6 things I learned after 2 years as an F&B entrepreneur

I became an F&B entrepreneur slightly over 2 years ago, when my wife and I decided to open Double A Cafe. 


As an introduction, my experience in F&B are with cafes – dealing with coffee, cakes and hot kitchen. Cafes are increasingly becoming popular here in KL, you hear a new one opening almost every month. Owning a cafe is exhilarating and it’s like street-cred, it’s the new cool. What people don’t tell you is that, if you are small business with limited cash and you plan to be hands on, owning a cafe involves being exhausted a lot (imagine being on your feet for 10 hours a day for 6 days a week). It is your passion that will drive and sustain you. What people don’t tell you is that while new cafes open every month, cafes close down every month too. If you plan to open a cafe because you want to create a hang-out spot for your guys or you want to look cool and not because you have a genuine love for coffee or cooking, my advise is: Don’t Open A Cafe. 

Here it is, six things I learnt: 

1. Buy things second hand. Some things you can upgrade.

For a small business where cash is limited, you need to be aware that cafe business requires somewhat large capital (a good estimate of a set up cost of a cafe in a shop-lot would be ~RM250,000). Because many cafes close down on a monthly basis, always be on the look for good bargains for equipment. Coffee and kitchen equipment have a lifespan of 5-10 years and many cafes don’t get far past their 1 year mark before closing down hence equipment should be in good condition. Often, when cafes close down, you can get bargains of up to 50%. 

In Malaysia, you can find bargains in Mudah.my (search for Coffee Machine) or on the Facebook groups Barista Club Asia or Malaysian Chef Connection for notice of cafe closure.

2. Don’t rent a place thinking it will boom. It is better to rent in a mature area with proven traffic. 

Rent will make up a significant portion of your monthly fixed cost. It is tempting to tell yourself to rent at a relatively new area as it has a slightly lower rent and telling yourself it will be a matter of time before this place will boom (the common lies you will tell yourself include thinking occupancy of condos above are picking up, your shop is near LRT/MRT etc). My advice is to not fall into this trap – yes perhaps the place will boom but you won’t know if it takes 6 months or 6 years and you won’t last that long. It is better to pay RM10k rent for a mature area with strong purchasing power for your products than going to A new development and paying RM7k. The absence of traffic will kill you. 

3. Don’t rely on traffic as a revenue. Supply. 

Relying solely on foot traffic is one major reasons why many cafes fail. Traffic is unpredictable and the cafe game is a volume game – if any given day you have no traffic, you make no revenue and you are still paying for staff with low productivity. Whatever it is you choose to be known for, may it be coffee, cakes or food, create a new revenue stream by supplying – you can get a head start marketing this by having a good social media account. Getting your staff out to deliver to nearby offices makes more money than them just sitting in the shop. 

4. Work on your marketing early. Build social media influence.

Unless your cafe is situated in a heavy traffic area, it is a good idea for you to work on your social media presence early – even before you construct your shop. Malaysians are heavy users of Facebook and Instagram and these platforms play a big role in influencing customers / foodies to come to your shop. If it’s possible to get some, endorsements by instafamous folks will carry a long way. 

5. Sometimes, putting yourself in your staff’ shoes is not a good idea. Someone needs to clean the grease trap.

F&B is a physically demanding job – it involves a lot of standing, discipline to come in on time and doing the kind of cleaning that you usually don’t do at home (like cleaning the coveted grease trap). One trap I see many owners fall into is letting things slide with their staff – the ‘kesian’ mindset. You may think you are practising empathy when you tell yourself, wow they work this much and get paid so little, let’s not be so hard on them – empathy has a time and place and this is not one of it. Your business is not a charity, it needs to make money and people must do what you expect of them for your business to thrive. Yes you will have rebellious staff who do not want to do what they are told – my advice is one bad apple spoils the vibe for everyone. In a small business where many legal aspects are not well understood by staff, it is a good idea to explain to your young staff the grounds for you to terminate them and do not be afraid to issue warning letters and firing them.

On that note, F&B is the kind of business where you should trust in your hiring instinct and give trust to your staff first, until they break it. Else you will be checking the cctv every 10 minutes. People have the capacity to perform and impress you given the right conditions. 


