WHEN Frenchman Fees Francois arrived in Malaysia from Paris in 1999, he had wanted only to soak up the sun, enjoy the food and take in the exotic sights the country had to offer.
Two years later, he found himself running a business in the country he had come to visit. He is now in the rather unique position of being a Frenchman selling Italian food in an Asian country.
People living around Bangsar and Damansara Heights will, by now, have become familiar with a pizza truck parked at a spot along Jalan Penaga. It belongs to a pizza business called Jalan-Jalan Pizza, and Francois, 28, is one of its co-founders.
His partners are a friend who is currently back in France and a Malaysian businessman who helped finance the venture. At the moment, Francois says, he is the main person running the business.
A brief stint in the food industry back in his home country was the basis for setting up Jalan-Jalan Pizza, which was started in Malaysia in late 2001.
“After high school, I had the grades to enter medical school so I tried it. But after my third year, I realised I didn’t like it (studying medicine),” relates Francois.
“That was when I decided to stop and take a year-long break.”
During that time, Francois took the opportunity to try his hand at something that was totally different from medicine. “I sold pizza out of a truck with a friend of mine who was a pizza maker in a restaurant,” he says.
Selling pizza out of a truck is common in France, and the two ran a popular pizza truck in Paris for part of the year, moving down to the south of France during summer.
At the end of the year, Francois decided to go back to school but this time, he pursued a totally different course of study. Inspired by his pizza-selling entrepreneurial stint, Francois decided he enjoyed being a businessman and enrolled in business school. He finished the course this time and graduated with a degree in management and finance.
It was after his graduation that Francois, who enjoys travelling, chose to holiday in Malaysia. He worked as a manager in a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur for about a year, which gave him an insight into the food preference of Malaysians. This experience helped when he was planning the menu that Jalan-Jalan Pizza would feature.
The pizza is Italian fare but many of the toppings are distinctly Asian in order to appeal to local taste buds.
Among these are Mutton Delight, which features lamb, sausage and capsicum; Tandoori Supreme with tandoori chicken, onion and fresh tomato; and Jalan-Jalan Ikan with ikan bilis and red chilli.
For those who prefer western fare, there are a variety of beef pepperoni, seafood and cheese toppings. Ice-blended coffee and smoothies are also available.
Foreigners also like the pizzas featuring Asian flavours, Francois says.
“The tandoori pizza is the most popular of the Asian flavours. The more classic favourite is the Chicken Supreme but the Chilly Cheese and Creamy Salmon is ordered a lot because it’s a bit unusual.”
There are 17 kinds of toppings available on the menu and all the ingredients are fresh, he assures. “The truck is open at 10am and closes at 11pm and I have to be up early everyday to buy the ingredients.”
Francois says that one of the unique features of his business is that the pizza is actually made in the truck in a specially fitted oven.
Joining the ranks of the bigger pizza franchises and fast-food chains, Jalan-Jalan Pizza has also been offering delivery service with no extra charge since August 2002. Currently, delivery is to Bangsar, Bukit Damansara, Petaling Jaya, Taman Desa, Taman Seputeh, Brickfields and the Bandar Utama and Taman Tun Dr Ismail areas.
What would a Frenchman possibly know about Italian food, one might wonder.
“The product may be Italian but the two countries are neighbours and in the south of France people make good pizza. The Italians will probably cry if they hear me say this,” says Francois, laughing.
“There are many Italians who cross the border into France and who have passed on the secrets of making good traditional pizza.”
The Jalan-Jalan Pizza customers seem happy with what they get and keep coming back, he says. “We have a niche market in the Bangsar area.”
Despite this, the going is quite hard, even though the company has advertised in local publications and through flyer distributions.
“We used to have four trucks but we had to stop three of them because of problems with staff and there was not enough response.”
The trucks were operating in housing areas like Mont Kiara and Taman Desa.
At the moment, there are three full-time staff and this includes himself.
“We made a lot of mistakes in the beginning and the service was really not good at the start,” he admits.
Francois also believes that having a local name for the company, which was originally called Street Pizza, has its drawbacks, although it is a catchy name that represents the nature of the business.
“At the start we thought it was a very good idea but after three years I would say that the local people are willing to pay more money for a foreign name. Local people expect a cheaper meal when it’s a local name.”
The company is also having problems renewing the licence to continue operating at the current location, and Francois is now looking at alternatives in running the business.
“I think it will probably be a restaurant in Bangsar.”