Gillian Chen

Gillian Chen, Founder Boocha Kombucha

Gillian Chen

In this interview, Gillian Chen, founder of Boocha kombucha, shares her entry into the small-business world and future projects.

What do you do?

In a nutshell, I brew delicious kombucha. What started as a little experiment to wean me off sugary soft drinks has since turned into a full-time passion. 

How did you get into the industry?

 Like everyone else, I’ve always loved a cold, fizzy beverage on a hot day – of which we have many. But consuming brown sugar water on a daily basis is a really bad idea. Then I started tinkering with kombucha and sharing it with friends and family. I thought this would be a fun weekend hustle with their vote of confidence. So, I designed the Boocha logo in a minute, slapped on a label in the next, and began hitting farmer’s markets wherever I could. 

Share with us a story from behind the scenes.

A typical day for me and my small team at Boocha starts with our A.M. rundown. We list our tasks, discuss overall issues, and decide if we’re on target to hit our weekly/monthly goals. Then I begin sampling our various batches to see how they’re maturing. Then it’s sales calls and back-end paperwork till about noon. Later we’ll probably review ongoing marketing campaigns and plan for new ones in line with our brand strategy. Finally, I take a little time for R&D since we’re constantly trying new teas and developing interesting flavours to differentiate Boocha from the myriad of kombucha brands out there. 

 What’s a food memory from your childhood or travels that stands out?

I spent a large part of my childhood in a little rubber-tapping town called Mantin, living with my grandparents (who’ve since passed on). We’d often walk to the morning market and order these noodle bowls that came with a type of fried meatball. Admittedly, they’re hardly a must-have food experience, but I miss the feeling of being around my grandparents and slurping noodles with them. They were very annoying and kept scooping their meatballs into my bowl. I’d protest and say, ‘no, those are for you!’ That was the sweetest, most unconditional love… know what I mean? 

 What’s the best / worst part of your job?

It might sound cliched, but when customers come back and say they love my Boocha, there’s always a sense of validation and relief. No matter how we grow as a business, I think that sense of terror and relief is healthy to keep a brand on its toes. 

The worst bits are figuring out what comes next – how can we take Boocha to the next level and the level after that. I’m not a business strategist in any sense, so I ask for as much advice as I can and do a lot of research. But sometimes, you do feel like you’re groping in the dark. 

What’s Gillian Chen’s favourite food and beverage pairing?

I’m a simple girl, and I don’t deviate too far from the rules. Light and dry go with fresh and crunchy, while the heavier, stickier beverages are reserved for richer proteins. For me, food should be memorable first and fanciful second. If you’re not plotting a return to sample the rest of the menu after the first bite, then it’s not a five-star experience, however, uppity the ambience. 

The perfect day off would be…

Taking Truffles – my goldie – for a hike. I got her when she was a puppy, and she’s getting on in years now, but she’s been the best dog ever. Otherwise, it’s spending a few days by the sea, sipping on ice-cold Boocha – not a shameless plug – I really love my own drinks that much!

 What’s something you’d like customers to know about Boocha?

Brewing kombucha is like chemistry. You combine substances, apply heat, and spark chemical reactions. But beyond recipes and quality ingredients, you must also add enjoyment, enthusiasm, dedication, focus… an innate desire to create delicious booch that’s going to make someone gratify every sip with an ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’.

Then there’s also being observant, experimenting non-stop, developing your unique style, and being gracious with both good and not-so-good feedback. We treasure both because continuous growth is the name of the game.

 How has the pandemic changed you, your perspective, or the way you operate?

The pandemic has been a monumental struggle for me. But tough times ask that we reconsider our priorities and rethink how businesses should grow, from rigid schedules to shifting hours and flexible timetables to extending greater trust in my teammates. 

Technology has always moved faster than regular folk like me. Now for the first time, I’ve had to get ahead and master new ways of communicating remotely. Or rather communicating in a more precise way so decisions can be made without delay. I find in today’s market, it’s about creating business solutions that aren’t flawless but are proving their pros and cons in the real world, all while having their parameters tweaked on the fly. It’s about collaborations and value-creation and being accountable in ways that are intensely personal. But at the end of the day, the lesson is a familiar one – if you have the will, you will find the way!

What’s your view on the kombucha scene in Malaysia? 

Firstly, kombucha is not a new trend. My grandfather used to make it. Back when we regularly had our market stall, we had locals and expatriates of all walks come up and say, “Oh, I used to drink this as a child!” or that their grandparents had also made kombucha. Today, kombucha’s been spruced up with new flavours and additives like turmeric and black pepper, but it is still the same life-preserving tea from generations ago. 

I’m still working to scale up and make Boocha more widely available to our wider communities. Kombucha is not a luxury product or some hipster libation. Every person deserves real food and real beverages that are raw and alive!

What practices do you currently implement or hope to implement in the future to work towards social responsibility and sustainability?

Sustainability is huge for us. With our individual customers and bulk orders from cafes/grocers, we’ve got incentive schemes for glass bottles that are returned to us. Our packaging is as minimalist as we can get it, and we’re in the process of appointing out-of-state partners to reduce shipping and energy costs. Lately, I’ve been messing around with turning our discarded scoobies (used to ferment our tea and turning them into probiotic brews) into sour candies or chewy snacks. I’m not sure if I’m on to anything, but you gotta love the process first!

We’re also super fortunate to source all 90% of our fresh ingredients locally. The more we support local producers, the closer the sustainability loop gets to a full circle. 

 What’s in store for Gillian Chen in the upcoming months?

We’re hoping to move into a bigger production space and push for significant growth. That means higher-efficiency equipment, proper accreditations, and perhaps even a refreshed look on the horizon. So far, we’ve been very careful – even miserly – with our budgets for branding and promotional activities. Whatever our plans, everything must serve our purpose: to craft real kombucha, unpasteurized and brimming with live cultures.

Read more interviews such as this one with Gillian Chen here, and stay up to date with the latest food and beverage happenings in KL here.

2 Comments

  1. Her grandfather used to make it? Interesting! That means it has been around for a long time.

  2. Hi There,

    Yes, kombucha’s been around for a long time, but it’s fallen in and out of popularity across the ages. My granddad made very basic kombucha, without any flavoring.

    Interestingly, when times were tight, he used to slice up the scoby and use it as a part of a vegetable stir fry =)

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