Road to Riches or, Road to Ruin?
Many aspiring chefs and entrepreneurs dream of opening their own restaurant. However, not all succeed so Hospitality Asia spoke to several industry players to find out how successful such ventures are.
Restaurant openings are a daily occurrence in Asia but for every one that opens, another closes. There are many reasons for openings and closings as palates change, consumer preferences switch, social media likes and dislikes fluctuate and owners over-extend themselves.
Most agree that it’s never easy opening a new business especially a restaurant, which often depends upon customer discretionary income. Some words of wisdom from those who have ventured here could be helpful to those about to start out.
Our expert panel includes entrepreneurs who are industry veterans as well as a passionate young chef who just opened his first outlet. Gain insights from Kent Chua (co-founder, Rhombus Connexion), Michele Kwok (co-founder, Soul Society Group), Hans Gill (co-founder, Tiki Taka) and Chef Nik Syazmin (owner/chef, Mean Mince).
Road to Success
Nik Syazmin (Min) is chef/owner at the just opened, New York-styled burger restaurant, Mean Mince in Mutiara Damansara.
Since primary school, food has been important in his life. At every opportunity, he looked for internships whilst pursuing culinary courses working at Sushi Groove and The Royale Bintang.
As a management trainee in Switzerland, he interned at Schweizerhof Weggis. The hotel was owner-run and this provided many opportunities for Chef Min. After graduating and armed with Swiss work experience, he started at the Playboy Club London. Here, he researched his dream concept, Mean Mince. “When you start your own restaurant, you can create menus and rules while deciding the restaurant’s direction,” he claims.
He adds, “Owning Mean Mince not only allows me to experiment and create recipes, but to source ingredients from reputable suppliers. I can also hire staff with the same passion for work as great food is born out of love and passion.”
For Michele Kwok, the biggest joy in owning restaurants is that she is free to conceptualise the brand and product from the beginning. “To set the direction on how we position ourselves, to nurture our culture and identity from infancy, gives me my highest high,” she adds.
Kent Chua from Rhombus claims, “I recall one day, two weeks into the opening of our first outlet, The Beer Factory in Sunway Giza, my partner and I stood outside an empty outlet with zero customers. We both looked at each other and started laughing – the kind of laughter you have during exams back in high school when you know you are going to fail. Fast forward today with our group grossing over RM80 million revenue; we still laugh about it.”
Hans Gill, co-owner of Tiki Taka, ventured into the industry nine years ago when he opened D Legends Bar in Taman Tun. Maintaining high quality and service standards earned it the Perfect Tiger Serve at the HAPA-GAB awards. He adds: “My travels around Spain alerted me to dining on many bite-sized dishes. This concept of pintxos was unknown in Malaysia so in 2016, we launched in Medan Damansara. It took Kuala Lumpur by storm and won us Best New Restaurant at the Malaysia Tatler Dining Best Restaurants 2018.”
While there are many pluses, the road to success can be rocky. At Mean Mince, staffing is the main problem as many locals don’t want to work in the service industry. The only option is to hire foreigners but problems arise with work permits since the authorities have no steadfast guidelines. “Then there are budget overruns, unavoidable delays in renovations and hiccups in gaining permits,” he adds.
Michele Kwok echoes these sentiments, “I didn’t come equipped with a hospitality background, neither am I a qualified chef. I wasn’t aware of standard operating procedures. We had no budget to hire professionals, so it was just my partner and I and a few foreign workers. I never knew the authorities would be tedious as regulations change regularly and there are many departments to deal with.”
Best known for developing SOULed Out, she comments that you don’t know what you don’t know. She ponders, “If we knew all that we needed to endure, would we have gone on this journey of never-ending trials and tribulations; that remains a huge question.”
For Kent Chua, knowing the business is important. “You think you can rely on your manager and that just by hiring an outlet manager, everything will be okay. However, you need to get your hands dirty and lead by example. You need to provide clear direction for the team, you need to be hands-on to understand inside out what you’re delegating to your manager. If not, it will lead to frustration and misunderstanding,” he suggests.
