From an appearance on Dragon’s Den to an international ice cream empire in the very heart of Sheffield, Yee Kwan Chan is a name you need to know. unLTD’s Brogan Maguire sat down with her to chat about opening her flagship parlour in the city and supplying some of the biggest restaurant chains.
The Sheffield businesswoman has always loved food, but it wasn’t until a little later in life that she decided she wanted to base her career around it.
Having chefs for parents, it is no surprise that foodie Yee eventually went down this route – but what is surprising is that she began her career as a chartered quantity surveyor, and it wasn’t until she and her husband Anthony went travelling around Australasia on their honeymoon in 2006 that her passion evolved into a business idea.
Tasting the interesting East Asian flavours made her realise there was something missing from the mainstream market, and after a year-long trip, the idea for Yee Kwan Ice Cream was born.
She said: “While we were out there, I was struck by how far ahead the food scene was and how fresh everything was. The East Asian inspiration shone through and it really highlighted how bland and boring some of the offerings over here can be.
“I wanted to use my Chinese heritage and build on all those lovely trips to the ice cream parlour at Atkinsons that I remember so fondly from my childhood, but to make it innovative and exciting and bring it into the 21st century, with flavours that are hard to come by anywhere else.”
Thus ensued a trial-and-error process as Yee – who had no experience in food manufacturing or running her own business – set to work on the venture.
A new mother at the time, she gave up her job and focused on the idea full-time, working to perfect her recipes and discover the best way to grow her brand.
Her authentic ice creams and sorbets were eventually launched in 2010, with East Asian flavours matcha green tea, lychee and black sesame seed, chocolate miso, yuzu and pink guava and passionfruit.
In the months following the launch she spent her time at lots of food festivals to gain valuable feedback from customers. Exhibiting at trade shows before being picked up by premium stores like Harvey Nichols, and later becoming an international seller.
“I’ve always been ambitious, so my dream was always to think BIG! I had faith that my idea could grow into something really exciting,”
she added. “There’s been tough challenges along the way, changing my career and starting from scratch was never going to be easy,
“Add to that being a new mum juggling a busy home life with running a new business and you can imagine it hasn’t always been the smoothest of journeys!
“We’ve had lots of fun bringing joy to people’s tastebuds. We’ve worked on huge fashion brand launches, developed alcoholic flavours for gin brands as well as serving up our flavours to A listers such as Katy Perry and Lily Allen.”
What I can say though is that I’ve put my all into it and I think that’s very clear as we now export to retailers across the world including the UAE and China. We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved so far.”
In 2014, after four years of consolidating her brand and perfecting her products, Yee took the next step on her business journey and appeared on Dragon’s Den, where she received an offer she couldn’t refuse from Deborah Meaden.
It’s an experience she is eternally grateful for, and one that taught her a lot about being an entrepreneur in the food industry, bringing fresh ideas on how to pitch to large brands and how to scale up her business.
After three years of working together, Yee decided the business was doing well enough to buy Deborah out, and she branched out on her own.
Since then, the brand has gone from strength to strength, supplying huge restaurant chains like Wagamama and Giggling Squid, as well as smaller independent restaurants like Bar Soba in Leeds and Zaap Thai, which has just opened a branch on Ecclesall Road.
Yee also works with a number of companies to help them create their very own bespoke ice cream flavours.
But as is the case for many businesses, she had to make some considerable changes when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in order to ensure her brand could survive.
“It was a huge shock to us, as 80 per cent of our business is selling to the hospitality trade, and that disappeared overnight,” she said. “We had to be very quick on our feet and diversify however we could.
“We made use of the support provided by the Manufacturing Growth Programme and grants from the council to set up our own online shop, shipping directly to consumers around the UK using dry ice.
“It’s enabled us to create a new sales channel and target customers that may not have ordered from us before. It was a test of resilience and determination in the middle of lockdown and trying to home-school three children!”
Despite the challenges, Yee Kwan Ice Cream weathered the COVID storm and the reopening of the hospitality industry gave even more opportunity for the business to thrive, with Yee even managing to launch a full vegan ice cream range in 2020.
“We are very lucky that we have such good relationships with all of our restaurant customers and wholesale distributors, and when they reopened after lockdown we were able to pick up right where we left off.
“There were other issues for us to deal with too, like the shortage of HGV drivers, lack of skilled labour, rising raw materials and energy prices. We’ve persevered and managed to get through all of that and get back into a really good place, launching some new unique flavours and nurturing relationships with our local stockists in Yorkshire.”
And, not content with simply basing her factory in Sheffield and supplying local restaurants, Yee is now opening a flagship parlour in one of the most exciting and interesting locations in the city – Kommune.
She said: “Having a physical store or parlour has always been on the agenda for Yee Kwan Ice Cream and I’m so happy we are finally able to do it.
“I visited Tokyo back in 2018 and was amazed by the food scene and street stalls there, I’m wanting to bring this buzz and excitement to Sheffield. I am so excited to meet new customers and offer them a fun experience which they can share with us and their loved ones.”
As well as the usual products, the parlour will offer limited edition flavours and a menu that changes seasonally, alongside a range of desserts.
Not only will the new premises offer a fresh dining experience for customers, it will also bring new jobs to the area and provide a much needed boost to the local economy – something Yee has always been passionate about.
She said: “I have memories as a child shopping in the Co-op building with my Mum, so it’s really touching for me to opening our flagship parlour in this building
“I love the vibe at Kommune with its community of independent traders, I can’t wait to open.
“It’s great to have the opportunity to help people in a range of different ways and the fact I can do that in my very own city is something I’m very grateful for. I have always been very proud to be from Sheffield and I think we have something here that you can’t find anywhere else.
“The people in Sheffield are what make it what it is – I know it’s a city, but to me it feels more like a big village because everyone is so kind and welcoming.”
Helping other people get into business is something else Yee is passionate about, and last month she attended the See It Be It event at Sheffield College alongside unLTD, to speak to students and budding entrepreneurs about their future plans.
“There are so many challenges in business, but particularly in the food and drink industry, and I have faced a fair few of them,” she said. “Being a woman – and an ethnic woman at that – has had its own difficulties and I do feel like I have had to fight my corner a little bit more than most. Coupled with being a mother and juggling family life, there’s never been a dull day since I started Yee Kwan all those years ago.
“I work with lots of young interns and I help them to develop the skills they need. It’s important to nurture them but I am also honest about how hard things can be and the setbacks they may have to face along the way. I also encourage them to persevere, to work hard and to go out and chase their dreams.
“My biggest piece of advice for anyone wanting to start out in business is to identify where your passion lies and exactly what it is that you want to create, and then to do as much research as you can in that particular field.
“When it comes to growing your brand, push your product out as much as you can and be creative in the ways you spread the word. Head out to trade shows and expos and get people to talk about it on social media. Give out samples to your family, friends – even send some to influencers – and get them to post about it to get the conversation started. Everything will go from there.”
Work is now well underway on the ice creamery in Kommune and anyone wishing to try Yee Kwan Ice Cream should visit: www.yeekwan.com