The circuit breaker saw a surge in home-based food businesses as cooking and baking hobbyists saw an opportunity to meet the demand of bored and hungry Singaporeans stuck at home.
Many of these entrepreneurs sold trendy food such as Basque cheesecake or comfort snacks like brownies and cookies. But CT and TY, the two recent university graduates who started Man Tou Da Han, knew they had to offer something different in order to stand out.
Their seven-month-old online business offers the iconic Singapore ice-cream sandwich with a twist. Instead of wrapping ice-cream with a slice of bread or waffle biscuits, Man Tou Da Han features ice-cream kiapped (sandwiched) between deep-fried mantou (Chinese bun). The ice-cream flavours they offer also include both sweet and more unique savoury options such as salted egg and miso.
“We really wanted to have something very creative, something that’s new and keeps us excited as well,” says TY.
Another unique aspect of the store would be the duality of it’s branding. While some pictures feature amusing and eccentric memes, others look slick and polished.
With its overall light-heartedness from the puns and usage of dialect, the page has a personal and candid touch which some other businesses lack.
CT and TY are both 24 years old. They prefer not to disclose their real names as both have full-time jobs in the arts and research sectors.
They met through Thai language classes while studying in National University of Singapore (NUS) and decided to launch this business during the circuit breaker as they had “so much time but nothing to do at home”.
“We were waiting to graduate. When you have nothing to do, you just have all the wild ideas coming up. So Man Tou Da Han was the area where we could start pouring all these crazy ideas in and make something out of it,” CT shares.
TY says: “To be honest, ice-cream is really very new to us, we’ve both never worked in an ice-cream shop before, never learned from Gelato University kind of courses. But prior experience with cooking in general helped a lot in the taste-making and basic food preparation. From there, it’s really just studying how ice-cream works and experimenting, thinking about what goes well together to create new flavours.”
For now, TY is in charge of creating new ice-cream flavours and taking orders, while CT takes care of marketing and putting together the hyper-local memes, zany collages and dad jokes on the brand’s Instagram storefront.
CT shared that their brand direction was inspired by Penny Ang, the Mandarin and Hokkien-speaking sister of famous blogger Bong Qiu Qiu, who’s known for her unfiltered nature.
“Before Man Tou Da Han came about, I watched her Instagram stories and highlights almost everyday. I would say she influenced our humour a lot,” CT elaborates. “To be honest, to create those ‘hipster cafe’, clean aesthetic is something that we can’t do and we don’t want that to be a constraint for us. So we’re just being ourselves and we slowly got the hang of it.”
The use of Mandarin and Chinese dialects in their copywriting comes naturally to the duo as it is a reflection of their day-to-day conversations. CT just hopes that it will not “limit the audience because people might feel that it’s exclusively catered to a certain crowd”.
“I just try to channel that candidness because I feel that if I were to be writing in more proper English, we won’t be able to stand out as much as compared to other businesses, and there are so many businesses out there,” says CT.
While they take pride in serving savoury ice-cream flavours, they have started removing them from the menu.
“In all honesty, it’s tough to do savoury ice-cream because it’s still a dessert after all,” says TY. “Even though we’ve shifted towards a sweeter palate, we still aim for the taste to be very different and distinct.”
“The original flavours will come back eventually, but it can get quite repetitive when you have the same flavours for a few months and part of what we believe in is also trying to create this excitement for the public as well,” CT continues.
The founders have worked well together as they have complementary personalities. CT shares: “What I can’t do, she does it best, and what she doesn’t really do, I pick up … I think now that we’ve developed an order form system, it’s more structured. Sometimes if I can’t handle it then TY will step in or vice versa. We also do deliveries on Saturdays so that it doesn’t clash with our [full-time] work.”
As of now, the business has broken even and both will continue to operate it as a side hustle instead of a full-time pursuit. “We’re still very young. At this stage of our life, there’re still other things that we want to learn,” CT explains.