Home-based chefs savour success but wary of setting up shop

Julie Mah (third from left) with her home-cooked food at the Siri Jayanti Metta Care Centre in Setapak on May 27.

PETALING JAYA: Despite experiencing various levels of success selling home-cooked food during the partial lockdown imposed in mid-March, several home-based chefs remain wary of venturing into the business arena, saying many restaurants appear to be feeling the pinch with some even forced to close down.

“From the looks of the many food places closing down, people may still prefer online deliveries and home-cooked food to decrease human contact,” said Julie Mah, who sells Nyonya food and snacks from her home in Taman Melawati.

“The difficulty in maintaining overheads will deter many from starting or maintaining their current shops, (which may) extend to food industries.”

Another food vendor, Nurul Iwani Muzaili, agreed that people nowadays would rather eat at home than dine out.

“For the time being, I think it is more appropriate to sell from home.

“We already know we may not get enough sales to cover expenses (if we open a restaurant) as people are still scared to dine out,” said Nurul, who focuses on local cuisine in Selayang.

According to the Malaysia Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors’ General Association, up to 30% of restaurants in the country have closed due to lack of demand as people remain hunkered down under the national shutdown of public activities.

Under the movement control order (MCO) enforced on March 18, restaurants and food vendors were limited to takeaways and food deliveries. Although restrictions were relaxed after May 4, business is slow.

Affordable home-cooked food became a popular option across the Klang Valley, driven by the burgeoning number of delivery operators and the popularity of social media as a marketing tool.

However, the additional costs of rented shop space, labour and other overheads will deter many from starting or maintaining their current shops, said Mah who started selling her food online last month.

She said a shop was no longer a necessity for those who wished to venture into the food business as a strong customer base, good taste buds, a willingness to listen to feedback and some basic social media skills would be enough to keep an online business going.

High overheads

Indeed, high overheads seem to be the biggest worry for these cooks, all of whom carry out their businesses with minimal costs from their home kitchens.

Prasana Nair, who operates from her home in Old Klang Road, said while Covid-19 and the MCO might have dented any ambitions to open a shop, unexpected circumstances were part and parcel of doing business.

Prasana Nair cooking food at her home in Old Klang Road on May 31.

“Those with physical shops will be slammed with bills during the MCO. Some places are bound by tenancy agreements and might have many staff to take care of.

“(But) taking risks cannot be avoided in business as we don’t know what tomorrow will hold for us,” said Prasana, who has been selling local, Western and Indian cuisine for the past 10 years.

Chai Loong Kee, who sells Chinese desserts from her home in Bukit Jalil, said home-based cooks could consider setting up a restaurant if they needed more space and had the manpower to fulfil orders.

However, she said many vendors had been operating from home for years. While they had seen an increase in customers during the MCO period, she said, it would not necessarily make sense for them to take the plunge into the world of restaurants.

“If a vendor is comfortable with a certain amount of income operating from home, then a shop is not necessary,” she said.

“It’s up to the comfort level of individual vendors.”

However, for others like Claudia Colaco from Klang, physical outlets are “absolutely necessary”.

“Food delivery services are rather expensive in Malaysia,” said Colaco, who specialises in Indian cuisine.

“When we look at the working class, how many meals can they afford to buy online in a month?”

Nusrat Ali Baig agreed, saying a physical outlet is key to giving customers a more complete dining experience.

Nusrat, who sells Pakistani food from her home in Segambut, said eating in well-decorated restaurants with the proper ambience provides diners with a better appreciation of the food.

“Diners will be able to feel the culture through our food if we have restaurants,” she said.

“I think the food business is the best one to be in during this pandemic. If you do not have a physical shop, you’re still able to do well from home.”

But despite the wide differences in opinion, these cooks agree on one thing.

“If the food is good, you will eventually attract your own crowd (and) they will support you and grow with your business,” said Mah.

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