2020 has definitely been a year of firsts, and it was also the first time businesses had to adapt their operations to a pandemic. Currently, the Malaysian food and beverage (subsequently referred to as F&B) industry has been experiencing volatile changes wrought by the coronavirus outbreak. In particular, the businesses in this industry have had to adjust their survival methods, where the industry recorded some of the highest job losses during the movement control order (MCO).
Furthermore, restaurants and hawker stalls play an indispensable role in the local food culture; but they also play a role in strengthening the social fabric of serving as a ‘lepak’ or hangout spot to the Malaysian community. However, what happens when a pandemic breaks out and in turn, changes this “community-dining norm” overnight? As Covid-19 hits hard, business owners face a stark choice – to adapt, or to throw in the towel.
FLY Malaysia journalists, Puteri Nelissa Milani and Melanie Fernandez spoke to Mr Kenny; business owner of Kenny’s Food Cart, to gain insights on how his business has been affected by the pandemic that brought added challenges to the vulnerable F&B industry. Additionally, to gain further insights on the success story this business brings while surviving strongly in this pandemic.
Kenny’s Food Cart
Kenny’s Food Cart is a family business. It has been around Petaling Jaya for over two decades, running strong with their signature ‘Teng Chai Chuk’ or ‘Boat Porridge’ amongst other comfort foods like noodles and rice dishes. The second-generation business initially started as a hawker stall in Alisan Street, Petaling Jaya, and now operates in a shop lot located at Aman Suria, Damansara.
Daily Life in MCO
During a chat with Chef Kenny over Zoom, we spoke about the company and how its operations had changed because of the pandemic. With this, the business owner, Kenny, shared about the necessary adjustments that had to be made according to the government’s rules and regulations.
“There were a lot of uncertainties in terms of [operating] hours, number of customers per table; [and] whether customers are able to dine in or whether only takeaways are available,”. Furthermore, MCO restrictions also resulted in less walk-ins; and consequently had forced him to cut costs by unfortunately, laying off several staff.
Their working landscape and dynamics also had to shift. Kenny explained, “There were no salary cuts made, but we had to work longer hours and adjust accordingly,”. This indicated many toiling hours and a considerable amount of personal sacrifice. With the extension of the various MCOs that led up to several months; necessary measures had and still must be made in order to keep the thriving business afloat.
Like many other F&B businesses, Kenny’s Food Cart also had its fair share of challenges. The biggest one happened just after the first MCO had ensued; Where the shop had closed for almost two months, and the company’s funds consequently depleted to zero.
This was when their business partner suggested that they close down the business. Kenny was adamant to stop working on this source of bread and butter that he had painstakingly built. Thus, after buying all the shares from the said partner, he was resilient in rebuilding the business from ground zero.
However, despite the difficulties faced during the past year, Kenny had expressed that the pandemic had not been the worst threat to his business. He recalled how the business dynamic was much tougher when it was operating initially as a hawker stall on the streets.
Where in his business’s past, the weather had posed as the main growth-hindering threat. He reiterated how the business’s daily operations were impeded during hazy and rainy seasons, where working hours had to be cut short to two or three hours only as they relied on an umbrella, instead of a roof.
This experience was thus, in stark contrast to the pandemic, where they could still operate as usual regardless of the various types of MCOs.
Staying Resilient: Kenny’s Way Forward
Online delivery platforms are no longer a foreign concept among Malaysians. While many larger businesses pivoted through an islandwide amount of delivery platforms, Kenny was initially hesitant to become a merchant due to the high merchant fees his business would have to incur.
However, months before the second MCO had occurred, Kenny’s friend prompted a question to Kenny: “What if tomorrow the government only allowed [for] takeaways? How would you run your business?”. The exchange posed an exigent concern on how to maintain the business’ sales. Additionally, restaurants are cash-reliant businesses — no kitchen activity would subsequently mean no revenue.
With this, Kenny then looked at the situation from another perspective. In the chef’s words: “If you hire a person to do these delivery services, it may cost the same as the salary to deliver [food]. Plus, the delivery coverage area would not be as big as the ones online delivery platforms are able to provide. It’s a good idea,”. Hence, Kenny decided to give it a try.
