In Her Element is a photoseries by Delegate featuring inspiring women in Singapore who excel in their various domains. In this installment, we were joined by Veronica Phua, Burpple Brand Evangelist who previously founded her own ad agency, Plum Ideas.
For most of her life, up until recently, much of Veronica’s life centered around advertising. Having spent some time working at two agencies, she eventually founded her own, together with her husband. The inspiration for its name came from her love of plums, and combined with the fact that it meant ‘good’ ideas, Plum Ideas was born.
“Running your own company in any industry is very hard work, and it’s stressful because it always comes back to you – you’re responsible for everything.”
As much as she loved the work, it was tough. Its small, boutique size required multitasking and hands-on work from the team. With a number of major clients to their name, Veronica was constantly on-the-go; once she even flew out to Kenya for two days to conduct an interview. Leading such a high-powered lifestyle, eating became a form of de-stressing. A true foodie, she was always seeking out good food that she looked forward to sharing with others.
“I don’t want to waste my calories on substandard char kway teow. I don’t want it to be fried by someone who sees it as just a job, but someone who actually cares about the food and has his standards so I know that however many kgs I put on, having that dish was worth it.”
When she initially started looking out for places to eat, she would turned to a number of food bloggers. With great content and direct and honest opinions, Veronica had found herself reliable sources that she could count on to help her decide on places to eat at.
Then in November 2013, she chanced upon Burpple. What seemed like an interesting app for finding food recommendations turned into her personal food journal. As someone who loves sharing her food finds, Burpple was an outlet for her to note down her foodieventures, sans the commitment of maintaining a blog. Instead she could share casual, bite-sized write-ups yet retain full creative control over her content. Working in an ad agency, Veronica often found herself constrained by her clients’ various guidelines, and Burpple felt like a breath of fresh air. And so, she embarked on her little passion project – taking photos of her meals and sharing her thoughts. One day, she opened her inbox to find an email from Jayne, Burpple’s then Community Manager. The Burpple team loved her content and offered to make her one of their Tastemakers. However, with all the demands of her job, Veronica wasn’t prepared to take on any additional commitments. Thankfully, not only was it free of requirements, it introduced her to a community – over cocktail-making classes, eat-ups and various outings organised by Burpple for its Tastemakers, Veronica found herself a group of like-minded foodies with a genuine love of sharing their food-scapades.
Over the years, Burpple has evolved into more of a discovery platform for food from its early days as a food diary. Operating in a manner similar to that of Google, users can now enter search words and receive relevant recommendations. The key thing that drew Veronica to Burpple in the first place was its emphasis on a democratic, fair and community-driven policy. Unlike food blogs, which highlight an individual’s experience, Burpple offers a more aggregated overview – reviews from multiple individuals, each with different palates, tastes and so on.
“We all work hard for our money, we don’t like to be disappointed and feel like the meal wasn’t worth what you paid. I think Burpple helps minimize that risk so it’s become a go-to for many people.”
One thing that Veronica noted about the Burpple community, was a strong sense of respectfulness towards businesses, and an understanding that at the end of the day, everyone is just trying to make a living. Even in the event of a negative experience, Burpplers would avoid leaving rude criticisms or comments. Unlike social media which can turn nasty at times, Burpple has managed to retain a wholesomeness to its platform, thanks to the consideration of its users.
“I think I really believe in cultivating something positive. If someone asks you if the meal was good and you say yes, then you criticise on social media, it’s not very fair or nice. It would be better if you raised your concerns on the spot rather than splash it on social media because you didn’t even give them a chance and everyone deserves a chance.”
After running Plum Ideas for 14 years, changes in the industry were becoming more apparent to Veronica. Work was taking its toll on her, and she felt that if she couldn’t give her all, she’d rather not do it anymore. As she and her husband started taking steps towards winding down the company, she made it a point to make sure that her team was looked after – helping them look out for openings, working on their testimonials and resumes etc. Till this day, Veronica remains on good terms with her ex-staff.
“There’s nothing wrong with closing a chapter. There’s a time for everything in life and Plum Ideas had run its course. People tend to hang on to things but sometimes you need to say you’re going to do it and then do it right to make sure there’s no collateral damage.”
As she and her husband began the process of winding down, they stopped taking on new projects. But Veronica made it a point to see through all her existing projects till the end, regardless of how long it would take.
Through regular eat-ups with the Burpple community, she found herself a group of friends who shared her passion and zest for food. Having heard of her plans, the CEO approached her with a proposition – a position as a full-time consultant. The position was much less demanding, and much more food-centric; it was a perfect fit.
