Malaysia’s food entrepreneurs bank on tech and innovation to survive Covid-19 lockdowns
- With the national pastime of eating out curtailed, chefs and restaurateurs turned to food delivery apps and scrambled for government aid
- Established players are looking for ‘pandemic proof’ models involving cloud kitchens and affordable dishes suitable for delivery
Others saw opportunity amid the crisis, however, with new entrepreneurs entering the food and beverage space looking to leverage their knowledge of the digital world and knack for innovation.
Rizal Van Geyzel, co-founder of the Crackhouse Comedy Club in Kuala Lumpur’s upmarket Taman Tun Dr Ismail suburb, was among them.
Forced to close its doors in the early days of the pandemic, the club survived for a few months on government relief payments, Van Geyzel said, before he realised: “I had two choices – either hop on the virtual event bandwagon that most have done or get into the food business.”
He said he chose food “because it was something that I thought I could carry over even after the pandemic”, later deciding to include “complimentary one-minute joke clips by past headliners” with every order to make his pizzas stand out in a crowded marketplace.
The result has been a surge in interest, with Van Geyzel saying the club “saw an increase of up to 60 per cent spending for food compared to ticket sales when we could open up to the public” in between lockdowns.
He said becoming a full-time pizza delivery business would not make financial sense, but the temporary transition is at least helping to pay the bills for now.
“It doesn’t matter how long it takes for the industry to recover. For now, we will just continue to do deliveries because that at least can help us keep our lights on, keep the water running and keep the oven burning,” Van Geyzel said.
“We didn’t have a huge follower base yet unlike some restaurants that had steady income flows,” he said, adding that movement restrictions meant he had little choice but to let go of his staff, leaving him “running the entire operation by myself”.
Early issues included sourcing the right packaging to protect his delicate home-made cheeses – a major expenditure – and recalibrating costs “to include the 30 per cent delivery commission e-hailing provider Grab takes per delivery”.
He said the government’s moratorium on loan repayments had helped Cotta, which currently operates on a community partnership model, and that he was hopeful for better days in future.
“I think everyone is now in the same position as I am so we’re looking at a fresh perspective – why not work together to overcome our one common problem which is the lack of sales,” he said.
“I think more restaurants will also go for a cloud kitchen model either by using their own cloud kitchen or adopting a cloud kitchen provider because then they can focus on their delivery items without incurring the cost of setting up a restaurant,” he told This Week in Asia .
Abbinash Santhanakrishnan, who lost his job as a chef at the Holiday Inn Penang after it was forced to close its doors amid the pandemic, said the health crisis had served to change the way Malaysians think about eating out, and spur on a new digital push in the industry.
“It will take longer to recover due to changes in dining outlooks and the increased competition plus the introduction of cloud kitchens where most chefs, cooks and industry players will adopt to sustain themselves,” he said.