6. Have multiple partners. Having 50% in a successful business is better than 100% of a failing business.

As much as you are passionate for your cafe business, you still want to have a life outside it. Putting “everything you got” for something like a cafe, where returns are not guaranteed, is not a good idea – both in regards to time and money. It is much better if you can find partners and friends to do this with you. If you have 5 partners, what this means is you spend 1/5th of the expenditure and if you negotiate right with your partners, you work 2 days a week and not 6 or 7 days a week full shift. It is better to have a small share of a successful business (and retaining your sanity) as opposed to full ownership of a failing business. If you are telling yourself on the get-go “I have a good idea for a cafe and I don’t want to share the profits of this brilliant idea”, tell yourself it’s all a big IF. 

As a final word, if you are set on having a cafe, it already means you are an entrepreneur which means you are driven. The key thing is to be prudent and execute. 

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8 Cafes to visit in Bangkok

The Bangkok cafe scene is thriving and if cafe hopping is on your to-do list while visiting the beautiful city, here are my recommendations:

Firstly, some general tips. A lot of the cafes are in the Phrom Pong, Thong Lor and Ekkamai area and the area is well serviced by the BTS. Traffic can greatly consume your time when moving around Bangkok by car hence I recommend familiarising yourself with BTS and staying at a hotel near one.

Because we can only eat so much in a day, I recommend exploring by districts as it’s much easier. My district hop recommendations:

Phrom Pong – EmQuartier is connected to Phrom Pong BTS. The high end mall is home to Roast, D’Ark and Vanilla Cafeteria.

Thong Lor – Audrey Cafe, After You and The Commons

Ekkamai – Phil Coffee Company, Ink & Lion, Kaizen Coffee Company

As a note to coffee drinkers, Thailand grow their own specialty coffee beans and many cafes try to showcase these local specialty grade beans. If you are looking for new coffee experiences, do ask the servers what’s being served (either espresso or filter) and look out for Thai beans.


1. Roast (nearest BTS: Phrom Pong & Ekkamai)

Roast is a must go when you are in Bangkok. They currently have 2 outlets, one in EmQuartier and another in the uber-hip The Commons. The EmQuartier branch is easily acccessible by BTS as the mall is connected to the BTS. The Commons is about 15 mins walk from Thong Lor BTS and Roast is on the top floor. While the menu is the same and while EmQuartier is more accessible, The Commons is where the cool and the hip hang out, which should be on your list.

I tried both the brunch and dinner menu and both are great. Coffee is from Roots Coffee and filter beans include beans from Thailand.


2. D’Ark by Philip di Bella

D’Ark was listed as one of the top cafes in Bangkok in 2016 by Thailand Tatler. Located in EmQuartier on the Ground floor. I had brunch here and it’s interesting to see poached eggs done with a slightly harder yolk – it’s great nonetheless.


3. Vanilla Cafeteria (nearest BTS: Phrom Pong)

Located in EmQuartier, Vanilla Cafeteria’s range of dessert is superb and definitely made to share. My recommendation is the Chocolate Nutella Crepe – a large chocolate crepe stuffed with vanilla ice cream, cream and fruits. The crepe itself is delicious and the filling and portion is a bonus.


4. Audrey Cafe (Thong Lor)

Audrey Cafe is a Audrey Hepburn inspired cafe and my recommendation is to visit the one in Thong Lor. The decor is very Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with splashes of mint green and decor reminiscent of that era.

Audrey Cafe does both Western and Thai dishes and I always find a fusion of the two particularly interesting to try. I had Tom Yum Spaghetti at quite a number of venues while I was in Bangkok and to me, Audrey Cafe does it best.


5. After You (Thong Lor)

After You is a dessert cafe and it’s been around since 2007. There’s quite a number of outlets but my recommendation is the one in Thong Lor as it’s situated very near The Commons and Audrey Cafe. What originally made the shop famous is its Shibuya Honey Toast – fluffy thick sweet toast served with two scoops of vanilla ice cream and rich amounts of honey – I recommend that. As a dessert, the Shibuya Honey Toast has a balanced sweetness which allows you to eat one bite after another non stop. Another recommendation is the Mango Kakigori.


