Dato’ Jagan Sabapathy looked slightly bemused as he reflected on how long his first F&B venture, Mezze Bistro & Lounge, has been opened. “We have survived for nine years now,” he said, sounding a little surprised. “That’s quite amazing, all things considered.” Dato’ Jagan is, however, being modest. Far from merely ‘surviving’, Mezze is practically an institution, setting the standards for wholesome fine dining and curating a wine list that is both the envy of any restaurant and the delight of all connoisseurs.
“I think we have certainly helped put this area on the F&B scene,” he conceded, referring to Mezze’s location in Jalan Kasah, Kuala Lumpur. Discerning foodies would certainly have Jalan Kasah on their to-dine lists, what with the numerous options on offer that cater to just about anyone looking for a good time. “The area has changed a lot,” Dato’ Jagan observed. “When we started, this place was dead; now, it’s become a destination and I’m proud that Mezze played a part in making this happen.”
Of course, at the beginning, there was no grand plan. “I was still working at BRDB (Bandar Raya Developments Bhd, where Dato’ Jagan was CEO) and, one day, when my wife Shantini, her sister and two friends decided they wanted to open a restaurant – I thought they were mad!” They went ahead, though, and the first incarnation of Mezze, the bistro on the ground floor, was born. “At the start, there were four equal partners, all with their own lofty ideals, and there challenges from the beginning, especially in the kitchen, where they had problems finding the right chef,” Dato’ Jagan said.
It took some time before things started to get better – improvements to the bar, for example, helped the restaurant side of the business do better. In fact, the bar side began to do so well that, when the opportunity of expanding Mezze to the floor above came up, the partners sat down to restructure their arrangement. “At the end of the discussion, we decided to increase our stake and Shantini became the majority shareholder,” he said. More importantly, this meant that there was now one single person leading the business, which allowed for clearer decision-making and paving the way for the beloved Mezze Bistro & Lounge it is today.
This, Dato’ Jagan said, inadvertently made them restaurateurs. “It was purely by accident that we became what we are now – there was no great design or wild plans to start an F&B empire. We are our own worse critics, so we are committed to doing the best that we can and doing it with passion. Shantini loves food and coming with recipes, working closely with the kitchen staff. As for the bar, I confess it’s an indulgence on my part – it was an excuse to buy the wines and whiskies that I like. It’s also allowed us to work with an importer to bring in our own wines, which is why we have such a good wine list.”
These aspects, he believed, partly explained the appeal of Mezze. “Sometimes I joke about it but it’s also a place where everybody sorts of knows everybody. Mezze is a community of people who come here to hang out, enjoy good food and drink, do business deals – some very big ones too – and even raise money for charity and causes.”
Things might have gone on as it was if it hadn’t been for another of Datin Shantini’s brainwaves, which sparked an almost hectic period of expansion of the couple’s F&B interests. “Our children studied in London, where we also have a home. There’s a bakery nearby. Gail’s, a lovely place that Shantini went to regularly. She then decided that we should open a bakery. We found a corner lot in Plaza Damansara in Damansara Heights, which is owned by a very old friend of mine, and Huckleberry was born,” Dato’ Jagan said.
Starting with an emphasis on breads in 2015, Huckleberry has since broadened its scope to pastries, cakes and meals. “The business is doing well and we’ve even expanded by open small kiosks in Bangsar Shopping Complex, The Intermark, Isetan The Japan Store in Lot 10 and, soon, KLCC. Again, it’s the same passion in Mezze that is behind Huckleberry – which has since become a brand,” Dato’ Jagan said. Within a year, a cocktail bar, Skullduggery, joined the family in a space above Huckleberry.
The following year saw the opening of Birch in DC Mall. “Birch came about because Datuk Paul Poh tried to convince us to move Mezze to DC Mall, which I refused. We just didn’t see Mezze as a mall restaurant. After much persuasion, however, we agreed to partner him on Birch, which has also become a success. And, again, it’s much the same ingredients – good food, innovative ideas and vibrant bar – that’s driving it.”
After Birch had opened, another opportunity opened up. “The lot next to Mezze was inherited by one of my former partners at KPMG and he offered it to us. By then, we felt Mezze was looking tired and we felt it was time to make a change. We refreshed the bistro downstairs, revamping the menu as well, and brought in new partners to redo and expand the lounge upstairs across both lots, and added a private room as well. We found other partners to open Fincch Sushi Room, one of whom is one of the biggest importers of fish from Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.”
Reflecting back, Dato’ Jagan’s greatest pleasure is in how the entire family contributed to all the outlets. “Skullduggery, for example, was my son’s idea – although I think it was only because he and his friends didn’t want to go into Kuala Lumpur for cocktails!” he laughed. Yet, there’s a synergy to how the family operates. “I’m the numbers guy and I work with the marketing team, while it’s Shantini who’s more hands on, working everyday with the team. Even my daughter, who’s in the UK, pitches in whenever she can. That, I think, is what I’m most proud off.”
While F&B seems to be the most visible aspect of Dato’ Jagan’s company, Tribeca Capital, it is real estate business that’s the serious part. “We’re working with some partners on a waterfront hotel and residences development in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. There’s also a 500ac development in Kulai, Johor, as well as a condominium project in Damansara Heights, which will be launched next year,” he said.
As he sees it, however, there’s little to differentiate between real estate and F&B. “When I look back at time at BRDB and see the developments we accomplished, I get a sense of ‘yes, we did something good there’. It’s the same with Mezze, Huckleberry and Birch – I think we’ve done some good there: creating distinct spaces where people can come and have a memorable time. Both industries need passion and are challenging in their own ways. You really need to work to make them a success.”
A self-described ‘semi-retiree’, the only regret he seems to have is the lack of time to improve his golf. “I’m not the kind who can just do nothing – I think I’ll drive everyone mad. But I really won’t mind spending more time on golf – I’m getting slaughtered out there on the golf courses and losing money!”