They say with real estate, the three things that matter are location, location, and location. Nestled by the foot of Bukit Nenas in Kuala Lumpur sits a restaurant owned by Shaheera Shahab and her family.
At the nexus of Kuala Lumpur’s ‘Wall Street’ – Jalan Raja Chulan, its nightlife district of Changkat Bukit Bintang, and its old historic core of Jalan Tun Perak and Masjid Jamek, Pampas at Old Malaya easily check all that three requirements. (Oh wait, it also has a commanding view of the iconic KL Tower on the hill behind it. Add that as another plus point.)
Built just after the end of World War I, these handsome former military quarters are no doubt crowd-pullers, and it is the same charm that caught the love of Shaheera and her family close to a decade ago when they made the decision to invest in refurbishing it from a state of rundown and forgotten.
“It’s mainly the building. It is special” she said. “We don’t have to do anything or add anything to it. It speaks for itself.”
Having restored it to its former glory—perhaps even surpassing it—they opened Pampas at Old Malaya there, and rented out the other units of the complex to other businesses. Operating for over seven years now, Shaheera said that the kitchen and the service are “the heart and lungs” of the restaurant. “As long as the amazing service matches the amazing food, you will retain customers you will still stay relevant,” she said.
Conserving that century-old building is not just a one-off project for them but is instead intrinsic to who they are and their core belief in conservation. Although iconic and serves as a landmark of Kuala Lumpur, it is just one of the many things that she and her family are doing.
“Our business is conservation. Our main bread and butter is selling land,” Shaheera said.
Echoing the lush greenery that cradles Pampas at Old Malaya, that land sits up on the hills of Janda Baik, just 35km away from downtown Kuala Lumpur, where the urban sprawl of the city meets the ancient hills to the east, with the concrete jungle giving way to an actual tropical rainforest. Dubbed Tanarimba, the place might as well be a whole world away.
With a total of 1,400 acres available for homesteads, the whole enclave is surrounded by 5,899 acres of forest reserve at the elevation that starts at 460 meters above sea level, providing its residents with clean, crisp air while still easily reachable to the hustle and bustle city life.
“It’s been around 25 years now since we opened our doors. We build the infrastructure and manage the development,” she said.
With the development aim of coexisting in balance and harmony with nature, her small kingdom in the woods offers popular hangout spots like Pineyard Café, Enderong Café and A Little Farm On The Hill within a short distance, while the adventurous can look to horse riding, ATV and jungle trekking within neighbouring vicinities.
Another conservation project they worked on in Janda Baik is Kebun Rimba, a former rubber plantation that they singlehandedly replanted with native forest plants, turning it into a private eco-resort offering a healthy refuge from the fast-paced lifestyles that we are living in today.
While it sounds like she just grew up in the family business, Shaheera started out wanting to branch out on her own after graduating. “I was one of the co-founders of a mobile application related to fashion. It is one of my many failures,” she said with a laugh.
In harmony with how the family’s business grows gracefully in respect to what was already there, she decided to come back into the fold and help the family business grow further and has since dedicated her time and hard work to make it work.
Being master tenants of a hilltop enclave as well as deeply invested in hospitality gives Shaheera a good understanding of the importance of community, one that she said was severely tested during the Covid pandemic.
Although brutal to the hospitality businesses, with many restaurants, hotels and other businesses succumbing to the lengthy lockdown, she saw a return of investment in investing in cultivating that sense of community through the strength of the community coming in to lift her up from the worst.
“The staff really helped us… all the sacrifices that everyone made, it really helped keep us alive,” she said. “Even our customers, they came out and supported us again and again and again.”
Key to that, for her, is consistency which she attributes to a philosophy of how they do things. “You will remember the restaurant where the waiter made a very nice impression on you and the food was amazing. So consistency, I believe is longevity,” she said. “As long as you have those two elements everything else is a bonus.”
Looking to the future, Shaheera says that her dream is to have something like Old Malaya but bring it elsewhere, calling Kuala Lumpur quite saturated already. “Everyone is doing it since we did it first, you know?” she said with a knowing laugh.
“So I think I want to head out.”