6. Phil Coffee Company (Ekkamai)

Phil Coffee Company is in the Ekkamai area and it’s located among houses. It’s a 10 minutes walk from the Ekkamai BTS. They roast their own beans and coffee is generally good – I had the ice cappuccino and the beans I was served had clear chocolatey nutty tasting notes. A surprisingly satisfying drink it’s their Watermelon Bubblegum Soda, after the 10 minute walk to get to the shop, this drink is a definite thirst quencher.

7. Kaizen Coffee Company (Ekkamai)

My personal favourite. Kaizen is located in Ekkamai and it’s quite a walk from the Ekkamai BTS – my recommendation is if you are just going to Kaizen, take uber.

I always assess a coffee shop or cafe by its range and quality of product, vibe and customer service and Kaizen excel in all. Floor staff are super friendly, they engage (and speak good English) and make great recommendation. I had nitro coffee there and it’s the best nitro I’ve ever had.

8. Greyhound Cafe

Greyhound is among the pioneer of the Bangkok cafes and it’s well established – you can find a Greyhound in most major malls (EmQuartier, Central World, JAvenue).

Sabar & Shukur

Some years ago I attended an event organised by Frost & Sullivan in Nusajaya. It was the kind of event where they invited CEOs from various organisation, both multinationals and GLC, to speak. As part of the itinerary, they had a one on one session with Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar, the Managing Director of Khazanah Nasional Berhad. The interviewer was one of the global heads of Frost & Sullivan and one question (and it’s answer) stuck with me. 

The question was, “what are the attributes of a person you value most?”.

I’ve attended many speaker sessions such as this and this sounds like a typical question where answers range from the need to be charismatic, visionary, driven, leading by example and the sort.

Tan Sri’s answer to the interviewer, who was a foreigner mat salleh, was “there are two qualities which I believe are important for a leader, that is Sabar and Shukur”. I remember telling myself, “wow, I’ve didn’t expect that”. He went on to explain to the crowd what Sabar and Shukur means, patience and gratitude respectively, and why it is important any person has them.

It always impresses me when a veteran leader, corporate or otherwise, emphasises the importance of good moral and religious values, which I consider patience and the need to be grateful to be. I remember it was sometime shortly before the talk that I read Surah Ibrahim, Ayat 7, where Allah promised:

“And remember when Lord proclaimed, if you are grateful, I will surely increase you; but if you deny, indeed, My punishment is severe”

I often feel in selected industries in corporate Malaysia, piety is absent and to show you have it is unfavourable. It’s refreshing for me to see at least one leading corporate leader to believe in these values.

Transforming Community Center

TRANSFORMING PUSAT KOMUNITI / COMMUNITY CENTER
1) A few weeks ago, I first visited my friend’s new cafe in Singapore called Brothers In Fine Food. It is located in Tampines West Community Club (CC). It was then that I was first exposed to how the Singaporean government is rejuvenating their CC to be a center of activity for locals.

2) In the Malaysian context, the CC is equivalent to our community center / pusat komuniti. It is run by the local councils, e.g. DBKL. Some examples include Pusat Komuniti TTDI, Pusat Komuniti Bangsar.

3) Singapore realised a few years ago that while the CC was created to be a center of community activity, it achieved little as it was only a place for people to play badminton and basketball. This is the same case with Malaysian Pusat Komuniti today, with the addition that we host weddings at our CC.

4) To Singapore, CC is to be a center of community activity where the community is often HDB dwellers (affordable housing) and affordable living is important.

5) Singapore rejuvenation strategy was to bring in known F&B brands (McDonalds and Starbucks) to attract the masses to come to the CC. The CCs were then equipped with more activities, such as dance studios and free-to-play piano and have daily showings of movies and live sports. Outlet spaces were made available for other F&B to set up.

6) The CC enforces a very strict rule where all outlets that open in the CC will have a price cap per item – it needs to be affordable for the community!

7) Rent for outlets are cheaper than other commercial areas, encouraging entrepreneurship.

8) The result of it is today, many CCs are bustling centres of community activity.

9) I believe this CC transformation is a worthwhile initiative in Malaysia given that infrastructure is done – many neighbourhood already have Pusat Komuniti.

10) With coordination, I can imagine a similar concept done, e.g. In Johor, Pusat Komuniti to have KFC as main tenant to attract crowd (it is JCorp owned anyway), with additional spaces for classes and F&B outlets – all with a price cap.

