Family behind Singapore’s 3-in-1 coffee empire Super Group gets in on oat milk

January 25, 2023

The Business Times

SINGAPOREAN entrepreneur David Teo made his fortune with Super Group selling 3-in-1 coffee. But visitors to his family office will notice that the decor is an ode to another beverage: oat milk.

Sitting at the lobby of Apricot Capital’s Pasir Panjang office are giant sacks labelled “Oat” and a plushie in the shape of an oat grain, named Oatdit, with wide eyes and bunny ears. An assortment of oat milk products are out on display with names that pay tribute to the cereal: Oatbedient and Oat Right.

David’s son Darren Teo, 39, and daughter Elaine Teo, 43, have brought a new-age twist to their family’s legacy in the beverage business.

The siblings, both managing partners of Apricot, have built up two Singapore-based business in the oat milk realm: Fundamental Foods, which supplies oat milk and plant-based alternatives as an ingredient, and Listen Up, which produces an oat milk beverage for consumers.

In 2020, Apricot teamed up with Charles Li, a former executive director of Super, to co-found Fundamental Foods. The company has a factory in China that manufactures plant-based dairy alternatives, such as oat milk, for food and beverage (F&B) businesses-in powder, liquid concentrate and ready-to-drink forms.

Its customers include cafes, food manufacturers who wish to launch plant-based products and even bubble tea chains in China, to whom it supplies oat milk and a plant-based creamer that is largely oat-based.

Subsequently, in May last year, Apricot founded Listen Up, a company that builds consumer brands focused on sustainable and healthy F&B. Its first brand is Oatbedient, a powdered oat milk beverage. Like Super’s instant coffee mix, Oatbedient just requires hot water to make.

Fundamental Foods has received S$22 million in funding to date, with Apricot holding the majority stake. Listen Up is fully funded by Apricot. The focus on oat milk is part of the family’s aim to promote sustainable, plant base foods in Asia. Darren told The Business Times, over a cup of latte made with Fundamental Foods’s oat milk brand Oat Right. He sees their expertise in food manufacturing as an edge.

“In the past, when we were at Super, we (made) a lot of powdered stuff like 3-in-1 coffee instant coffee with non-dairy creamer and sugar. We used to produce non-dairy creamer ourselves…We are equipped with the know-how and technology of how to convert raw material into the instant soluble form, through spray-dry and freeze-dry technology,”he said

However, many instant products in the market are filled with “nasties” such as artificial flavoring, anti caking agents and food fillers, which are added to bulk up the mass of the product, noted Elaine. She cited how shocked she was to learn that these fillers were even in some infant milk powders.

The Teos now hope to provide consumers beverages that come with the same convenience as 3-in-1 coffee, but are free from “nasties”. The original flavor of Oatbedient, for instance, has three main ingredients: oat milk powder, malt extract and sugar.

We understand that using good manufacturing practices, you can actually do away with all these (additives) and just feed people with real ingredients,” said Elaine.

Both siblings have extensive experience in the F&B industry with Super; Darren was an executive director who took charge of strategy, finance, investor relations and business development, while Elaine was a general manager responsible for branding, marketing and product innovation. The family exited Super in 2017 after it was sold to a Dutch tea and coffee group for S$1.45 billion.

Fundamental Foods traces back to when Li who headed Super’s manufacturing, innovation and ingredient sales, approached the family with an idea to start a new business.

“In 2020, at the peak of Covid, Charles actually came to us and said he’d like to start something of his own. Because of the knowledge that he and my dad are equipped with- more than 30 years of manufacturing knowledge – we felt that it would be a waste if it’s not being used to actually create a new business. That’s when we came out and said hey, lets do something a bit different from what we used to do at Super,” recalled Darren. They settled on oat milk after studying how companies like Sweden’s Oatley have gained traction with a cow’s milk alternative and saw a gap in the business-to-business space. “We decided, can we create an alternative to milk powder, or milk ingredients, so that we can help more companies to embark on the dairy-free and green movement,” he added.

Li, who took on the CEO role at Fundamental Foods, travelled to China to set up the company. They bought and converted a soymilk factory in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, to produce ready-to-drink oat milk and oat milk powder and concentrate. The facility now has the capacity to produce 15,000 metric tonnes of oat milk powder and 36,000 metric tonnes of oat milk and plant-based creamer.

“(This)” can support us to grow not only in China, but also in the Asia-Pacific,” said Li, adding that the local government has been supportive of the company’s investments, as well as its purchase of oats from chinese farmers in Inner Mongolia, in the north-west region.

Fundamental Foods sees growing traction among Chinese businesses, as more consumers in the market opt for oat milk-based drinks. There is however not as much appetite among South-east Asian businesses for Fundamental Foods’s offerings. Businesses here have been making good money with traditional ingredients, such as non-dairy creamer made from palm oil. “There’s no real impetus for people to change the ingredient format because they have been making good money.” said Darren.
That’s when the siblings then felt that they should educate the South-east Asian market more on oat milk.

“That really led to the birth of Oatbedient….That’s when we said, why not let’s try to educate the consumers about how to feed themselves better by removing the “nasties” within the beverage that they’re drinking, but at the same time, also hopefully getting more companies onboard this trend,” he said.

The company has embarked on some collaborations, such as by coming up with an oat milk chocolate bar in collaboration with local chocolatier Mr Bucket.

For Apricot, the investments into Fundamental Foods and Oatbedient are part of a broader strategy of backing sustainability-focused businesses. The family office has also invested in other startups with a similar ethos, such as plant-based ice-cream maker Kind Kones, and more recently, a Singapore plant-based milk brand called Noomoo.

The Teo siblings themselves are not vegans, but have switched to using dairy alternatives in coffee and ice cream, out of a desire to reduce their carbon footprints. They believe in offering a wider variety options within the plant-based food segment to those who may be lactose intolerant, or concerned about their environmental impact.

“We have one very simple motto: we will only feed the community with what we feed our family,”” said Elaine. “It must be safe, it must be nutritious, it must be as clean and healthy as possible, and not to forget, it must be delicious.”