While this business decision served as a great platform to boost sales, it was also fairly challenging to adapt and manage these online orders, especially for those who are not as tech-savvy. Furthermore, as an online delivery merchant, there were a lot of improvements that needed to be made, from packaging food to handling the soar in delivery sales while being short-staffed.
Nevertheless, when the second lockdown did occur, Kenny was thankful for his decision to grapple with the new digital way of working. The business was then able to sustain high sales despite the lockdown; and able to reach out to more customers with the advantage of having access to a bigger delivery area. Additionally, Kenny and his employees had adjusted their workloads and working hours consistently to meet the ongoing demands.
Undoubtedly, when MCO restrictions did loosen, the restaurant was busier than ever. With the surge of walk-ins, and the already existing high amount of online orders, Kenny admitted that it was a challenge, but he still is glad to be staying in his pursuit and journey strong.
“It is often relayed that this pandemic may be the worst economical threat known to this generation”. Kenny responded humbly to this statement by highlighting the trials undergone previously.
To him, pandemic restrictions are trivial in comparison to weather dependent business operations the stall had braved through in the past. That perspective attributes to his unwillingness to drop the ball despite the struggles he has endured as a business owner over the past year.
Kenny stressed how originating from a modest background has fuelled his mentality. Considering how he does not view his family to be monetarily rich, he believes in the value of a backup plan in efforts to combat uncertainty. With this principle, as it cannot be understated how the pandemic has resulted in the inevitable shut down of numerous local food and beverage businesses, Kenny does not view shutting down as a feasible option despite the current economic climate. Instead, it represents the last resort.
Upon being questioned as to whether he would prefer for the government to provide more incentives to business owners or allow businesses to operate as usual, he chose the latter. This comes as little surprise, as his choice resonates with a number of local F&B business owners.
The lockdown has been brutal to a large majority of industries, particularly the food and beverage sector, as dining out or eating has previously been and still is a popularly preferred option in the Malaysian culture. Kenny went on to explain how a chain effect would be triggered from allowing businesses to operate as usual, as it would encourage people to dine out more and subsequently enable most businesses to get back on their feet.
Vaccination, and the Optimism Surrounding it
Authorities have been working tirelessly to secure and administer vaccines nationwide. It is a daunting process, but many are hopeful it will reap benefits in the near future.
Kenny joins this opinion, as he believes vaccination will encourage communities to start eating out again. Explaining how the Asean culture places great emphasis on the local and hawker foods, Kenny optimistically hopes that the F&B Industry will pick up promptly post vaccination.
Lessons Worth Remembering
Having experienced a year of this unprecedented pandemic, Kenny reflects on numerous lessons he has walked away with as a business owner, and more importantly, as someone accountable to his employees. Being a marathon runner himself, he observes how similar principles apply in the economically challenging moments of the past year. He credits the value of continuing to move despite the hurdles along the way.
Honesty too, is a valuable virtue that has proven its worth to Kenny. His ability to have authentic conversations with his landlord and suppliers in turn reaped the benefit in his efforts to sustain the business. This is yet another testament to the vitality of genuine relationships and trustworthiness in a business.
Addressing the Elephant in the Room
Reflecting on the challenges this pandemic has introduced to most aspects of our lives, it is natural to shy away from discussions about how we must react in the event that it repeats itself.
Kenny defies this behaviour primarily through his ability to acknowledge the difficult truth, that is, overcoming the current pandemic may not even be feasible over the next few years. Some may view his mindset to be passive, yet the truth is his ability to be realistic is one of the many attributes that has enabled him to keep his business afloat for as long as he has. Additionally, as a father with mouths to feed, the thought of his family and baby keeps him pushing forward amidst the variable elements of the pandemic.
With this, we thank Kenny for the time he spared for this interview, and more importantly, for the promising messages, success stories, and encouragement he sends in this article to all business owners nationwide .
Journalists: Puteri Nelissa Milani, Melanie Fernandez
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