 

Lee Chong Wei

Dato Lee Chong Wei won the silver medal tonight. In the competition it meant he was second but we Malaysians know in our hearts he is second to no one.

National athletes are an embodiment of something special. From the pursuit to excel in their sport, they in turn become our torch bearers, carrying our hopes and dreams – perhaps that is why all participants in the Olympic Games are Olympians and not just the medal winners. For us Malaysians, I do believe that hope and dream goes beyond the collective dream of winning a Gold medal. It warms me that we have a collective soul, that we could dream the same dream, that we feel for Chong Wei and we could agree without doubt that he is a national hero.

Today has been a day full of talk about Chong Wei but it prompts for reflection and learning. Here is a man who carried our dreams in the last Olympics, and in his second placing was thought too old to continue but continued to carry this heavy burden. He lost his World No.1 title only to regain it back and continued to carry our hopes and dreams.

Malaysia will win the Gold medal one day. And when that day comes, we will all know it is because athletes like Dato Lee Chong Wei inspired us, united us and carried our dreams for us. Thank you Dato Lee Chong Wei.

#ThankYouLCW #badminton #rio2016 #nationalhero

Double A on BFM 89.9

As a corporate guy, one of the things I do to pass time while commuting to work is to listen to the Breakfast Grill on BFM 89.9. It is a treasure chest of executive experience which any  corporate executive could benefit from.

It was with great excitement that I was contacted by my former university mate to come speak on BFM about Double A Café on the Open for Business segment.

It’s a thrilling thought, to be playing a different role in your own daily ritual. Instead of listening to an interview, I’d be the one speaking and thousands (tens of thousands?) would be listening.

The beauty of overthinking is that you tend to be more thorough. “What am I gonna say?” “I don’t want to sound silly on Live radio…especially when they save a podcast!” One may think that since you are talking about your own business, you can technically goreng your way. Yes you can, but you can still sound silly.

I learnt how live interviews are conducted. They give you a skeleton of questions in advance so you can prepare (I guess so they can prepare too). You would be invited to arrive 30 minutes before air time where the host would prep you by running through the questions – this is good as you get to plan the words you want to say. The Live session is somewhat of a recap of the prep session, albeit Live and recorded and everybody is listening.

Double A has had interviews before but few such as BFM, where we would go into the Whys of the business, Live.

Interviews are a great prompt for personal reflection. As a person, I’m a firm believer on the importance of reflecting on one’s experience. I believe reflecting helps you to rationalise your day, it helps with your stress levels, it helps you to better learn from an experience and most importantly, it helps you to grow and to learn what kind of person you are.

You can listen the full interview here:

http://www.bfm.my/open-for-business-ala-carte-double-a-cafe-aiman-syed-jaafar-alia-ishak.html

The interview was conducted by Freda Liu and being the cheerful conversationalist that she is, she helped tremendously in making us feel comfortable and have a great interview. Thanks Freda and Jermaine 🙂


(this is not the interviewer) 😀

Petola

Every weekend, almost without fail, we would have family dinners. If it’s not on my side, it’d be on Alia’s. Family dinners, with its certainty of good company, will almost certainly lead to great conversation.

MIL: Itu la, papa accidentally tertinggal the sayur at the pasar this morning
Alia: Ha, next time Aiman kena ikut pergi pasar, he doesn’t even know what daun sup is.
Me: Excuse me, I watch Gordon Ramsay please. Gordon Ramsay use proper names, not “daun sup“. And by the way, daun sup is parsley.
MIL: No lah, daun sup is celery.
Alia: Huh cannot be la, celery is the one you dip-dip at Chilis. What did papa leave at pasar?
MIL: Papa left the petola.
Alia & Me: Homaigod, what is petola?

-__________________________________________-

#majorfailmoment

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And so we got an education on what is petola, peria and bittergourd and its translated equivalent in BM/English – with drawings!

Although we are just bilingual, sometimes knowing the translated names of vegetables could be the hardest thing. Alhamdulillah we ended the night with renewed understanding of vegetables.

Possible next lesson: fish translated.
(Like c’mon, I know different types of fish exclusively in one language but not the other – like I know what ikan kembung is but what on Earth is ikan kembung in English?)