Ever since he was a little boy, Benjamin Yong has made the kitchen his sanctuary, growing up in a household where cooking with his loved ones always brought the family closer together.
“My entire family loves food - it was a central part of our lives. The kitchen became a secondary playground for me.”
When I think about how this all started, it was purely accidental.
“Most Malaysian families are big on food. I was very fortunate to be exposed to different food cultures as a child. That’s how I developed this love and passion for food,” says Yong.
As CEO of The BIG Group, with 11 brands under his name – from a casual family diner, bake shop and general food store, to a bar and grill offering the freshest produce for meat lovers – the 42-year old admits juggling 24 outlets is no easy feat.
Yet, more than ever, he values the moments he can have to himself and his family.
“When I started the business, I was single. But nowadays I must consciously tell myself I have a wife and kids at home and I should be with them, especially because my kids are growing so quickly.”
“In fact, lately it’s the other way around, I enjoy spending time with them so much that sometimes I think, it’s time to come back to work now,” Yong says with a smile.
Affable and engaging, Yong took his seat at the capacious event space above his restaurant in Publika while politely introducing himself.
Wearing a white button-down shirt, he swiftly adjusts his clip mic, illustrating his familiarity with media interviews, having been in the business for over 18 years now.
“When I think about how this all started, it was purely accidental,” he says with a sense of nostalgia.
“After I finished my studies in Australia, I headed back home to Malaysia and did marketing and operations for my mother at Ms. Read.”
The label, started by his mother Helen Read, specialises in full figured fashion catering to curvaceous women.
“I had already developed my love for cafe culture being abroad. I was also keen to start something of my own - but completely naive and ignorant of the ways of understanding the food business.”
“I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. I would say we started our first cafe based on ‘the idiot’s guide to opening your first café,” he says while bursting out into laughter.
SELLING BEN’S INDEPENDENT GROCER
Not one who is averse to taking risks, Yong made a bold decision to sell his grocery Ben’s Independent Grocer (B.I.G) to rival supermarket chain Village Grocer two years ago, to focus on growing its food and beverage business.
“The B.I.G supermarket was never in my business plan. It was purely a deep seeded fantasy in my head that came to fruition, with the right opportunity at the right time,” says Yong of the store he started in 2011.
“It had always been a fantasy of mine to see what it was like to own a supermarket, so I was very lucky to have been given that opportunity.”
“Growing up, my friends were building soccer teams or fortresses on video games, but I was always building marketplaces and supermarkets instead,” he laughs.
“We wanted to build a relationship with our customers that didn’t just give them the restaurant experience but a good quality grocer store as well.”
“I think we got very lucky to take on such a large endeavor, with the little experience we had.”
“We also felt that with our strength we could only grow the grocery store up to a certain point and for it to scale to greater heights the right business operators needed to take over,” says the Kuala Lumpur-born entrepreneur.
FUTURE PLANS FOR THE BIG GROUP
Since selling his supermarket, Yong has been focused on growing his stable of brands like Ben’s and Plan B chain of restaurants, while expanding the range of offerings through contemporary barbecue joint Bakar, and honest-to-goodness Italian Bella, among others.
Ben is also into the catering business through Benquet.
“For me, it’s about seeing what opportunities are out there. A lot of what I want to do is focus on expanding the brand.”
“When I use the word ‘expanding’, I don’t necessarily mean world domination but it’s about finding the right location and slowly, develop organically.”
“Times are fast changing and if you take your eye of the ball you may be out of business,” adds Yong.
Even with more eateries emerging in the market, his restaurants have managed to remain a favourite among many Malaysians.
“It’s about constantly looking at your business model and the environment of your restaurant.”
“Trying to understand what the consumers are looking for and curate something that is relevant to the needs of your consumer.”
“I do avoid following trends because that is a dangerous business model,” adds Yong.
QUALITY OF FOOD (THE PERFECTIONIST)
“A lot of how we maintain our food quality is through personal audits.”
“Internally, I have an issue with consistency because I always feel like my passing mark of consistency, should be no less than 90 percent - anything under is considered not good enough.”
“It is, however, a work in progress,” admits Yong. “We are constantly evolving communicating with the team to see how we can better enhance the consistency.”
CHALLENGES FACED & MANAGEMENT STYLE
The capital-intensive nature of the food and beverage industry makes running a restaurant a very costly affair. But more challenging, is keeping the staff happy,essential to any restaurant’s bottom line and overall success.
“I think the hardest part about is trying to get people whom are involved in this business to be passionate about what they do and not look at it as just a job.”
“I always tell my team, if you treat this business like it is your own, you would look after the business very well, and as a result the business would flourish.”
“When the business flourishes, it would also look after you in return.”
“I feel that is only possible when there is a sense of ownership, when people feel as if what they are doing is not just for the salary but for themselves.”