has been approached by a few other food companies to work on customised products. An example is a dough fritters chain that is looking for an alternative to cuttlefish paste filling.
“We introduced them to the plant-based paste used in our stuffed tau pok, and now we are developing a brand-new paste that is tailored to their requirements,” Ang added.
At the same time, EPL is in the midst of innovating a proprietary ingredient to improve the texture and mouthfeel of its products, with the aim of launching it by the end of this year.
“Even after our products are pushed out, we will continue to tweak our recipes and formulations based on customer feedback.”
Noting that the big players in the plant-based industry are mostly from Western countries, EPL has channelled its resources to focus on products that cater to the Asian palate.
“Our expertise is in localised seafood products. We noticed that the Western companies were mainly making meat-replacements for foods like nuggets and burger patties. To differentiate ourselves, we are specialising in plant-based seafood with an Asian twist,” said Ang.