Buy Local or Bye Local: How Malaysian food businesses are impacted by COVID-19


By Michelle Liu

Buy Local or Bye Local: How Malaysian food businesses are impacted by COVID-19

Since the Movement Control Order (MCO) was imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the whole food and beverage industry came to an unprecedented standstill, changing its landscape for the long run.

We spoke to a few food business owners for some insight on how they’ve been affected, what they’re doing to adapt, and how you—the consumer—can support your favourite local brands!

Cultiveat—John-Hans Oei, Co-Founder

 Cultiveat grows pesticide-free vegetables for various restaurants in Malaysia, but once the MCO was imposed, John-Hans shared that “overnight, our production of stocks which is equivalent to seven to eight tonnes (7,000kg – 8,000kg) of vegetables to outlets were suddenly made redundant.”

With all these perishable surplus, the team acted quick. “The MCO is difficult for us because we were primarily business-to-business (B2B). We already had plans to sell directly to customers but fast-forwarded it. We managed to set up our online store in two days, and started delivering fresh produce to customers.”

While the country was gripped with panic-buying, Cultiveat believes otherwise with the cheeky statement:

“I got, you also got.”

15 per cent of their total production has been given to medical front liners, families in need and not-for-profit organisations such as What a Waste and The Lost Food Project.

Order a variety of fresh produce from Cultiveat with free delivery.

Coley—Chee Kheong “CK” Kho, Owner-Bartender

CK has been a respected veteran in the industry with more than a dozen years of experience as well as award-winning bars under his belt. Even so, no one could have prepared for the challenges of a nationwide MCO. He said:

“Honestly, this is the first time for all of us. I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with the situation—especially with bars falling under a grey area of being essentials or not.”

Jokingly, Coley is certainly “essential” to its customers, being loved for its contemporary cocktails with a local twist. Time to innovate: for the first time ever, the team released “Koktel in a Can” with its greatest hits like “Gin & Coconut” and “Rum & Jambu”, canned and ready for delivery.

The beauty of Coley, as with most bars, is largely experiential, so delivery remains a temporary fix. CK remains positive: “Customer patterns will change, but there will be new opportunities after this crisis is over. For instance, a lot of customers has been trying to start mixing drinks and cooking at home. I feel that, indirectly, it improves the appreciation, and the work that goes into drinking and dining.”

Booze up with canned cocktails from Coley.

MyBurgerLab—RenYi Chin, Co-Founder

 MyBurgerLab has always been about serving the community first, which is why RenYi was faced with a moral dilemma:

“I wanted people to stay home and be safe, but at the same time, I still had a business to sustain. It felt wrong to tell people to come out and buy our food. The MCO is a good thing—it should’ve happened sooner than later.”

Just one look at MyBurgerLab’s social media posts shows that they haven’t lost sight on what matters the most: heartfelt open letters to customers, appreciation to delivery riders, and an initiative to provide more income for their part-timers.

“Thankfully, delivery has helped us a lot. We’re not in the red, but sadly I can’t say the same for most businesses,” shared RenYi, who recently formed the Malaysian F&B Operators Alliance and appealed to the government to provide financial support for businesses when the MCO ends. “The thing that a lot of people don’t know about food businesses is that we need high volume to do well. People don’t talk about the fixed costs that we have: rental, salaries, inventory and perishable products—that’s already thousands of ringgit in losses.”

In the meantime, RenYi and his team are using this opportunity to be creative: “We want to encourage people to cook their own food, so we’re working on a takeaway pack where customers can customise and cook their own burger, and go crazy at home! It literally becomes, ‘My Burger Lab'”.

Order MyBurgerLab for delivery or pick-up.

PichaEats—Kim Lim, Co-Founder

Marginalised communities in Malaysia have no doubt been the hardest hit resulting from the MCO. Kim said:

“Many parents in the low-income community have already lost their jobs. It’s very difficult to provide for the family at this point.”

Help is needed more than ever. PichaEats is a social enterprise that empowers and employs refugees to cook traditional meals and has thus far served more than 1,000 meals to hospitals, refugee communities and elderly care with the support of donations.

On the business side, Kim shares that, “70 per cent of our business is B2B, so most of our revenue has been wiped out since late January. The 18 chefs we’re partnering with are feeling the strain too.” Like many others, the key to survival is adapting: “We’re building our B2C channel, but also pivoting—possibly creating a new business! I’ve personally told the team that we probably have to abandon our old business model for a year and to expect the worst-case scenario, that is, we will have zero catering jobs throughout the year.”

Order deliciously cooked meals from PichaEats.

Underscore Coffee—E Yern Shum, Owner

Newly-opened, independent cafes are particularly vulnerable in this new “reality”. Underscore started operating just shy of a year ago, serving speciality seasonal coffee in Ara Damansara. “Thankfully, 80 per cent of our customers are our regulars. Most of them did get their coffee in the first few days, but numbers decreased drastically since. It’s mostly due to more roadblocks, the military and rumours of a curfew,” said E Yern.

While delivery services like GrabFood and FoodPanda have been the answer for a lot of businesses, E Yern explains that it is unsustainable for small cafes like Underscore.

“There’s a lack of riders and high commission rates. We don’t believe in increasing our retail price either—it’s the consumer who will bear the pain. Some of them are business owners themselves—but selling non-essentials! We’re just trying to be as considerate as we can to each other.”

Order coffee, cakes and food from Underscore Coffee by takeaway or delivery in Ara Damansara.

#BUROSupportsLocal: We’re compiling an index of local cafes and restaurants that are still operating with deliveries and takeaways. If you can afford it, every little bit counts!

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