Last week, Leela Ganesh was staring in despair at her nearly-empty tin of Kluang coffee powder. In the past, the KL-based Leela often travelled regularly back to her hometown in the southern state of Johor, and would top up her stock of coffee on these brief sojourns.
But with inter-state travel no longer a possibility during the ongoing lockdown, Leela found herself in a quandary: where would she get that oh-so familiar hometown caffeine boost?
On a whim, she Googled the coffee powder and discovered that it was actually available online!
“My mum, who lives in Johor, offered to post it to me, but I declined as postage can be expensive. Then I looked online and guess what? I can buy it directly from the factory!” says an elated Leela.
Leela’s experience is becoming increasingly common among Malaysians aching for hometown staples only to find that many of these small businesses have now gone online during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Popular local actress Jasmine Chin says that she too had been longing for the peculiarly punchy flavours of the belacan she grew up with in Sarawak, only to find it on a local e-commerce site.
“I am just so used to the belacan from Sarawak, it has such a unique taste and I have never been able to find it in supermarkets in the Klang Valley, so I was so happy when I discovered a really authentic version made by a small kampung business,” she says.
Other avid customers are discovering that their favourite hometown meals are no longer completely unattainable, as some innovative eateries have started doing out-of-state deliveries to survive during the lockdown.
May Kee Chow, for instance grew up in Alor Setar, Kedah and has fond memories of eating the famed Hai Tao Kee Char Ying Yong noodles in her hometown.
When Chow discovered that the noodles were available for delivery to the Klang Valley, she jumped at the chance to buy it, as she hasn’t been able to travel to her hometown in over six months.
“I tried ordering it twice, but it was sold out in minutes. The third time, I ordered as soon as the delivery details were posted. And the day it arrived, I was so happy. I told my husband we weren’t going to cook anything – we were just going to eat the noodles.
“And as soon as I put it in my mouth, I felt the taste of home and every single childhood memory passing through that mouthful,” says Chow.
Hometown businesses going online
In many ways, people like Leela, Chin and Chow are part of a dedicated number of Malaysians feeding the delicate ecosystem that keeps small hometown businesses running during this tough period.
But in more significant ways, the pandemic has also forced many hometown food businesses to drastically change the way they operate.
Pre-pandemic, many of these small, charming, home-spun businesses hinged their success on two kinds of consumers: regulars in their towns; and tourists (both local and international) to the state.
With inter-state and international travel completely thrown out of this equation, hometown businesses trying to survive during the pandemic now only have a small pool of locals to rely on.
You only need to do the math to see how either going online or widening their delivery reach offers a salve of sorts for businesses in dire need of a lifeline.
“I think it has definitely helped me. I just have a small shop, so without a presence on e-commerce sites, I think things would be very bad,” says Lee Xi Wen, the fourth-generation owner of Cheng Woh Chinese Medical Hall in Georgetown, Penang, which traces its roots back to 1933.
Cheng Woh sells a range of traditional Chinese medicinal herbs and soup bases as well as health food like nuts. Prior to the pandemic, the business was already on e-commerce sites like Shopee, but Lee says most of his sales were still generated offline. The Covid-19 pandemic totally turned that dynamic around and accelerated the growth of his online sales.
“Originally when we went online, it was for our regulars to buy when they couldn’t come to us or were too lazy to come or were from other states – that was the original way of thought.
“And it takes time to build a good number of reviews and purchases, because historical data is quite important in e-commerce. So when you generate that, then it builds confidence in people, so the results of being online for a few years became very obvious during the pandemic – it speeded things up,” he says.
Aside from helping revive flagging sales, turning a small hometown business into an online enterprise has the distinct advantage of casting a wider net besides all the usual suspects i.e. hometown fans.
“People I would never had had access to before, now come and buy from me. They see the reviews and pictures and are confident we are legit, so now I find that even people from Sabah and Sarawak are buying from me. So yes, being online helps me get new customers who would never have bought from my shop otherwise,” says Lee.
Lee also says one of the major advantages of having an online presence is the ability to handle a much larger volume of customers than a shop like his would typically be able to accommodate in a restricted retail space – something that is extremely beneficial during a lockdown when offline sales are typically abysmal.
“Offline I can’t handle 1,000 customers in one day – I don’t have enough space and I don’t have enough time. But online, you can handle a lot more customers at one go,” confirms Lee.
Lee’s views are echoed by Ng Mun Yee, who owns famed family business Sin Weng Fai Peanut Candy Shop in Ipoh, Perak.
Ng’s grandfather actually started the legendary, eponymous Sing Eng Heong business nearly 60 years ago in Ipoh, selling his signature kaya puffs (the original shop still stands today).
