TAKING over a small cafe five years ago proved to be a turning point in Nelson Liew Teck Heo’s journey as an entrepreneur. Liew was previously involved in the consumer goods retail and distribution field, but has now found his calling in the F&B business.
When he and his partner, who was trained in France in the art of mille crepe, took over the cafe in Paradigm Mall, they decided to introduce the traditional layered pastry into the menu. The cake turned out to be a hit.
They renamed the cafe to Vanilla Mille Crepe and opened a second outlet in Pavilion KL just six months later.
Business grew and so did their number of outlets. Today, Vanilla Mille Crepe is present in most major malls within the Klang Valley, with a total of 22 outlets and another two more scheduled to open within the next two months.
Liew eventually consolidated the business under Ezzybucks Sdn Bhd. Having a holding company that owns the franchise and operates the central kitchen would make it easier to expand, he says.
Despite the tough retail environment in the past few years, Liew notes that its 22 outlets have been profitable, ensuring a stable business for the company.
“We have many other opportunities to expand locally as many locations, especially outside of the Klang Valley, do not have mille crepe stores. Going forward, new potential markets that we are eyeing include the East Coast states as well as in Borneo for further expansion,” he says.
The company currently has outlets in tourist hotspots in Melaka, Penang and Ipoh.
While Liew is not trained as a pastry chef, he takes the lead in formulating the flavours for their mille crepe products. It currently has 22 flavours, excluding seasonal specials such as the pineapple mille crepe that was created during the recent Chinese New Year celebration.
The original recipe of Vanilla Mille Crepe is owned by Ezzybucks’ France-based principal.
Liew says the business requires some creativity and the team is currently working on a few new recipes, which he notes will be unique to the market. They include recipes such as bird’s nest, collagen and truffle mille crepes.
He is also very hands-on in the operations, often getting involved with kitchen work right up to working out operational details of the individual outlets. It is tough work, he admits. For one, making the right mille crepe is much harder than a typical cake. The former requires painstaking effort to make the cake layer by layer and a cold room with temperature of around -5ºC.
“Maintaining consistent quality is one of the biggest challenges in the food business. One of the best ways to ensure that we can simultaneously expand and keep the quality of our mille crepe intact is to make sure that all the ingredients we use such as the vanilla flavours, colouring and even the green tea for the matcha crepe, are only from original sources.
“Our margins may suffer as a result of using all these expensive ingredients, but we make up for it with higher volumes which we are able to maintain due to consistent quality. The majority of our customers are repeat buyers who also buy for their acquaintances,” Liew shares.
The essential ingredient for its mille crepes – vanilla – is immortalised in its brand. While the name Vanilla Mille Crepe may sound cliche, Liew remarks that it is a meaningful way to remember the core ingredient often used in the pastry world, especially in cake making and bakeries.
One of the main aims of the company is to provide Malaysians with the opportunity to taste the original taste of mille crepe without the need to travel to France. It aims to eventually have more than 100 stores throughout the country.
For this year, the company is looking at adding on another 10 outlets, particularly in second-tier cities.
While Malaysia still has ample growth opportunities, Liew says Ezzybucks is eyeing the regional market for expansion.
The company is in the midst of forming a joint venture with a Surabaya-based partner, in which Ezzybucks would own a significant minority stake, to bring the business to Indonesia. Its partner will operate as the master franchisee.
He expects the company to conclude talks on the partnership soon.
Liew says Ezzybucks chose Surabaya, a city in central Java Island, as an entry point into the country given that it already has an existing relationship with its partner, who is experienced in running a retail business there.
“Moreover, rent and manufacturing costs are cheaper in Surabaya than in Jakarta and this city is less congested than the country’s capital. From Surabaya, we can make plans to expand to other parts of Indonesia via franchising,” he says.
The company is also planning to expand to Bangkok after its business in Indonesia is up and running.
Meanwhile, Liew says Ezzybucks has been approached by a few financial investors to help grow the business. But the owners are not ready to sell down or divest their stakes. Ezzybucks is fully owned by Liew and his co-founding partner.
As it is a relatively new company, Liew says he needs to maintain control over the operations and the pace of expansion.
The company owns most of the 22 stores it has in Malaysia, while a few are franchises owned by close associates and family members.
However, they may start engaging investors once there is a need to expand its production capacity.
Alternatively, Liew says prospective investors may opt to invest in other joint venture efforts for its overseas market.
Liew hopes Ezzybucks will be able to emulate New York-based Lady M, widely regarded as the world’s most successful mille crepe-based confectionary operator. Lady M, which also received the same certification from France, has grown to become an exclusive global mille crepe brand that caters to the elite and high-end clienteles in major cities.
However, Liew says Vanilla Mille Crepe is not seeking a similar exclusive status. In fact, one of its goals is to reach out to as many Malaysians as possible, giving everyone here the opportunity to have a taste of the authentic mille crepe close to home.
“This is something that we think Malaysians should embrace. Even in France, the birthplace of mille crepe, it is not easily available and most people there have not tasted the real mille crepe,” he says.