Ronnie Cheng, Lab Made Founder
Ronnie Cheng is the co-founder of Lab Made, Hong Kong’s first liquid nitrogen ice cream parlor. He tells John Robertson about being an entrepreneur, going from pharmacist to ice cream maker, and turning officially classified “dangerous goods” into a Hong Kong sensation.
I grew up in Kowloon Tong, where I live now.
I attempted my first small business when I was just 6. I tried to rent out parts of an encyclopedia set to people on my school bus, for $1 a day.
I was naughty at school. I was bad academically too.
It looked like I would fail the HKCEE [secondary school exams], so my parents sent me to boarding school in the UK.
I only realized when I got there that I could barely speak English.
I had a hard time. I would go to the phone box at night and call my mum and cry, saying how much I wanted to go back. But slowly I was able to fit in, and did really well.
I started a small business while in the upper sixth. With a cooker I brought from Hong Kong, I bought cheap eggs, sausages and burgers from the supermarket and sold them in sandwiches.
It was modeled on the cart noodle business here, where you get to choose your toppings. I ended up not having to ask for money
I applied to do medicine at university, but I did badly in the interviews. My backup was pharmacy, which I chose because I didn’t want to spend time in the lab.
At the University of Manchester I met my girlfriend Jenny, who is now my business partner.
In my second year I found myself having spent all my money at the casinos in town. I needed cash quickly, so I came up with a new business idea: I created hoodies for the pharmacy faculty.
I had a friend design them and we came up with a tagline: “Licensed drug dealer.” In the first week we netted 600 orders.
When I had to do a year’s training in pharmacy, I acted strategically. I went down to Weymouth, a place I knew I could get promoted quickly because of little competition.
I worked for Boots there and worked hard, trying to learn everything and do more than what was required of me. I looked at ways to boost sales for the company.
I became a pharmacy manager at the same time I qualified as a pharmacist. When I returned to Manchester, I was a few levels above my former classmates.
I first encountered liquid nitrogen ice cream in 2011. I was in London with my girlfriend and a friend told me about this hip new ice cream parlor in Camden.
When we got there the smoke was coming out and it all looked so cool. It also tasted better.
I’d always wanted to start my own business, but I’d never found the right opportunity. When I saw liquid nitrogen ice cream, I thought, “This may well be it.”
We went home, did our research, and saw that there was nothing like this in Hong Kong.
We bought a big tank of liquid nitrogen in Manchester, put it in the garden, and started learning how to make ice cream with it. We downloaded many recipes online, and we mastered it after six months.
There were many challenges when we started out. Liquid nitrogen is a Category 2 Dangerous Good here and we were told we weren’t allowed to do it. But after consulting lawyers, the fire department, and researching online, we found the right gap in the law.
My girlfriend Jenny is in charge of making the ice cream. She grew up in England and like a lot of Chinese parents hers owned a chippy, where she developed an interest in cooking.
A clear-cut division of our responsibilities prevents us from having many arguments. She looks after the ice cream-making, the development and design of flavors. I look after the management.
Once something gets popular in Hong Kong, people queue up for it like crazy. That can make it both a good and a difficult place to do business. While you may see sudden success early on, people can just as suddenly start queuing up at other shops if you don’t have something strong to bring them back.
In the beginning I wanted to build Lab Made up big and have it go on the stock market. I wanted to be in the spotlight as an entrepreneur. But now what motivates me is making sure my girlfriend and family are healthy and happy.
I suffered a lot by starting a business in Hong Kong without having worked as an employee here. There are things I didn’t know about, like the particular ways people deal with each other in business here.
My advice to young people wanting to start their own business is this: Take your time.
Need to Know...
The extremely low temperature of liquid nitrogen freezes ice cream in less than a minute, creating smaller ice crystals for a smoother, less grainy texture in the mouth.
Lab Made Ice Cream, various locations including 6 Brown St., Tai Hang, www.labmade.com.hk.