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#BUROSupportsLocal: How Malaysian cafe owners are staying afloat this F/MCO

#BUROSupportsLocal: How Malaysian cafe owners are staying afloat this F/MCO

Tough times

Text: Adelina Tan

Image: Xiao by Crustz
Image: Ello! Pita KL
Image: Daun KL

As Malaysians weather another MCO (and lockdown), we reached out to local cafe owners to find out how they're sustaining their businesses and coping mentally with the uncertainty

These are tough times for everyone—including local cafe owners, who are feeling the pinch despite being able to stay open. Revenue from takeout and delivery is dwindling, while overhead costs remain high. For those who’ve weathered the many MCOs since March 2020, it’s also been a long and tough challenge to stay afloat.

With this in mind, we checked in with a few cafe owners in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor to find out how they’re adapting to MCO 3.0—lockdown and all—and what keeps them going.

Robbie of Milligram Coffee & Eatery and Kiara Cakes

As a cafe owner, how are things like this F/MCO? What’s different in terms of how you’re handling the situation this time around?

“MCO has not been good to the F&B industry, as we rely heavily on walk-ins in order to keep business afloat. With the current implementation of MCO 3.0, we’ve lost a lot of regular patrons and just depend on deliveries to cover the overheads. The Cafe business is also about providing a space where patrons come to chill and relax, so the hit is harder [on us] compared to restaurants and hawkers.

“For the previous lockdown of MCO 1 and 2, a lot of people were taken by surprise with this new norm—we saw a surge in deliveries, which was good enough to sustain the business. But now, we are facing the struggle of consumers knowing what to expect—this has meant we have dwindling [delivery] drivers and orders. However, we have to find new doors of opportunity to send our food and coffee out. So this MCO, we decided to do it ourselves.”

How do you take care of your mental health? What keeps you going on the toughest days?

“During down days, we try to keep ourselves sane by keeping the crew busy with training and cleaning. For them, when we’re busy with orders, they are happy. For us cafe owners, we try to use this time to invent and reinvent new menu items, and [strategize] how we can do things better for a small-scale cafe. Hopefully, this lockdown will be over soon. The F&B industry does need help before we see widespread closure of businesses.”

Xiao-ly Koh of Xiao by Crustz and Tanuki by Crustz

As a cafe owner, how are things like this F/MCO? What’s different in terms of how you’re handling the situation this time around?

“Well, as we enter in and out of MCO, we have to be flexible to switch things from dine-in to more online-concentrated [revenue streams].The items or packages we offer replicate the dine-in experience for our customers who are dining at home. Most importantly, we wish to still spread joy and happiness to recipients who receive the treats from us.

“This round, the team could make the shift relatively easily and fast, as we have had experience from the previous times. But to continue to engage our customers, we have updated our online content via social media, with more photos and videos to keep our followers in the loop. My team is also more ready in terms of switching menus to meet our customers’ needs during this lockdown.”

How do you take care of your mental health? What keeps you going on the toughest days?

“Oh, I'm doing relatively OK mentally I think, hahaha. I try to keep my creativity alive and try new things or recipes; that keeps me going. Also, my supportive team members and family help me through the difficulties.”

Datin Christine Bong of Brickhouse Group—Pokok, Daun, Ello! Pita, and The Grounds

As a cafe owner, how are things like this F/MCO? What’s different in terms of how you’re handling the situation this time around?

“Sales are a fraction of what we usually generate. However, the team is familiar with the rules of previous MCOs and the implementation of new SOPs—and marketing, this round, is a lot faster and smoother. Being a destination cafe, it is still hard to achieve previous revenue.

“However, during this MCO, we have recently launched a brand-new gourmet pita delivery called Ello! Pita. This new baby offers the freshest ingredients delivered right to your doorstep within KL /Selangor. As an entrepreneur, we have to keep pivoting and keep things fresh.”

How do you take care of your mental health? What keeps you going on the toughest days?

“Maintaining a positive mindset and keeping active is essential to overcoming such huge challenges to the business. We have to juggle finances, the well-being of our staff, and pray hard that we can survive this MCO. This slow period is also a good time for self-reflection and evaluating areas of the business which we can work on and improve and—if the situation permits—expand eventually!"

