I f you thought making ice-cream was all rainbows and unicorns, you’re going to be painfully disappointed. The girls from The Last Polka will gladly tell you that it’s no walk in the park. “Try having sugar stuck underneath your fingernails and eggs on your face!” they quip.
Meet Lee Ee Vee and Tee May Yee (my, that’s a lot of ‘eeeee’s!) – the founders of handmade ice-cream brand, The Last Polka. If you’re wondering, The Last Polka gets its name from a song by American alternative rock band, Ben Folds Five. Says May Yee (better known as May), “I’m a great fan of Ben Folds Five. I used to tell myself that if I had my own business, I would definitely want to call it ‘The Last Polka’!”
2013 marks their fourth year of business since their start-up in December 2009. The charming (and really pretty, too!) duo admit that it was never their plan to start an ice-cream business. It all began when they were both based in London, and May got an ice-cream maker for Christmas. They tried making their first-ever creation, Horlicks, and their friends loved it so much, they decided to take on ice-cream making as a side project.
When they returned to Malaysia, Ee Vee and May juggled between having a day job and churning out ice-cream in their kitchens at night. Both communication graduates did this for a year, until they decided to throw all caution to the wind and start making ice-cream full time. And as they say, things picked up from there.
Emmagem caught up with them to find out what secrets they have under their sleeves to make their ice-cream enterprise work.
When you started The Last Polka, hand-made ice creams were almost unheard of in Malaysia. How did you establish your business?
“Our first year was spent mainly talking to people about our ice-creams, and educating the public about what our products were. Many people questioned our price point (RM25 to RM30 per tub), because they weren’t used to paying so much for ice-cream! However, we were also lucky enough to launch The Last Polka at a time when artisan F&B establishments were starting to pick up in KL. People were becoming more open towards paying a few Ringgit more for craft-brewed coffee, or handmade bread, and the same concept worked for us.”
What’s the difference between working for someone as opposed to having your own business?
“Well, working for someone is definitely less stressful! Every day you leave on time, and you only take care of this particular set of responsibilities which you’ve been assigned. With owning a business, you worry about everything! It’s more personal because it’s so close to your heart. From paychecks to quality control to administrative tasks – it’s all on you to make it work! Then again, it’s pretty rewarding to know that all our hard work pays off when people appreciate our ice-cream.”
What about your family – what was their reaction like when you told them your idea of starting up The Last Polka?
“We’re pretty blessed to have parents who have been cool with the entire thing. They were more amused than surprised when we first told them, actually!”
May: “We borrowed money from our parents to buy our first full-scale ice-cream machine from Italy, which cost as much as a car! Their financial and emotional support meant a lot to us, especially since we were going into entrepreneurship without ANY experience or knowledge.”
Ee Vee: “Our moms have been nothing short of amazing. When we were juggling two jobs, they helped us so much, from churning the custard (for the ice-cream base), to packing the ice-cream, to sourcing for better prices for our ingredients – I could never thank them enough. Even now, if we’re really busy in the kitchen, I’ll call my mom and she’ll be over to help in an instant!”
How is the Malaysian culture like for entrepreneurs like you?
Ee Vee: “I have to admit, I was so surprised that the people we met were so generous with their advice. Being in the same industry, you’d think that they would be secretive of their secrets to success, but in Malaysia, it’s very communal. I’ve met so many people who have taught me so much about handling the business!”
May: “And it also helps that Malaysian consumers just looove to eat. They’re open to trying new things, which is great for us. It motivates you to push yourself when you know people are giving you chances to prove that your products are good.”
Tell us a bit about The Last Polka ice-creams. What makes them different?
“We’re very localised in our flavours and our ingredients. Of course, some ingredients like the cream and chocolate we use are imported, but for the most part, our ingredients are sourced locally. Our local flavours do extremely well, like Salted Gula Melaka, Pandan Kaya and Teh Tarik. Our Pandan Kaya flavor is made up of one scoop of pandan ice-cream, topped with home-made kaya from Simply Mel’s, which is just amazing!”
What other less-than-ordinary flavours have you made so far?
“We’ve made beef bacon ice-cream (the bacon is caramelized before mixing it into a custard base – yummy!), and some funky flavours like Tom Yam and Miso. We used to organize ice-cream tasting sessions at The Bee, where we introduce different flavours and our tasters share their comments.”
*Emmagem says: Check out the comments the tasters wrote during their last tasting session, they’re a laugh!
The most rewarding part about being a part of The Last Polka?
“We can create whatever we feel like creating, haha! Meeting our customers and knowing what they think of our ice-cream is also very fulfilling. The rewards don’t necessarily have to be financial – we just want to make good ice-cream and share the love.”
What do you like about each other?
Ee Vee on May: “I like that she has fun in everything she does. She’s a very optimistic risk-taker, whereas I’m the careful perfectionist.”
May on Ee Vee: “Well, I like Ee Vee’s hair! (laughs) (After much deliberation…) I like how she pleasantly surprises you in a good way. Sometimes she’ll work into the night and present me with a perfect flavor in the morning!”
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs
Don’t be scared to fail. Some people will doubt you, but you shouldn’t be one of them. Just give it a try, and if you fail, at least you know you tried your best.
Use your potential to the fullest. If it requires you juggling two jobs, so be it. Maximise your capacity and do what you can. Don’t regret when it’s too late!
Start small. Your business doesn’t have to be super-huge or make millions. As long as you find fulfillment in what you do, then you’re on the right track.
The Last Polka currently has 13 flavours (ranging from Teh Tarik to Rum & Raisin). Prices start from RM7.20 to RM32.
(Photos: The Last Polka Facebook fan page and from The Last Polka girls)