Are the Malaysian restaurants that have closed during the pandemic truly gone for good?


Conservative estimates indicate that up to 30% of restaurants in Malaysia have closed their doors since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. — BLOOMBERG

All across the world, restaurants have been falling like dominoes on a rampage. In the United States, estimates indicate that 17% of eateries have been forced to close since the onset of the pandemic, according to intel from the country’s National Restaurant Association.

In Malaysia, things are even more dire. According to Restaurant & Bistro Owners Association vice president Jeremy Lim, a conservative estimate of restaurants that have shuttered their doors as a direct consequence of the pandemic is in the region of 25% to 30%.

“This figure is for the whole of Malaysia, including Sabah and Sarawak, but it’s a very modest number because many business operators are still in limbo at the moment. Many are still hesitant to open their eateries, because the national advice is still to stay at home as much as possible. So, many businesses don’t know whether they should continue and reopen or just close shop,” says Lim.

But the reality is a huge number of local restaurants have already been slain by the Covid-19 dragon, in a list that includes grand old eateries like the iconic 100-year-old Coliseum Café in Kuala Lumpur, 84-year-old KL eatery Sin Hoy How Kopitiam and Donald & Lily Restaurant in Melaka, which has been around since the 1970s.

Even relatively newer restaurants have been dropping like flies, from One Utama’s famed Oriental Cravings, which closed after 17 years; to popular meat haven Meatology in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, which will be closing this October after nearly two decades in business.

One of the most iconic restaurants in Malaysia, the nearly 100-year-old Coliseum Cafe fell victim to the pandemic this year. — FilepicOne of the most iconic restaurants in Malaysia, the nearly 100-year-old Coliseum Cafe fell victim to the pandemic this year. — Filepic

Nyonya eatery Mum’s Place, which has been a staple in Damansara Perdana, Selangor, for years also announced its closure at the end of this year.

But how many of these restaurants are truly out of the picture forever? Setting up a restaurant requires a bucketload of passion, mental fortitude and physical endurance. To give it up all without a glance back seems almost too sad to bear thinking about.

Which is why – as we discovered – many of these restaurant owners have not hung up their hats entirely. In many instances, they have simply found different ways to channel their culinary skills and know-how into other business opportunities.

The cause of the closures

The Covid-19 pandemic caused the equivalent of an earthquake in the restaurant world. It forced many operators to find novel ways of presenting and selling their food in the online space, all while continuing to pay for the fixed costs in their offline space.

The iconic Donald & Lily Restaurant in Melaka started out as a hawker stall in the 1970s. Tan was forced to close the eatery a few months ago as a consequence of rising costs during the pandemic. — JENNIFER TANThe iconic Donald & Lily Restaurant in Melaka started out as a hawker stall in the 1970s. Tan was forced to close the eatery a few months ago as a consequence of rising costs during the pandemic. — JENNIFER TAN

For many, this was just too heavy a burden to bear. Jennifer Tan, the owner of the famed Donald & Lily Restaurant in Melaka, says paying for all the related costs of running an eatery wore her down to the point where she had to make the tough decision to close the restaurant.

The move was especially saddening for Tan, whose parents started the eatery as a hawker stall in the 1970s before opening a physical restaurant. Tan took over the family business about 20 years ago, so this was a heartbreaking choice.

“I closed it down because of the cost, especially the rental and staff salaries. I had to stop the cost and save for the future. And what I realised is nowadays, we have a lot of platforms like GrabFood, so you can actually work anywhere – you don’t need to be a big restaurant to be successful, so I didn’t want to waste any more money on the physical restaurant.“But we have been doing this for so many years, so it was very difficult to decide to close down,” says Tan.

Tan’s views are echoed by Yenni Law, the chef-owner of popular carnivore-friendly eatery Meatology in Taman Tun Dr Ismail who has also published a cookbook bearing the restaurant’s name. Law decided to close her eatery because she was finding it increasingly difficult to pay for basic costs.

Although she tried her hardest to pivot during the pandemic, Law said the meat-heavy food at her restaurant is simply not designed for takeaway and delivery, which contributed to the eatery's decline. — YENNI LAWAlthough she tried her hardest to pivot during the pandemic, Law said the meat-heavy food at her restaurant is simply not designed for takeaway and delivery, which contributed to the eatery's decline. — YENNI LAW

“It was at the end of August that I decided to close, because we were owing rental money. I was even at some point owing staff salaries, that’s why I need to keep it going until end of October so we can pay off bills to suppliers as well as pay staff salaries and rental. But it just doesn’t make sense anymore for me to operate,” she says.

Law says one of the things that contributed to the eatery’s eventual fall was that the food she made simply didn’t translate well to the online delivery segment. In addition to that, Law discovered that people tended to spend a lot less on deliveries as compared to dining out, which meant average spend per person declined considerably during the various iterations of the lockdowns in Malaysia.

“Our kind of business is actually experiential dining, so we cannot recreate this in people’s homes, like how do you flambe a meal at home? And if the average cheque per head used to be RM80 per head, people eating at home won’t spend that kind of money on takeaway, because it’s a very different experience for them.

“So no matter how much I tried to pivot – like we did truffle siew yoke, nasi lemak with wild boar curry and even seafood porridge because I was trying to create more comfort food – delivery was just not the nature of my business. It was all about dining in, it was never set up for takeaway and delivery.

“On top of that, there was also the cost of takeaway boxes and containers. In the past, this was a miscellaneous cost, but during the pandemic, it became a direct cost,” says Law.