Before opening Tiki Taka, Hans Gill wished he had known that opening a restaurant would not be as easy as it looked. “It sounded easy and glamorous but it turned out to be anything but easy. However, if you work hard, the rewards are fantastic.”
“Success involves great effort, great risk and grit; not just passion.” ~ Michele Kwok
For Chef Min knowing more about the right location would have been important. It’s nearly as important as the menu. “I knew Malaysians travelled to eat and hoped location would be secondary if the food was good. However, location has affected business to a certain extent. Getting the word out to those living in other areas has been slow but it’s picking up. However, I’m confident a good menu is the key to success.”
While passion is overused, it remains important to Michele Kwok. “It is important to follow your passion because only when you are passionate about something, will you love what you do and that will motive you to excel. However, I would add, remember that great achievement and success involves great effort, risk and grit; not just passion. Without effort and hard work, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential.”
She continues, “There are no shortcuts to greatness. It takes grit, passion, perseverance, hard work and sacrifice. To me, grit is far more important than any talent, skills and intellect I may possess. So fall in love with your goals and dreams, muster the skills, but most importantly check if you have the grit to stay in the game till you succeed.”
“You need to get ready to get your hands dirty and lead by example. ” ~ Kent Chua
“I’m very fortunate to have supportive family backing me daily.” ~ Chef Min
“Many businesses fail because they don’t adapt fast enough to changing environments.” ~ Hans Gill
Kent Chua adds, “No words can describe how hard it is running your own place, but because of that, you get immense satisfaction from simple things such as happy customers or increased revenue. Besides that, you get to meet a diversity of people, which broadens your network and, as they say; your network is your net worth.”
Hans Gill agrees and claims that one of the advantages of owning his own concept is making new friends and being exposed to new opportunities. Learning to adapt fast is important for him too. “Sometimes your concept doesn’t take off according to your vision so you need to adapt and change. Many businesses fail because they don’t adapt fast enough to changing environments. They get caught up with their concept or, love their idea too much to be critical of it and to identify improvements and changes,” he notes.
Sound Advice for Budding Chefs
Chef Min claims that a young chef with passion and financial backing should go for it. “However, it’s vital to know and determine your restaurant’s concept, from menu, to capital, expected profit and marketing plan. I believe that with hard work and perseverance, opening the right restaurant can be lucrative.”
Hans Gill contributes, “My advice is to put in the work, it’s a tough business and if you don’t get your hands dirty at the early stages, you may not succeed. Most successful entrepreneurs have all gotten their hands dirty by doing the dirty work over long hours. If you don’t know what and why your staff are doing certain things, you have a problem. Learn how to do everything or at least have an understanding of everything.”
Kent Chua, “I would advise those wanting to start their own outlet to not jump straight into opening one but to spend time working with good bosses in a single outlet or a chain. A good boss is one who gives you the opportunities to learn and grow. Learn the challenges, the systems and management style for a solid foundation.”
“My advice to young entrepreneurs is to take time to look at your interests, your skills, industry dynamics, the competitive landscape and your target customers to steer you in the right direction of growth and success,” suggests Michele Kwok.
Further Along the Road
One of the biggest negatives for restaurant owners is not having enough time with their family and friends. Hans Gill comments, “You cherish the moments you do spend with them though”.
Chef Min suggests, “I’m fortunate to have supportive family backing me daily. The best feeling for a chef is watching people enjoying the food, seeing smiling faces and empty trays. It is an indescribable feeling when customers compliment my food; when they recommend their friends to try and when seeing new faces in the restaurant.”
Michele Kwok concludes, “Looking back, the starting days were the best years of our lives – the learnings, the adrenalin rush, the challenges, the opportunities, all coming together like a ball on fire! The phoenix had indeed risen from the ashes!”