How this entrepreneur’s keto meal service became a hit during the pandemic
An advocate of the ketogenic lifestyle, Constant Tong started subscription service Ketomei to fill a gap in the market, and found quick success along the way. Here’s how the former Razer executive did it.
In March this year, shortly before the miasma of a partial lockdown settled over Singapore's F&B scene, Constant Tong officially launched his keto meal subscription service. The timing of this endeavour, amid an unfolding pandemic, appears to have been propitious.
While established businesses foundered under COVID-19's tectonic effects, Ketomei flourished. According to the company, it raked in more than S$1 million in revenue from 1,600 subscribers in less than a year.
But Ketomei's breakout profit – which doubled in April and May – can't be solely ascribed to the convenience its meal delivery service brought, during a period where dining out was verboten.
In fact, Ketomei's sales figures continued to climb even after the "circuit breaker." Tong surmises that this is partly due to a burgeoning local community committed to the high-fat, low-carb keto (short for ketogenic) diet.
Touted as a quick and effective weight loss method, carbohydrate deprivation engenders a process called ketosis, where the body breaks down fat. Tong himself is a votary of the keto lifestyle, having dabbled in it to shed belly fat while shuttling between the US and Singapore for work.
But sticking to a low-carbohydrate diet in his home country, where consuming starchy staples is de rigueur at hawker centres, proved to be a Sisyphean task.
“I would make three rounds of the food court, where I was repeatedly asked if I wanted rice or noodles. What's the point in forgoing both?” recounted the spry 53-year-old, who claims that being a keto adherent helped him to lose weight and feel energised.
A NUMBERS GAME
A dearth of dining options to satiate Singapore's growing appetite for the keto lifestyle was revealed through rudimentary market research. “I performed a Google keyword analysis of the word keto, and discovered that it had a high search volume and low competition,” shared Tong.
Parsing data is not new to the 53-year-old veteran of the tech sector, who has made the rounds as an employee of gaming industry heavyweights such as Electronic Arts in the US and Razer Inc.
He's both worked for and started a slew of venture-backed companies in the fintech space – including a China-based platform dispensing trading tips. Shortly after a brief stint leading Razer Inc's mobile wallet app project, he reverted to the appellation of CEO.
The seasoned entrepreneur shelved his initial plans to launch Ketomei in China – his company's name is a portmanteau combining “keto” and the Mandarin term for beauty, “mei” – as he did not feel confident of capturing the market with limited capital.
“China is pretty open to overseas brands, so I felt it would be better to establish ourselves in Singapore before moving into the market,” he explained. So, with about S$100,000 in savings, he founded the company locally, piloting its services to a clutch of subscribers in January.
Ketomei's business model is fairly lean. Customers select a one-, three- or six-week plan that comprises two daily meals from Monday to Saturday. The keto-tailored fare – which features microwavable options such as five-spice beef with konjac noodles and Japanese-style chashu pork collar with cauliflower rice – is prepared in cloud kitchens, blast chilled and tagged with nutritional information. These are delivered on a weekly basis, via riders the company directly engages to circumvent high courier fees.
Tong revealed that their direct-to-consumer service closely references American meal delivery start-up Freshly, which was recently acquired by Nestle USA for a whopping US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion).
Not unlike the analytics-led startup, technology has worked in Ketomei's favour, from allowing them to create an engaging online user experience, to orchestrating deliveries efficiently. The entrepreneur also plans to develop a breathalyser-style device that detects a state of ketosis.
“We can make this available globally, with sales data giving us insights on which country to launch our service in,” he explained.
Also a boon is Ketomei's incisive digital marketing strategy that targets its largely female, millennial clientele through collaborations with a well-preened stable of Instagram influencers, as well as American-Singaporean keto cookbook author Kelly Tan Peterson.
As Ketomei's nutritional advisor who holds the rapt gaze of a sizeable social media following and hosts webinars elucidating the keto lifestyle, Tan Peterson brings clout to the nascent brand. This month (December 2020), it further established its presence under the brassy marquee of Mr World Singapore 2020. Tong expects this to be quite the event enlivened by “many screaming ladies drawn to the swimsuit segment.”
BE YOUR BRAND
A bold identity is key, if Tong's five months in cult-favourite Razer Inc have taught him anything. “Razer's branding is very strong, and they have cultivated a passionate fanbase, which is powerful,” he shared. Working closely with Razer Inc CEO Tan Min-Liang – who is purportedly an inveterate gamer – he added, underscored the importance of authenticity.
Though hardly a long-serving employee, Tong contends that his quick departure from the firm isn't linked to scurrilous rumours about its toxic working culture, allegedly perpetuated by a bellicose CEO.
Rather, he says he left to pursue other opportunities. “I enjoyed working with Min, an inspiring guy who was professional every time we met. You have to be on your toes though; he'll let you know if you've said something stupid,” he offered.
Tong appears to be the antithesis of a brash superior, with his mild-mannered countenance and slightly faltering speech. The doting father-of-one admits that his close relationship with his teenaged daughter, with whom he shares a Spotify playlist and attended a Billie Eilish concert (“I was the oldest guy in the room”), helps him relate to younger employees. He also enjoys watching anime and sussing out free mindfulness apps that are to his dismay, spiked with zombie sounds. He hasn't broached the keto lifestyle with his wife though, for fear of reprisal.
Dad humour aside, Tong has lofty aspirations for Ketomei. He says that his former roles in large corporations such as Singapore Airlines have helped him appreciate what it takes to scale a business. A Ketomei in China is still on the cards.
“You can literally open a kitchen in Shanghai, which has a population of about 20 million, and being logistically advanced, can route deliveries to Zhejiang and Jiangsu. The GDP of these three provinces is higher than that of India’s,” he shared. He further lent that he plans to raise funds for Ketomei's overseas expansion, starting in Southeast Asia.
For now, the keto advocate is on track to expand his brand in Singapore. Having outgrown cloud kitchens – whose high rental fees whittle away at profit margins – the company is moving into a larger central kitchen in the West. He's also set to release a new gourmet menu with items such as slow-cooked short ribs and duck confit, and is planning a catchy K42 challenge to track customers' weight loss goals over a period of six weeks.
“Moving forward, we will focus more on educating people on the keto lifestyle, so they can make informed decisions,” he concluded.
"Moving forward, we will focus more on educating people on the keto lifestyle, so they can make informed decisions." – Constant Tong