Although he closed Copper last year, Chai is still in the industry and does private dining events as well as consultancy work. — FilepicAlthough he closed Copper last year, Chai is still in the industry and does private dining events as well as consultancy work. — Filepic

For Chai Chun Boon, the chef-owner of acclaimed modern European eatery Copper in Brickfields, the eatery’s location in an office building became a huge problem during the pandemic. The usual influx of office denizens who thronged the restaurant disappeared altogether during the lockdown. So when Chai’s lease was about to expire last July, he decided not to renew it at all – a move that he says has turned out to be a blessing.

“We were one of the fortunate ones that decided to close early because our lease ended early. For us, we looked at it as God had our back, we knew it was a calculated risk to close down, but knowing that Covid-19 was not going away anytime soon and offices were not opening anytime soon, there was really no point being in that vicinity.

“I had the luxury of closing down on a good note, the debts we incurred during two months of lockdown were paid off, so we closed on a high. Knowing that and knowing that we don’t owe anyone a single cent, that’s definitely a lot of weight lifted from our shoulders,” says Chai.

Are they really out of the industry for good?

For many of these restaurant owners, closing their eateries has simply meant closing a chapter, not closing the door entirely on the F&B industry.

Chai, for example, has been working on multiple F&B projects since he closed Copper, including being a chef-for-hire, doing collaborations (his most recent one was a fermentation collaboration with ice-cream mavens Inside Scoop for the Tiffin At Home experience) as well as private dining events and F&B consultancy work.

Tan doesn't want her family's legacy to be wasted, so she is determined to continue the brand in different ways, including selling the eatery's sambal paste on e-commerce platforms. — JENNIFER TANTan doesn't want her family's legacy to be wasted, so she is determined to continue the brand in different ways, including selling the eatery's sambal paste on e-commerce platforms. — JENNIFER TAN

“I’ve been keeping myself busy, I’m still doing culinary-related work, it’s just not running a brick-and-mortar restaurant anymore. This is better for me in terms of money and sense, as I don’t have to keep so many staff and I can just use part-timers. So this formula has worked for me for the past 1 ½ years,” he says.

In terms of reopening Copper or opening a new restaurant altogether, Chai says now is definitely not the best time to do it, but he is not ruling it out altogether.

“I’m not closing any doors, it is still my line of expertise and work and what I’m known for, so I will take my time and see what opportunities there are that are stable.

“I think a lot of times, a lot of restaurants don’t want to close a chapter, because there is a sentimental value and emotional tie to the eatery. People are always asking us to reopen and just last week, someone wanted to invest in us, but I basically told them ‘No, I have no thoughts of reopening yet.’ Because at the end of the day, stability is the most important thing during the pandemic,” says Chai.

Tan meanwhile says she has spent so many years building her parents’ restaurant into a popular haunt that she cannot fathom shutting it down entirely. Which is why she is still taking orders for the eatery’s signature food on a home delivery basis (she also delivers to Kuala Lumpur through The Bendahari Markets).

“My parents and I have worked so hard and most Melakans and tourists know about us, so it is really a waste if we just let it die like that. So this is not the end for us, we’ve been in this line for so long, what else are we going to do? This is not how we want the family legacy to end,” she says.

To continue to keep the brand alive, the enterprising Tan has also started selling the family’s signature sambal paste on e-commerce site Shopee. Tan says this is something she has wanted to do for a long time, as it is a means of generating some income for the family.

“I need to plan for the future, that’s why I have another platform like Shopee. So in the future, it will be easier for my kids to cari makan (make a living). And if in the future, they want to open a small café, I will be there to help,” she says.

Tan says she has no plans to reopen the restaurant at the moment, as for the first time, she actually has more time to spend with her family.

Despite having to close her cherished eatery, Law doesn't look at it as a failure, because if she hadn't chosen to shutter the restaurant, it would have eventually affected her well-being. — YENNI LAWDespite having to close her cherished eatery, Law doesn't look at it as a failure, because if she hadn't chosen to shutter the restaurant, it would have eventually affected her well-being. — YENNI LAW

“We are always so busy – we get up early and even if I’m sick, I still have to open the restaurant. And I constantly have to worry about staff – what if they fall sick and can’t come to work? So I have been thinking, will I still have the same energy to do this in five or 10 years’ time?

“At least now I am still doing what I know how to do – I am not dead yet! But it’s just another way of presenting my brand,” she says.

Law meanwhile is exploring all possibilities for the future and says she is open to any and all opportunities in the industry.

“To be very honest with you, besides F&B, I have no idea about any other businesses, this is what is second nature to me.

“So far, I have had people talking to me about collaborating and I’ve also gone out for job interviews. I want to keep my options open so I don’t say no to anything I haven’t already considered,” she says.

Law says she has no plans to reopen Meatology anytime soon as it would require too high an investment and she would have to regroup and assemble a new team.

Given the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on the overall F&B industry and the many ways F&B businesses are continuing to feel the heat, Law doesn’t even view the restaurant closure as a loss – in the sense that she has gained so much from the experience and can leave with her head held high.

“I do not look at closing Meatology as a failure. I really look at it as ‘If it doesn’t serve you anymore, you really need to cut it, otherwise your entire well-being will be taken away by the business.’

“Also, I have been doing the same thing for nearly 17 years, so maybe it’s divine intervention forcing me to go out there and see new things and do new things. So I am looking at it as a larger and greater opportunity,” she says.

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