In Good Taste: Melody Mok, Founder, Curious Elephant
This Dubai-based food enterprise makes handcrafted, gourmet Asian sauces that are aimed at bringing the authentic flavors of the Far East to one's home kitchen in the UAE.
This article is a part of In Good Taste, a special feature built for the August 2021 issue of Entrepreneur Middle East showcasing 10 of the UAE's most promising homegrown food brands.
Being made redundant in her job in the hospitality sector amidst the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 is what led Melody Mok to launch Curious Elephant, a Dubai-based enterprise that makes handcrafted, gourmet Asian sauces that are aimed at bringing the authentic flavors of the Far East to one’s home kitchen in the UAE.
But that’s not to say the business she founded is something that came up on the spur of a moment- on the contrary, Mok says her enterprise was actually a long while coming. “I’d always had a dream to start my own business in the food industry, which is where my passion lies,” Mok says. “The concept of Curious Elephant is something that had been brewing in the back of my mind for a few years, but I’d never taken the step to turn it into a reality, due to my 9-5 job.”
Curious Elephants's three main sauces. Source: Curious Elephant
Curious Elephant currently sells three different kinds of sauces: these include the Chinese chili oil with Sichuan pepper and peanut, the Vietnamese chili sauce with lemongrass and garlic, and the Malaysian chili sambal with shrimp and kaffir lime. All three have their own particular characteristics, but the one thing uniting them all is the surety that each of them will almost certainly elevate whatever kind of cooking you use them in- and that’s not me who’s saying it, those reviews come from Curious Elephant’s customers. “We officially launched on June 26, 2020 and the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive,” Mok says. “A lot of our customers initially heard about us through social media and from our stall at Ripe Market. Our orders continue to grow month on month, and we are now stocked in three retail outlets across Dubai, with a fourth outlet imminent. We have also done a few special collaborations with other local brands, and the response was so positive that the specials have been turned into permanent products.”
An Australian citizen, Mok admits that the process of kicking off Curious Elephant was quite a strenuous one, with a lot of time spent on research and study. “It was very challenging in the beginning, as setting up a legally-operational business obviously has significant costs associated with it, especially when you are starting out with a brand new concept that doesn’t have any established customer base at all- so, you are starting off with zero revenue, and some significant setup costs,” she explains. “It’s also not only the cost that has to be considered, as the setup process in the UAE is very different to back in Australia, so a lot of hours went into researching the processes, legal requirements, health and safety compliance, municipality requirements, etc. Fortunately, having already been working in the industry in the UAE for six years, I had friends that offered their guidance on certain topics, and also met other people along the way that were in similar phases of starting up, and we were able to support each other.”
Curious Elephant's Chinese chili oil with Sichuan pepper and peanut. Source: Curious Elephant
The cooperative nature of the F&B entrepreneurial ecosystem in the UAE is something Mok brings up again when talking about the key accomplishments Curious Elephant has had since its inception. “Working on collaborations with other local brands in Dubai has been really special, and it’s really nice to see businesses truly supporting one another during the testing times are we in,” Mok says. “I think one positive thing to come out of the COVID-19 crisis is that we are really seeing a reversal of globalization, with people going back to ‘supporting local.’”
But Mok has also had her work cut out in terms of getting the name of her business out there. “I have always worked in sales management in the hospitality sector, and I therefore understand the importance of being customer-centric- by doing so, you organically achieve word-of-mouth marketing through your client base, and automatically build brand loyalty,” she explains. “It’s a crucial aspect of starting a small business, and it has definitely supported our other unique selling points of offering a one-of-a-kind product in the region, produced locally in Dubai, that is fresh and preservative-free- something that customers are becoming more and more concerned about these days.”
Mok thus has had her hands full in terms of making sure Curious Elephant remains at the top of the minds of her current clientele, while still prospecting and attracting new ones. “It has been a fun, and at times challenging, journey building a following for our new brand from nothing over the past year,” Mok says. “We’ve had incredible support from food professionals in the industry, and this has turned into organic brand awareness, and a following that we call our ‘elephant herd.’
But it doesn’t stop here, as it’s a continuous job to maintain your existing customer base, and acquire new customers. As the saying goes, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’” But that said, Mok makes it clear that one of the best aspects of her time as an entrepreneur is the interactions she gets to have with her clientele- and that seems to make all the work with it. “I have also really enjoyed meeting our customers in person, and it’s always rewarding when we receive positive feedback from them,” Mok declares. “For me, that is an accomplishment in itself when our customers are happy.”
THE SECRET SAUCE: Curious Elephant founder Melody Mok shares her tips for wannabe entrepreneurs aiming to follow her lead:
Learn when to say no “When something doesn't feel right, it usually isn't. Our initial plan was to launch Curious Elephant with a different product in the range. Some people said I should just launch it to ‘get going,’ but it just didn’t feel 100% right. I am glad I listened to myself, went back to the drawing board, and took some extra time- we went on to have a really strong launch with our first two products.”
Be aware of your competition, but don't be guided by them “People will be drawn to your products or services if you offer something that is unique. Don't just offer the same product your competitor is offering just because they appear to be successful with it– looks can be deceiving. Think about what the gap in the market really is, and how to do it better or differently to your competitors.”
Spending less can cost you more “Don’t be tempted to cut every corner than you can, as often, in the long run, it ends up costing you more. Being efficient is very different to cutting corners. Taking shortcuts also often has implications on your end product, and you then risk devaluing your product and brand, which is very difficult to recover later.”
Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.
Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.