This father-son duo turned poppadoms into a popular snack

Poppadom is a paper-thin Indian crisp that has been deep-fried, and it has since been turned into an addictive snack.

The idea to create Uncle Saba’s — which is popular for its poppadom snacks — was conceived when co-founder Sreenivas Saba wanted to reposition its existing ready-to-cook poppadom brand ‘Tajmahal Pappad’ as a plant-based snack to appeal to a wider audience.

The homegrown brand was officially launched in 2016, though Sreenivas had been toying with the idea a few years prior. “It took me two to three years to look for machinery, get the packaging right and so on,” said the 33-year-old.

Tajmahal Pappad and Uncle Saba’s, along with their private label snack manufacturing business, all sit under the umbrella of Saba Foods Group.

No experience, no problem

Beyond pursuing a degree in economics and a Master’s in business, Sreenivas had also spent some time in China as part of a student exchange programme at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai.

He then worked in the finance industry at a private equity family office in the United Kingdom, and later joined a logistics startup, before taking the leap of faith to join the F&B manufacturing industry.

He had no prior experience, but went ahead to launch Uncle Saba’s with his 82-year-old father, S R Saba, who is the founder and chairman of Bhavani Foods Group.

S R Saba, co-founder of Uncle Saba’s / Image Credit: Uncle Saba’s

Sreenivas initially thought that with some experience in distribution of ethnic food products, it would help to reduce the steep learning curve, but he quickly realised that the markets were vastly different and that there were many other things that he needed to learn to prepare for the launch.

I was so busy in the launch that every small step like finding a supplier for a raw material or machine, or figuring out the right recipe felt like a huge success.

– Sreenivas Saba, co-founder of Uncle Saba’s

uncle saba's poppadom
Uncle Saba’s is manufactured in Malaysia / Image Credit: Uncle Saba’s

He added that he faced unique challenges every step of the way — from finance to manufacturing to marketing — but was glad that his background in finance and logistics aided him.

If he needed help in other areas, he found that approaching people who has knowledge in that particular field proved to be very helpful.

“In one instance, when I was looking for financing to produce a large order we received, I tweeted at a few people who I thought could help. One of them put me in touch with someone, and I even got a term sheet at the end for financing that order,” shared Sreenivas.

Grateful for all the help he has received so far, Sreenivas is paying it forward and welcomes anyone to reach out to him should they want him to share his experiences and learn from it.

They were “kicked out” of shops in the early days

uncle saba's poppadom
Uncle Saba’s poppadom snacks / Image Credit: @thefatfam_ via Instagram

Uncle Saba’s was first launched in Malaysia, but Sreenivas noted that customer interest fizzled out quickly despite the product novelty. “It didn’t seem to go anywhere after the initial bump,” he lamented.

In Singapore, we launched in 2016 in a few places but we were also kicked out of a few shops in the early days. We relaunched in 2017 after making certain changes to the product, and then it started to pick up everywhere.

– Sreenivas Saba, co-founder of Uncle Saba’s

Made with lentils, Uncle Saba’s poppadoms has a wide variety of flavours, including Original, Barbeque, Tomato, Sweet Chilli, Cheese, Tomato Ketchup, Korean BBQ, Hot & Spicy Mala, Sour Cream & Onion, Singapore Chilli Crab and Thai Tom Yum Seafood.

The last two are part of their “limited edition” flavours, and Uncle Saba’s aim to create only one or two such flavours each year.

uncle saba's poppadom
They are available in a wide variety of flavours / Image Credit: Uncle Saba’s

They work with suppliers to figure out “trending” flavours, but mostly, their flavours are inspired by their customers. In fact, Uncle Saba’s has a dedicated section on its website that urges its customers to suggest new flavours, and many of these suggestions have come to fruition.

Not every flavour makes the cut though. Sreenivas feels that sweet flavours will do well in the market and they have boldly experimented with churro and condensed milk flavours, but those didn’t work out.

He added that creating a new flavour takes three to six months, though it can be quicker in certain cases.

“This is something we worked really hard to improve upon since many customers want us to be very reactive and launch products faster than the competition. If we really want to fast-track it, we can launch a flavour in as (short) as six weeks.”

So far, Uncle Saba’s best-selling flavours are Original and Sweet Chilli, garnering combined sales of more than five million bags or cans.

Expanding in the US and Europe despite Covid-19

uncle saba's poppadom
Sreenivas Saba, co-founder of Uncle Saba’s / Image Credit: Uncle Saba’s

Covid was a challenging time since our pop-up stalls, which represents 20 per cent of our business, came to a halt. This aside, so many export customers of ours stopped trading.

I decided to double down on those markets that worked best and at the same time, focus on countries which had the best Covid response and were quickest to get back to ‘normal’. From exporting to 25 countries in the beginning, I decided to cut down on certain markets which were smaller, and brought it to below 20 countries.

– Sreenivas Saba, co-founder of Uncle Saba’s

During the pandemic, Sreenivas also attended several trade shows in Europe and the US. At a particular event, he was surprised to find that he was the only company in his pavilion since other exhibitors were absent.

“This was an advantage because I was the first supplier that my customers had met in nearly two years. In normal times, I probably would not have been able to get that meeting,” he said.

Despite the pandemic, Uncle Saba’s has also aggressively expanded overseas with the help of Enterprise Singapore and Singapore Business Federation.

Moreover, Sreenivas had always looked at exports from day one and over the years, they have built up a decent network overseas — this continues to be his focus today.

“I have always felt that food products from Singapore really have a huge market overseas, particularly in the United States and Europe,” remarked Sreenivas.

As part of an initiative by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), Uncle Saba’s included a pack of their poppadoms in UK’s Craft Gin Club box in August 2021. The gin and snack subscription box was Singapore-themed and carries items from other Singapore brands as well, and nearly 100,000 people tried out the products.

Last year, Uncle Saba’s also received a ‘Great Taste Award’ in the UK, which is dubbed an “important award in the culinary world”, and they are happy to be able to achieve this honour.

uncle saba's poppadom
Uncle Saba’s is stocked in many supermarkets locally and globally / Image Credit: Uncle Saba’s

The brand has also entered supermarkets and other stores in several major markets, including Germany, Australia and Indonesia. Its annual revenue grew by over 30 per cent last year because of such initiatives.

It takes a village to raise a startup

To date, Sreenivas said that more than US$1 million has been invested into the business.

“We have always been operationally profit-making, but the break even took a few years to achieve,” he added.

Sreenivas remains humble about the brand’s success thus far, and attributed it to the help and support of many people, including family members, colleagues, customers, suppliers, government agencies and other partners.

“As they say, it takes village to raise a child, (and) the same is true of a startup,” he mused.

He admits that the snack market in Singapore is already very saturated and competitive, but he sees this as a motivation for fellow players to put their best feet forward.

In a sense, being so competitive brings out the best in all companies and products, which can only benefit the end customer. I (focus on) learning from one’s mistake and from each other to better a product and increase value to the customer.

– Sreenivas Saba, co-founder of Uncle Saba’s

Over the years, his father has also imparted valuable business advice to him — one memorable advice is for him to stay confident, because that alone can help win half the battle.

“I really do think this is very important, since you have to go into any endeavour with a positive attitude.”

Moving forward, Uncle Saba’s plan to introduce a few new products in the next two years, as well as expand further in the Europe and US, replicating its success in Singapore.

Featured Image Credit: Uncle Saba’s

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