In just a couple of years, the COVID-19 pandemic has forcibly introduced wide-ranging changes to the Food and Beverage (F&B) industry that would typically take years previously. With limited capacity due to social distancing guidelines, restaurants had to turn to technology to help them succeed through the present, somewhat difficult times. But one man at least has shown that this challenging period can also be somewhat exciting times to be in F&B.
After all, for Vincent Lua – the man behind the fast-casual Korean restaurant chain MyeongDong Topokki – his fairly recent but very eventful journey into entrepreneurship can only be described as a direct result of his own perseverance and ability to bounce back stronger than before every time, no matter the challenge.
Lua, CEO of Cravito Group, which owns MyeongDong Topokki, initially studied finance at Curtin University Sarawak and, after graduating in 2008, the second Asian financial crisis ensured that he couldn’t secure a job in Singapore, the city that he so wanted to work in back then.
“I was actually brought up in Brunei. My mum is Johorean and dad was from Terengganu – but I grew up in Brunei because of my late father’s business there at the time,” continues Lua. He goes on to say that during the 1990s, there were plenty of business opportunities in Brunei. “I’d say the scene was even more vibrant compared to Malaysia at the time.” As such, he clearly remembers that his father was so convinced that he moved the whole family there.
“My father is a huge inspiration for me when it comes to running a business. He was a subcontractor in the construction industry back when we were staying in Brunei and he used to regularly bring me along to his project sites. This was when I observed my old man dealing with the day-to-day of his own business, and I am sure this went a long way in instilling the entrepreneurial spirit in me!”
Lua clarifies that his childhood wasn’t all about spending hot days out at some construction site or another. He fondly recalls bonding with his dad, mostly around holidays, adding that the two of them would play computer games like Command and Conquer to happily pass the time together.
Later on, with a bachelor’s degree in finance and management, Lua secured employment with a Bank in Miri. His first foray into employment saw him coming on board as the bank’s youngest relationship manager then.
“I finally left the Bank three years later and was briefly involved in various property investment projects. This saw me coming back to Miri as I had bought a corner shop lot there. Soon, I started a fitness centre on the premises and this expanded into a small chain of fitness centres across Sarawak. I then had this idea to introduce this fitness chain to Kuala Lumpur. Alas, it was not to be as the chain didn’t quite take off and was a short-lived affair, and my search for a viable business venture continued.”
Venturing into F&B
This was when he began taking a closer look at food business trends in Malaysia and everywhere else. “In 2014, at the height of the global ‘Korean Wave’, I travelled to Seoul, Korea, specifically to check out the world-famous Myeongdong shopping street and to experience for myself the exciting street food culture there,” reveals Lua with a smile. He adds that Myeongdong, especially the area around its iconic subway station, is also a street food paradise as its pedestrian-friendly streets are lined with rows of stalls offering a multitude of quick serve goodies for passersby.
What quickly followed was the idea of creating a fast-casual eatery franchise in Malaysia, explains Lua. “We wanted to build this around popular Korean street food delicacies like the popular Korean-style fried chicken in an assortment of flavours, and everything from stews to noodles, that’s being hugely popularised in K-dramas and movies everywhere.”
Lua also points out that each MyeongDong Topokki outlet is actually a window into the delightful, fairly new world of display kitchens (at least, for many Malaysian diners anyway!). Each outlet is essentially an open kitchen, where customers can not only see the crew preparing their food, but is also designed to encourage the millennials, and like-minded, out there, to actively post and share pictures of them enjoying their food there on their social media platforms.
MyeongDong Topokki- Korean Streetfood
Fast forward to 2022 and the franchise now has some 50 outlets in operation, with about 18 more in various stages of completion. “It is our hope that, by the end of the year, we’ll have around 80 MyeongDong Topokki outlets in operation throughout the country,” Lua says.
A visit to any MyeongDong Topokki outlet will quickly reveal that it specialises in freshly made Korean street food such as its signature topokki (rice cake) and, of course, the ubiquitous Korean fried chicken. Over the years, Lua says, the chain has also come up with more selections of its popular Korean value set meals consisting of ramyun (noodles), jjigae (stew), bokkeumbap (fried rice) and deopbap (covered rice), alongside the many panchan (side dish) selections.
“Now, we also operate a huge one-acre central kitchen situated in Puchong that gives MyeongDong Topokki the ability to deliver pre-prepared food items to its outlets across Malaysia, and elsewhere in the future.” Lua reveals that this is headed and staffed by experienced food franchise professionals to ensure that its kitchen operations are second to none.
Expanding to Asia
“Looking ahead, we are now raising funds to launch in Jakarta, Brunei and Cambodia, and also to finally set up some outlets in East Malaysia.” Lua has also set himself some lofty targets to keep him busy in the foreseeable future as he intends to bring the MyeongDong Topokki brand to Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam as well.
Lua, however, says that the brand’s expansion isn’t a new phenomenon. It actually started out in 2014 itself, when MyeongDong Topokki’s history began, but at a very slow pace. “I mean, look at this this way – we began with one outlet, then another the following year and three more in 2016. This was what our expansion pace has been with regards to the number of outlets. But you know what? The pace actually picked up during the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic, as all the other bigger, competing brands were forced to pause and adopt a wait-and-see approach to their own plans.”
Being a small brand in comparison, Lua believes MyeongDong Topokki was able to shift and pivot more effectively and rapidly, and ventured into digitalisation more effectively. “As such, we have launched new services like our brand-new cloud kitchen service. We have also ventured into opening hybrid outlets with an emphasis for delivery, and, of course, we’re also very excited about our debut NFT Concept Restaurant in Malaysia, which can be experienced at Genting Highland’s Sky Avenue.”
Meanwhile, with just a tap on the screen of their smart devices, customers are also able to order via MyeongDong Topokki’s own app that’s available for both Android and iOS devices, and easily satisfy their Korean food cravings anywhere. The app has built-in AI that analyses what specific users or customers like to eat and when they want it.
“This allowed us capitalise on the digital side of our business and, as a result, MyeongDong Topokki sales grew instead of declining during this trying period, especially in the delivery segment for same-store sales and cloud kitchen services,” Lua adds. “Technology provides convenience and efficiency. By simplifying the whole purchasing process, MyeongDong Topokki can provide a seamless interaction platform for the customer.”
Perhaps more importantly, in view of the present pandemic-driven landscape, MyeongDong Topokki has been exploring new business models that require minimum physical contact, as well as digitising and automating the business ﬂow. “A physical store in a mall has high rental and maintenance cost, but cloud kitchens, set up to just prepare food for delivery, reduce that cost as they only require a robust delivery structure and strong digital interface to let customers purchase food via a digital platform with minimal set-up cost,” says Lua.
As a parting shot, Lua is also keen to point out that achieving success in an increasingly dynamic world is heavily influenced by a company’s grasp of innovation and its readiness to accept change. “Perhaps many will realise now that merely doing market research won’t give one all the answers. Instead, it’s definitely better to always be receptive to what the market wants and also remember that customers are always open to trying out new and exciting things.”