Awfully Chocolate is a home-grown brand that is now a household name for their delicious dark chocolate concoctions. Make no mistake however – Lyn Lee does not sugar-coat her path to success. Even after twenty years in the business, she takes pride in how Awfully Chocolate bucks the trend, emphasising the brand’s contrarian streak in creating chocolate confectioneries. There are no shortcuts at play, only three ingredients at work: quality chocolate, hard work and passion.
Lyn Lee is one of a group of friends behind the internationally renowned chocolatier Awfully Chocolate. A lawyer by training, Lyn left her high-paying and stable job to open her own cake shop in 1998. Awfully Chocolate began as a small shop in Katong with a single item on the menu: a six-inch chocolate cake which took one year of experimentation to perfect. Today, Awfully Chocolate operates 16 stores across Singapore and 46 franchised outlets in China.
Her entrepreneurial venture was incredibly risky, and faced its share of uncertainty at the start, especially when it came to balancing work and other commitments. None of her team at Awfully Chocolate had ever run a business before, especially a food and beverage establishment. Still, Lyn and her team were able to turn this weakness into a strength: part of Awfully Chocolate’s longevity lies in its ability to buck the trend.
“We’ve always preferred to be contrarians rather than follow someone else’s trend.” The team at Awfully Chocolate believes in the “universality of good dark chocolate, not running after short-lived trends or doing what we think others will prefer.”
Around the Clock
In the beginning, Lyn had to field questions stemming from her decision to leave the stability of her law career and open a cake shop selling only one cake.
The highly-raved about chocolate cake
“No-one believed that a shop selling one chocolate cake – and such an ‘ugly’ one at that – could ever succeed, let alone survive a few months.”
Yet, Lyn knew that she had cracked the formula when “aunties took buses all the way from Jurong to our tiny store in Katong and carried home three cakes each!” Awfully Chocolate quickly became a cult favourite amongst foodies in Singapore, a notable feat in a highly competitive food and beverage market.
The Long Game
As her business grew, the challenges facing the business evolved. In 2010, her simple, rich chocolate cakes were making money, and Awfully Chocolate was flourishing
Awfully Chocolate’s outlet at Changi City Point
Through the triumphs and rough patches alike, Lyn believes more than ever that business owners like her must always be ready to respond to new circumstances and opportunities. She pays attention to the macro and the micro, emphasising detail and dedication to higher standards, while taking a long-term perspective. “Knowing why we do this, why we demand so much from ourselves each day, that makes life exciting.”
Although most business owners would be content to have a successful, twenty-year-old business, Lyn always strives to strengthen the brand. Although Awfully Chocolate is constantly creating new offerings, she says it’s not just about the pursuit of novelty but the bigger picture.
“I sometimes think it’s harder to keep a business fresh after the early novelty is over! But neither am I interested in being novel.”
For instance, during its first ten years, Awfully Chocolate only offered three variations of the same chocolate cake: the All Chocolate cake, the Chocolate Banana cake and the Chocolate Rum and Cherry cake. “It was after the first decade that we started to branch into more products, cafes with drinks and restaurants.”
When it comes to creating new products, Lyn says the team prefers to be the true to their own brand, instead of second-guessing themselves about what they think their customers will enjoy. “This year, we’ve been working hard on a new range of seasonal products, and so far we’ve had the best Mother’s and Father’s Days ever, so it’s nice to know customers old and new are enjoying our new creations. Wait till you see what we’re launching this Mid-Autumn!”
Indeed, while Awfully Chocolate has kept up with the times, Lyn affirms that she is inspired by her local roots.
Speaking about their new range of gifting chocolate, she beams, “I’m especially proud of the delicious Black Glutinous Rice chocolate bar, because it was inspired by a local flavour close to my heart. I’ve always said not any old thing goes with chocolate, so I love that we are the first ones with this flavour and how awesomely yummy it is, with a fragrance of Singapore and home.” Awfully Chocolate’s creations combine the old with the new, and the East with the West, creating something novel without forgetting where it came from.
Even on her off-days, Lyn finds her true north in her business. “I don’t have to be at the store every day now, but I still find myself wanting to be at the stores every day!” Awfully Chocolate has achieved great success, but Lyn and her team remain grounded. When asked about the most satisfying aspect of her role, she says, “Being unafraid to test out one’s ideas and work them to achievement!”
Forging the Future
When asked for her advice for budding entrepreneurs, Lyn offers some unorthodox advice. She says, “I would never advise someone to start their own business. I would advise them to keep an open mind and open heart and give it all they’ve got. And to be upright, considerate human beings in the process.”
“That will lead anyone to their destiny, whether the destiny is to own a business or not!”
The road to success hasn’t always been smooth-sailing but perhaps that’s what makes the journey so sweet. The story of Awfully Chocolate is a lot like its renowned chocolate cakes – it has sweet notes with some hints of bitterness, and it always leaves you wanting more.