In November 2016, after 3 years of being a user, the Burpple team welcomed Veronica onboard as their Brand Evangelist, a role created just for her. As someone who loves to eat, interact with the staff, and ask questions, it was a role she easily slipped into. She wasn’t just someone who wanted to eat good food; she cared about the story behind it; she wanted to have conversations about food.
“I’m curious about food and I love sharing. Not everyone is both. Some love to eat but dislike sharing and vice versa. Others aren’t as detailed or expressive, perhaps they don’t have time to share, but it’s my creative outlet. I love to do it and it makes me happy when I get feedback from people telling me they checked out a place I posted about.”
Eventually, she expanded her network to Instagram – given its popularity, it made sense to use it as a platform to promote Burpple. Working as a Creative Director for over a decade, she was always shooting videos and photos and conducting interviews. Years of her professional experience could be translated and distilled into what she could do on both Burpple and Instagram. Her experience with breaking information down in ways that people found easier to absorb helped her create content that was relatable and enjoyable. Always happy to help where she can, Veronica has made it a point to respond to every message she receives – if you’re in need of recommendations, don’t hesitate to give her a shout out! Her detailed posts have earned her a rather large following, especially within the chef community, due to her obvious and genuine passion for food.
“I’ve always felt working in the kitchen is hard work. It’s long hours on your feet. It’s intense; every moment is changing and you’re constantly exposed to danger. The quality always has to be there because you’re being judged for everything that you send out. Yet, it’s the only job in the world that people feel like they have a right to critique everything. If you have 100 orders, you have to prove yourself 100 times a day or more to each customer. I really take my hat off to chefs. They’re like artists – they create something you can enjoy; art that is edible.”
Veronica views eating as a very personal experience – what she’s grown up eating, the foods that she’s tried have all contributed to the evolution of her taste buds. Everyone has different taste buds. She strongly believes in giving every place a chance, despite what the majority opinion might be, and drawing her own conclusions from her own experience. Recently, after attending a dinner, upon exchanging notes with a foodie whom she highly respects, they found they had opposing opinions of a particular dish. While she thought it was the weakest, it was his favourite; she felt that too many things were happening, whereas he loved the complexity.
Growing up with a mother who is a foodie, food has been a big part of Veronica’s life since she was a child. On weekends, her family would make trips to places that her mother wanted to try. One of her fondest memories was eating Prawn Noodles served out of a push kart in Joo Chiat. She fondly recalls sitting on rickety wooden tables and stools by the long kang, devouring her bowl of Prawn Noodles. Another place she has fond memories of, was the original Odeon Beef Noodles. As a child, waiting for an hour was akin to eternity but she would wait because she knew when she tasted the food, it would be worth it. She credits her mother with teaching her to appreciate and understand the value of traveling and waiting for good food.
As much as she enjoys fine dining, sometimes there is nothing better than discovering a good hawker store or unearthing a hidden gem that no one knows about. With Singapore emerging as a star on the global platform for food, Veronica believes it’s key to trust one’s own taste buds.
“Don’t feel that you need to dine at certain places just because they are endorsed by others. Eating is a pleasure, if it makes you happy, you don’t have to let others tell you how to be happy. Of course there are risks, you might have unpleasant experiences but what’s life if you don’t take chances?”
When quizzed about her favourite restaurant, Veronica tells me she doesn’t have one simply because her favourite restaurant depends on what she’s craving at the time. If something satisfies her cravings at the point in time, then at that moment, it is the best food she’s ever eaten.
She makes it a point to clearly distinguish between sponsored (e.g. hosted and invited tastings) and editorial content. She pays for all her food unless clearly stated. To her, it’s only fair to her readers, and it serves as a good and responsible practice. When stated upfront, the reader is able to understand the context, which would aid them in forming their own opinion and making decisions.
Veronica likes to immerse herself full in the present as much as she can. She views every moment in time like a box; some people occupy a tiny portion of the box, but she strongly believes in being fully invested in the moment as much as she can. This is the reason why she loves to dine solo – it gives her the opportunity to be fully focused on the food, to engage with the chefs and service staff and ask questions. She doesn’t have to feel as if she’s being rude to the company she’s with, unless they understand the way she operates. As long as the moment doesn’t feel like it was wasted when it ends. The passing of a close relative served as a reminder that life is unpredictable, and anything can happen at any time.
“When you encounter things like that it serves as a reminder. We have to live in the moment. Don’t put off things that you’ve been meaning to do or people you’ve been meaning to meet. Make the effort to do it. It’s important, and doing it over a meal is the best thing to do.”