He spent his life dreaming of saving the earth by researching renewable energies, but Dr Heng Ri-Liang has decided to shake things up and go green in a different way.
After obtaining his PhD in mechanical engineering with a focus on biofuels from the University of California, Los Angeles, last year, the 30-year-old abandoned his childhood ambition and started Shake Salad, a salad vending machine business.
“I’d spent most of my life studying, and wanted to venture beyond the world of academia and research,” said Dr Heng, an old boy of Dunman High and Victoria Junior College who did his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at Nanyang Technological University.
The former coach at the Singapore Sailing Federation, who competed in sailing at the national level in his teens, developed a passion for healthy eating after packing on the kilos during 41/2 years in Los Angeles. “I kind of grew flabby and couldn’t fit into all my trousers, and I had high cholesterol, which was worrying,” he said.
He decided to ditch his student diet of burgers and tacos for salads. “I ate only salads on weekdays, and lost weight and felt my energy levels go up,” said Dr Heng, who is 1.72m tall and now weighs 78kg.
After returning to Singapore last July, he wanted to open a salad shop, but was discouraged by high rents.
“I went around looking at available spaces in the CBD (Central Business District) area, but rental was easily $10,000 to $20,000 a month, so that wasn’t really feasible,” he said. Then, over drinks with an old friend who owned a vending machine business, Shake Salad was born.
Said Mr John Lin, 32, who is now Dr Heng’s business partner: “He said he wanted to do a customised salad machine, and I thought it was a great idea. But I didn’t take him seriously until he called me the next day, and I could tell he was confident, so I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
A month later, the duo founded Shake Salad, which offers a choice of four salad bases, eight dressings and four toppings, each packaged separately and selected on a touchscreen. Prices range from $6 to $9 for the salads, which can be shaken in a container.
Dr Heng’s parents, a condominium facilities manager and a clinic assistant, were initially less than thrilled, he said. “They thought I’d finally graduated, and could go out and find a job and be stable. But I convinced them that that was something I really wanted to do, and they became very supportive,” he said.
After customising a prototype in China, he showcased his machine in August at VendTech Singapore, the first networking event for vending machine providers, food and beverage and retail companies and landlords organised by enterprise development agency Spring Singapore.
Last month, Shake Salad launched its first machine at RELC International Hotel, followed by two more at FairPrice Finest in Bukit Timah Plaza, and the lobby of an office building in Ubi.
Sales have been steady, with many repeat customers, although Dr Heng declined to reveal figures.
The duo has invested about $300,000 and plans to launch 40 to 50 more machines at hospitals, shopping centres, gyms and office lobbies in the next year.
Vending machines offer several advantages, said Dr Heng. For instance, lower overhead costs allow Shake Salad to extend its reach. “If you look at the queues at salad bars in the CBD area during lunchtime, that’s a major deterrent for people. So if you can make it quick and convenient, I think more will eat healthy,” he said.
Dr Heng also argues that his salads are fresher than those at salad bars where food sits on the counter.
Shake Salad’s ingredients, which include sous-vide chicken breast and kale salad, are prepared and packaged at a central kitchen, and replaced at machines daily. Croutons, nuts and cheese and other toppings are individually sealed.
Breakfast items, such as fruit and granola, are on the cards, while menu items will also be rotated.
For Dr Heng, the key is to convince a nation of foodies that vending machines can dispense more than snacks and “last-resort” meals. “We want our salads to be something people want to buy with all options on the table because they really like it,” he said.