REINVIGORATING TASTE BUDS
“The way I look at the food industry is, people are either a chef wanting to be a businessman, or a businessman wanting to be a chef. I think I am a businessman trying to be a chef.”
“I can cook for my family, but can get lazy when it comes to the washing and cutting,” Tony Lim says with a laugh.
Lim is the founder of Boat Noodle a Thai joint that sold little bowls of noodles in flavourful dark soy sauce with pickled bean curd and spices.
When it first opened in a tiny outlet in Empire Damansara five years ago, customers waited in line for a slurp of their spicy broth but more importantly to capture that Instagram picture of bowls stacked up as high as possible.
“After visiting Bangkok and eating at their local street stalls, I wanted to the bring boat noodle dish to Malaysians.”
“I felt that we needed to make a halal version so that Muslims could try this dish too,” says Lim, while offering the interview crew Boat Noodle's deliciously sweet Thai milk tea, also known as ‘Chill Chill’.
Before his maiden venture into the food and beverage (F&B) business through Boat Noodle, Lim was trained as an automotive engineer, helping his family's logistics transportation company EH Utara that provides logistic transportation services from Singapore to Thailand.
Despite having zero experience in F&B, the ambitious lad took his chances and opened his first outlet in 2014. Today, there are 47 Boat Noodle 47 outlets across Malaysia, along with six more between Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and Yangon.
“In one of the first few outlets we opened, the noodles were so popular that we sold up to 8,000 bowls in a day.”
I thought managing a F&B business would be cool and easy - but it’s the exact opposite of that
“In the beginning, I think we got very lucky because everyone was curious about 'bowl stacking'. People wanted to join in on the trend and we experienced quick success,” adds Lim.
Unfortunately, his business just like any other – was susceptible to fads - the short-lived crazed means customers aren’t waiting in line anymore like how they once used to five years ago.
“We did realise that one day the ‘bowl stacking’ hype will die down eventually and we need to figure a way to still be relevant.”
“I will admit we were being a little too cocky," Lim says matter-of-factly. "I thought managing a F&B business would be cool and easy - but it’s the exact opposite of that,” he laughs.
“I believe customers aren’t lining up to eat at our stores anymore because we have a lot more outlets compared to what it used to be,” he says.
Looking ahead, he plans to shift gears by targeting new market segments, and rebrand the Boat Noodle image.
Choosing to mainly focus in Malaysia, he is looking to refurbish existing outlets, and open new ones in tier two and three cities like Taiping, Segamat and Kangsar.
“I’m still pleased with how the business is running. Despite the drop in popularity, the number of customers we serve is still a lot.”
I even hired people who clearly didn’t have any passion for food - it was a nightmare for us
“In the next two or three years, we intend to have in total 75 outlets across Malaysia. Hence, we also want to venture into smaller, secondary towns too.”
“It’s an opportunity for us and I believe we should go and find out what the smaller cities have to offer,” says Lim.
While sipping his Thai iced milk tea, Lim candidly shares all the trial and error that occurred during the early stages of expanding Boat Noodle.
“We were expanding so fast and in desperate need of staff members. I even hired people who clearly didn’t have any passion for food - it was a nightmare for us.”
“Finding reliable employees to work at our restaurants has always been tough. That’s always been one of our major issues.”
“We do hope our staff choose to stay and grow with us here at Boat Noodle.”
“I always tell my employees; our customers can’t be happy if you’re not happy. So, making sure my staff are genuinely happy at work is my main priority,” Lim adds, who remains encouraged about the prospects of the noodle, or known as Kuey Teow Ruer, originating from the floating markets of Thailand.
QUALITY OF FOOD
The 40-year-old reveals that one of the most difficult aspect of running multiple a F&B franchise is ensuring consistency in the quality of food, and service.
“We always try to educated our customers that we are not a fast food joint, we are still a cooked-to-order restaurant.”
“Therefore, it’s going to still be a 10-15 percent difference in food and service quality among outlets.”
“Keeping the same consistency for each restaurant is a challenge but we try and simplify our processes so that human error is minimised.”
“What we had to figure out was how to mass-produce the concentrated paste to be cooked into our broths for easy cooking,” he says.
BOAT NOODLE TODAY
Despite the roller coaster journey, Lim is confident that 2019 will be the year to reinvigorate the Boat Noodle brand - and reclaim its spot as the preferred Thai noodle joint among Malaysians.
“I don’t regret anything nor would I have done things differently - especially because we are still here today.”
“The biggest thing for is to really try to figure out how can we stay in the game for an even longer term.”
“When the business grows, bigger things aren’t as easy or simple anymore,” Lim says philosophically.