Pokok: Instagram | Facebook

Daun: Instagram | Facebook

Ello! Pita: Instagram | Facebook

Chan Su Yin of Yin’s Wholefood and Yin’s Sourdough Bakery

As a cafe owner, how are things like this F/MCO? What’s different in terms of how you’re handling the situation this time around?

"We are much better prepared. Things are not that chaotic as compared to the first MCO. That said, although we have planned better, it is the same financial constraint that is killing us. To cope, we have an app and a website to coordinate our orders and delivery. We have also developed more takeaway options, jams and packaged food products."

How do you take care of your mental health? What keeps you going on the toughest days?

“The first MCO was the worst. I had a breakdown, where I woke up in the middle of the night sweating profusely, my heart beating extremely fast. I seriously thought I was suffering from a heart attack. My husband had to rush me to the hospital—it turned out to be a panic attack and mental breakdown. Now, we are more accepting of what is to come; but if things don’t improve, we’re counting down to the day where we will run out of cash."

Nora and Azlan Khalid of Whisk Espresso Bar + Bake Shop

As a cafe owner, how are things like this F/MCO? What’s different in terms of how you’re handling the situation this time around?

Azlan: “Business is tough during any of the MCOs, but we are thankful that the F&B sector is allowed to remain open. This gives us an opportunity to stay afloat and keep operations running, while waiting for Malaysia to recover from battling the pandemic.

“In terms of operating during this FMCO compared to last year, the main difference is the familiarity in terms of how to operate during a lockdown compared to the first experience, which was unknown territory. Our main priority is to be as safe as possible while the entire country has to endure a difficult time in history.”

Nora: “It’s not ideal, business-wise, but we won’t have a business to run in the long run if we don’t get to the root of what’s happening. This has been my mantra since the first MCO, and it has helped me stay mentally positive in terms of just keeping it together. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and panic when sales are down and obviously, panic will set in if you allow it to. As a business owner, you must look at your numbers, you must plan and you must also learn to adapt.

“The main difference with this MCO is that the team is more familiar with safety regulations/SOPs and understand that the situation is more dire. The team was also more prepared to change gears at lightning speed—there was so much confusion with the first MCO. Everyone is also more gung ho to curb the numbers, which is essential to the whole country getting back to seeing normal days.”

How do you take care of your mental health? What keeps you going on the toughest days?

Azlan: “We can only do our best with what we have, that is acquiring new knowledge by engaging in study and, therefore, keeping our minds occupied. Some physical exercise to keep the body active is also helpful, along with increasing our intake of fruits and vegetables for vitamins. Hopefully, this will contribute to maintaining a good chemical balance in the body and mind.

“Meditation and prayer has been the most helpful exercise to maintain during such a frightful time. We pray that The Eternal shall guide us and our nation to make good decisions, in order to become successful people in this life and the next. Also evident is how important it is to be thankful and practice gratitude for all the blessings that may have gone unappreciated in the past.

“A deep sense of appreciation for the simple things in life is so important for appreciating life itself. Our prayers are with the entire nation, and we are thankful to the selfless people who have dedicated their lives helping others in their time of need. May the peace and the blessings of God be upon our nation.”

Nora: “Keep to the mantra that we must get to the root cause and to be thankful. Others are having it far worse and at the end of the day, health is wealth. There’s no point in trying to keep businesses going at the expense of people’s safety and the health of the whole nation. Everyone needs to do what is necessary to curb the numbers from rising, so we can get back to a situation where we can all live and work safely. Things can be replaced, but we only have one shot at life.

“My daughter contracted Covid early in the year; at the time, she was the first person I personally knew to have contracted it. That changed everything for me. So on my hardest days, I think about how thankful and grateful I am for all that I still have. Resetting our mind to have a deep sense of gratitude honestly changes our whole outlook on life.

“If all else fails, reach out to your closest and dearest. This should go both ways, as we all need to check in with one another—you just don’t know the kind of inner struggles folks are having right now. It also helps that between the three of us—Azlan, Emma and myself—we have totally different POVs. We fight a lot and emotions run high—especially during tough times—but we ride on the differences of each business partner, as we believe you’re stronger when you’re together.”

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