S’pore duo turns excess food into sustainable online business with over S$100,000 profit

The business has saved over 30,000kg of food from being binned.

| Fiona Tan | Sponsored | May 24, 2023, 06:02 PM

In 2020, Jennifer Widjaja took the plunge, quitting her high-flying analyst job at Bloomberg to become her own boss.

Srikanth Katikala joined the ranks in 2021, and together, Widjaja and him transformed what was destined for the bins into treasure, saving surplus food, turning them into profit all while doing good for the planet.

From a humble team of two, the duo has since grown their food business nearly four-fold, where they now have a total of seven staffers.

Image from Just Dabao website.

Here’s how Widjaja and her co-founder did it.

Loved food and hated wasting it

Widjaja confesses that she has always had an immense love for food, and hence an extreme aversion toward food waste.

The Covid-19 pandemic was the perfect storm that brought these two together.

When her friend’s pastry business was forced to shutter, along with many others in the badly hit food and beverage (F&B) sector, Widjaja, who couldn’t stomach the amount of food that was going to waste overnight, knew she “had to take action”.

Realised food wastage is everywhere

She hit the ground running, surveying aunties, uncles and people who owned food stalls and spoke with industry experts.

Talking to these individuals made her realise the prevalence and severity of food wastage in the sector.

Perfectly good food could be chucked out for many reasons, such as a small blemish or a minor cosmetic defect, wrong orders, or simply an overestimation of consumer demand.

Other scenarios where a larger quantity of food gets tossed out include last-minute event and order cancellations, and business hiatuses and closures.

F&B to sell surplus at cost price

To address this, Widjaja devised a plan: To connect F&B establishments with a supply surplus to meet the demands of hungry consumers.

“Here's how it works: when bakeries, cafes, and supermarkets have surplus food, they list it on our platform, Just Dabao.”

Widjaja’s research revealed that the industry benchmark for the cost of ingredients hovers at around 30 to 40 per cent of the price of the food item.

By selling the surplus at a minimum of at least 50 per cent of the retail price, F&B establishments are able to at least recover the cost of ingredients.

Consumers to enjoy items at half price

The platform will then mark-up the prices of food items by S$1 to S$2, before they are listed on Just Dabao.

This small fee allows the platform to keep up with its operational costs, albeit just barely.

Widjaja said: “Just Dabao is not really a profit-generating platform but a cost-saving platform for merchants.”

All in all, consumers would enjoy up to 70 per cent savings off the original prices of the food items and at the same time, do their bit in reducing waste.

And with that, Just Dabao was born a mere two months later on Jul. 27, 2020.

Winning partners over in a time of great uncertainty

The win-win-win situation sounds simple enough, right? Wrong.

The first task, enrolling F&B establishments onto the platform, was just the beginning of her long list of obstacles.

Bear in mind that Just Dabao was launched at the height of the pandemic and uncertainty was at an all-time high.

In a climate where more businesses were closing rather than opening, operators were inclined to hunker down and limit their risks rather than venture into a brand-new concept.

Widjaja cold-called at least 10 to 20 merchants a day, but was met with rejection after rejection.

In the three months since Just Dabao’s inception, Widjaja only managed to onboard five to seven merchants.

Went one year without pay

Her problems did not end there.

Even after Srikanth came on board, the pair still had to find and build a team, develop the website and mobile application, and win over consumers by changing their mindsets.

All of these were not easy under normal circumstances, much less during a global pandemic, when physical events were not allowed and there was great scepticism.

Despite this, the pair soldiered on, and without pay.

It would take them one whole year before they could start reaping the fruits of their labour.

Biggest obstacle was changing consumers' mindsets

Widjaja said convincing people that surplus food is just as good as regular food, was “the biggest obstacle”.

“As one might imagine, many customers initially thought, ‘These are items that no one wants!’

But in reality, it was often as simple as, ‘I made more pastries than needed,’ or ‘The rain dropped my sales,’ or ‘They taste exactly the same but they don't look perfect.’”

To change their mindsets, Just Dabao organised campaigns, events, university talks, and even conducted a blind taste test where people had to guess whether the food was surplus or not.

Surplus banquet with Senior Minister of State for Transport and for Sustainability and the Environment Amy Khor. Image by Stuart Brooks from Just Dabao website.

Slowly but surely, Just Dabao chipped away at people’s perception of surplus food, ensuring that their food is not only delicious but of a certain quality.

Perhaps, this explains why they have been able to cultivate a community of over 30,000 consumers and counting in such a short time.

And it seems like their efforts have paid off as most of them are repeat customers.

“Now, with over 30,000 customers, Just Dabao has proved that once a person takes a leap of faith and buys on our platform, they surely come back.

About 70 per cent [of our customers] return for repeat purchases, while the remaining 30 per cent are just waiting for a store closer to them to save!”

Be a part of the startup community and find a mentor

One piece of advice that Widjaja has for individuals wishing to set up their own startup is to find mentors that “truly believes in you and your vision”.

Doing so from the very beginning can make “a world of difference”, she said.

“Not only will they help you avoid common pitfalls and mistakes, but they'll also be a source of inspiration and motivation during tough times.

So, don't be afraid to seek out mentors who can offer you guidance, wisdom, and unwavering support - it could be the key to making your startup dreams a reality!”

One way to do so is to be a part of the startup community.

Widjaja and Srikanth found their tribe through the *SCAPE Creative Fellowship, which they said allowed her to engage and connect with like-minded individuals.

As everyone belonged to a startup, they were able to empathise with one another and discuss the struggles and accomplishments they were facing.

Together, they would exchange valuable resources, knowledge, and networks, all of which are essential in maintaining their momentum, Widjaja said.

Saved over 30,000kg of food from bins

And maintain the momentum Widjaja and Srikanth did.

To date, Just Dabao has also partnered with over 550 F&B establishments in Singapore, such as SaladStop!, Maison Kayser, Marché Mövenpick, Brawn and Brains, Cassia Caneles, to list a few.

Beyond this, the platform has also stopped over 30,000kg of food from winding up in bins, and saved 75,000 kg of carbon emissions.

“We started off with a mission to help struggling F&B businesses, but quickly realised we could also tackle the global problem of food waste.”

She said the platform has plans to expand its offerings to include groceries, where they will be delivering fruits and vegetables to multiple neighbourhoods in the coming months.”

“We're the food warriors! Our mission is to save good food from an untimely fate, one delicious meal at a time.”

About the *SCAPE Creative Fellowship

Just Dabao is not the only startup to benefit from the *SCAPE Creative Fellowship.

The programme caters to young entrepreneurs or startup founders between the age of 18 to 35 years old and equips them through workshops, masterclasses, and mentorship sessions conducted by industry experts.

In three months, these individuals will learn how to turn their startup into a scalable business.

There are also community and networking events that help them connect with like-minded individuals within the startup ecosystem, as well as potential investors.

The creative accelerator programme, which just completed its fifth edition in 2023, has seen numerous entrepreneurs the likes of Kopi Date and Ooh graduate from its programme.

To find out more about the *SCAPE Creative Fellowship, click here.

The author of this article sponsored by *SCAPE Entrepreneurship & Careers surfs Just Dabao in her free time.

Top image courtesy of Just Dabao and screenshot from their Telegram