Text by: Ellfian Rahim
Indeed, opening a restaurant demands a fervent type of love. And this means not just creating culinary masterpieces, but certainly also for the business itself. Buoyed by that love, countless restaurants have historically proven more resilient than other businesses out there, not least after wars and maladies have utterly destroyed them in times of past!
In our neck of the woods, perhaps a perfect case-in-point of loving the business one’s in is the story of Chef Darren Chin of DC Restaurant, situated in the ritzy Kuala Lumpur enclave of Taman Tun Dr Ismail. Founded In 2014, Chin’s pride and joy serves a tantalising and innovative menu of French-meets-Southeast-Asia flavours.
But just like elsewhere, the Covid-19 pandemic has cast a lingering gloom on the high-end food and beverage (f & b) industry here in Malaysia. And more than anyone else, Chin clearly remembers the beginning of the troubles: “It was probably March 18, 2020 when I, and everyone else, woke up to rumours about a certain dangerous disease spreading across China. Then our own prime minister announced a movement control order (MCO) would be enforced across the nation to control the spread of this new pandemic here.”
Initially, Chin actually thought that it this was just going to last maybe a couple of weeks. “But then, it got extended for another two weeks… and the rest is history. Of course, no one expected it to last for more than two years, mind you!”
“So, we just resigned ourselves to accepting the first MCO as something that was beyond our control, and pretty much just stayed home. But I run a businessman, and I obviously began feeling more than just a pinch as the first MCO was followed by the second, and the third one!”
Chin clearly recalls that the first three months as being a bit surreal as nothing had sunk in properly quite just yet for anyone in his industry. “In fact, we felt like it was like a bit of a honeymoon period as people in the f & b industry hardly have too much time to be with their family and loved ones while taking some time off to relax…”
But then, he recalls that the unpredictable nature of the extensions for the MCO was perhaps the biggest worry for any f & b business owners and related professionals. “So, leading up to the second year of restrictions, a decision was finally made to move ahead with certain plans to improve my business as I felt that we could no longer hope that the pandemic would just suddenly go away.”
“I am a businessman, but I am also a chef, and I’ve been balancing these two roles for more than 20 years now. But the pandemic brought circumstances that none of us in the f 8 b industry have ever come across before. And when it comes to unexpected situations like this, I felt that we just shouldn’t relate back to things that we are comfortable with in the past. Instead, one needs to constantly evolve to suit the current situation, and take advantage of any emerging opportunity,” recalls Chin.
“But for us at DC Restaurant, perhaps more than anything else, we have the luxury of taking advantage of the market segment where of restaurant is in (that’s more relative to the T20 crowd – the top 20% of the Malaysian household income). Pandemic or no pandemic, it won’t really affect our clientele’s spending power at all really.”
So, with this realisation firmly in mind, Chin negotiated with his suppliers and planned for a staggered payment for whatever that the restaurant owed them for. “And of course, every one of our suppliers, and even our landlord, understood the gravity of this pandemic issue and were very supportive in a multitude of ways,” he reveals with a grin.
“But I’d like to point out that any f & b business needs to have a certain threshold of savings to prepare for any crisis that could just happen at a drop of a hat! Fortunately, we have been relying on a very effective business model all this while that is more relative to our monthly costs and sales.”
Everyone says there’s no money to be made in anything related to luxury these days, but Chin believes the key to success in any business is relative to what a particular business spends per month, and what one’s sales figures are daily and monthly. And he is totally convinced that all this corelates towards the profitability of the business itself.
“So obviously, something as unexpected as a pandemic will greatly harm an f & b business where there is no real understanding between its chef, shareholders and investors, its staff and everyone else related to the businesses’ day-to-day,” says Chin confidently.
“Thus, the next step was to ensure that we did not lose any of our experienced people at the restaurant. So, I vowed to not let go of anyone in spite of everything, and we didn’t! Of course, there were pay cuts involved as there came to a point where the business just couldn’t sustain full salaries because it just wasn’t feasible.”
During the lockdown, Chin also explains that he started planning to create more space for the restaurant, and soon began renovation work to turn two more floors of the building where his restaurant sits at into comfortable dining space to welcome future diners when the lockdown is lifted. “This was driven purely by the fact that we never lost hope, and we were always optimistic about achieving growth again somewhere along the line.”
“I also did a lot of free cooking shows from home that were presented to our audiences via a slew of social media channels to continue creating demand for our brand. This actually started out as a means to pass time for me but after receiving a lot of positive feedback, I realised that my efforts actually creating plenty of value for my business!”
So, when the MCO was finally lifted, Chin happily recalls the bookings flooding back from all these people who were stuck at home before – the moneyed set who were just so eager to spend on quality once again! “Just look at how the luxury market is booming right now and we are benefitting from this too because we never gave up. I guess for my clientele at least, now is when they satisfy pent-up desire for what they have gotten so used to in the past!”
Because of this flurry of customers spending an average of RM1,000 per head, Chin happily reports that the restaurant’s books are happily in the black again. “Now, we are as ready as ever to welcome an eager public with the completion of the extensions to the restaurant that I mentioned before, offering three times the dining space that we used to have.”
“After just three months of the reopening of the market from the pandemic-related restrictions here in Malaysia, our business has pretty much recovered. No other business can offer you this, in a traditional sense, of course! But you need that self-belief, the desire to go against the grain, and anything, I believe, is possible!”