It may be easy to dismiss the heavily tinted double doors and windows of Coliseum Café as just another shop along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in Kuala Lumpur.
But the café, which opened its doors in 1921 as Coliseum Café & Hotel (KL) Sdn Bhd, is an iconic hostelries and among the last vestiges of the colonial era along the street previously known as Batu Road.
Closing in on its 100-year mark, the Coliseum Café has been given a new lease of life with the emergence of new shareholders keen on taking the brand to another level of growth.
The new owners, led by chairman Cheam Tat Pang and managing director and chief executive officer Low Ching Hoe, hope to leverage the brand and expand it beyond just one outlet.
Cheam, who was involved with the restructuring exercise of KFC Holdings in the 1980s and appointed managing director of the fast food chain in 1986, was approached by Low in early 2011 to take over Coliseum, which was then up for sale.
“Coliseum has withstood the test of time. Despite all the neglect by the previous owners, we wanted to see if we could come in and build on the brand, making it stronger,” Cheam said.
Coliseum was started by a group of Hainannese business partners who came from Hainan Island in the south of China.
A long history
The café made a name for itself in the 1950s as a popular hangout where planters and tin miners gathered on Friday nights to discuss anti-communist strategy during the Malayan Emergency.
Coats and hats and even gun belts would be hung up on coat stands, which remain a fixture at the bar today, before drinks were had liberally.
The venue has been patronised by well-known personalities, including cartoonist Lat, who left behind caricatures of other former customers.
Much of its interior has not changed over the years.
The bar itself looks as it did in the 1950s and framed advertisements from the 1920s and 1930s decorate the walls.
The Jawi-inscribed sign that hangs above its front doors is a memento from the 1950s and is the only one left on the street, proof of its old age.
These days, locals and tourists alike continue to visit Coliseum for its colonial ambiance and renowned sizzling steak.
“Most of the customers are here for the ambiance. The food may not be Michelin-starred, but a lot of people will share with you the memories they have of this place,” said Cheam.
Cheam notes that, with 92 years of history, the awareness of the Coliseum brand is there and people feel an affinity to it.
However, Cheam acknowledged that after many years of disinterest by its owners, Coliseum was lacking in its services.
The leather seats were cracked and fixtures in the café looked aged and not well taken care off.
The kitchen was dirty and bogged down by old wood-fuelled stoves.
The employees had been working at Coliseum for a long time, but no longer served with pride like in the good old days, Cheam said, adding that old waiters with shaky hands were a norm when the new owners came in.
“The staff members here stay on for a long time, but they are not motivated. So when we came in, we had to find a way to motivate them.
“We gathered them together and told them that we are here to grow the business and worked out a way of growing the business together,” Cheam said.
The new team brought in fresh blood and made sure that their employees’ efforts are always recognised.
Cheam and Low also went about setting the house in order.
They spent about RM100,000 doing up the café and putting in place good ventilation for the comfort of its customers.
Another RM500,000 went into upgrading and cleaning up the kitchen.
“We think we have a good business and we just need to improve on the delivery part and presentation. So we invested in new facilities,” Cheam said.
The worn-out furniture in the café has also been refurbished.
But all care has taken to maintain the colonial ambiance which customers come back for.
A new strategy
Efforts at driving Coliseum forward have borne fruit as Cheam says that business has been picking up gradually in the last one-and-a-half years since the new team took over.
Last year, Coliseum achieved sales of RM3mil compared to an average of RM1.5mil to RM1.8mil previously.
But Cheam and his team are not interested in maintaining Coliseum just as it is.
“A lot of newer brands have come up and passed us by. Some have grown into successful chains. And we wondered, if we injectrd some modern innovation into the business, whether we could similarly expand,” Cheam said.
Cheam’s ambition extend beyond the outlet in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.
Coliseum recently opened its second outlet in the Jaya33 mall in Petaling Jaya.
But unlike the original shop, the new outlet takes on a more contemporary spin with younger staff members and a vibrant atmosphere.
The new outlet, said Cheam, will be an acid test for the team.
If it does well, it is an indication that customers can be weaned off their nostalgia for the original location.
And this could mean growth opportunities for Coliseum.
“It is a migration path for us and it will certainly be challenging. But that is why we came in, in the first place.
“We want to see if we can replicate the success of other local chains and maybe turn Coliseum from a café to a successful chain,” he said.
Plans are already afoot for another outlet in Mid Valley Megamall and Cheam is looking at future plans to expand into the China market.
He expects Coliseum to hit turnover of RM10mil annually once it opens three to five more outlets.