Determined to chart their own path, Ng and her family devised an original recipe for peanut candy, which is how the massively popular Sin Weng Fai was born.
Before the pandemic, it was fairly common to see long, snaking queues outside Sin Weng Fai, with both locals and tourists waiting up to two hours just to get their hands on the freshly-made snack.
These days, Ng says she only does about 50% of regular sales, but this number is now greatly buoyed by the fact that her family has decided to set up a delivery arm on their website where people can order peanut candy and kaya puffs (they use the same recipe as the popular Sin Eng Heong outlet) to be delivered across the country.
“Previously our main selling point was that we baked and sold the candy in 24 hours – people could even see the candy being made in front of their eyes, so it has always been very, very fresh. But because of the pandemic, we had to change our business model slightly and move online, especially as many outstation customers had been requesting for online delivery.
“We have only been doing online delivery for about a month, but it has definitely helped as I can see that sales are growing,” says Ng.
Wider delivery network
It’s not just hometown businesses selling non-perishable food items that are getting into the delivery game – many legacy hometown restaurants have realised the significance of expanding their network beyond state borders.
Alor Setar based food stall Hai Tao Kee Char Ying Yong, which specialises in ying yong noodles (a stir-fried noodle dish made using charcoal) has a long history that dates back to 1950.
Octogenarian Low Kin Kong, 83, was running it for years but has since handed over the reins to his 54-year-old son Low Boh Nan. Now Boh Nan’s daughter Angel Low is helping to expand the business’s reach by organising pre-orders and delivery of the eatery’s noodles (which are packed frozen) to the Klang Valley.
Initially Angel intended to arrange deliveries just once a month to satiate the appetites of Kedah natives missing food from home, but demand (they only started in June) has been so overwhelming that she is now coordinating weekly deliveries.
“When we decided to do deliveries to the Klang Valley, I didn’t think Kedah food would have such a strong appeal, because Alor Setar is such a small town and the food there is not that known.
“But the first time we put it on our Instagram account, we sold out of 500 packs in 45 minutes! The second time around, we sold out of the same 500 packs in 30 minutes! My father is still in shock – nobody expected this.
“I realise that most of the people buying from us are originally from Kedah or have visited our stall in Kedah, so they have been very supportive, because they are so homesick and have been in lockdown for so long,” says Angel.
Other eateries are also discovering that reaching out to a wider audience is crucial during the pandemic.
“Before the pandemic, we didn’t do any outstation deliveries at all. Our main headquarters is in Port Dickson and we have another branch in Seremban, but most of our customers have always been tourists from the Klang Valley, Melaka or Johor.
“So during the start of the pandemic, we lost our core customer base. And people from these states started asking if we could deliver, so we thought, ‘We might as well’,” says Esther Saw, the marketing manager of famed eatery Lucky King Bun.
Lucky King Bun is something of an institution for visitors to Negri Sembilan. The original Lucky Restaurant was established in the 1980s by Chaw Tin Yeen and his wife Lew Yook Pit. The eatery later changed its name to Lucky King Bun after creating its signature giant baked buns filled with deliciously flavourful chicken curry and pork curry.
Since 2014, Chaw’s son Chaw Eng Huei and his wife Saw have taken over the running of the family business. Saw credits doing regular deliveries to the Klang Valley, Melaka and Johor with helping keep the long-standing family business running during the pandemic.
The restaurant only does deliveries on certain dates and takes pre-orders. The buns are baked and prepared on the same day as delivery and Saw and Eng Huei drive to the designated pick-up points themselves to ensure the items are delivered in good condition, as they are particular about maintaining their brand name.
“Response has been very good. We generally get over 100 delivery orders for each delivery date. So this has definitely helped us keep the business running and pay staff salaries, which we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise,” says Saw.
Although having an online presence has bolstered the sales of many of these hometown food businesses, it isn’t all smooth sailing.
For example, on e-commerce platforms where searches for ingredients and food staples can yield hundreds of results, competition can be intense.
“Being online increases transparency. Every single detail is laid out, so it is very competitive. A small shop like mine has to compete with the big boys in the rest of Malaysia.
“And online, it is easy to compare and they even have tools for consumers to compare, so if someone else is 10 cents cheaper and has equally good reviews, you lose out,” says Lee, laughing.
Ng also says that hometown businesses with limited manpower have to factor in the time investment that goes into packing online orders.
“Right now, just for 30 delivery orders, the time needed to package and pack everything is about three to four times longer than the same number of offline purchases. So we need more manpower to sort this out,” says Ng.
For Saw, one of the challenges of handling deliveries is the fact that she constantly has to ensure her own safety and her husband’s when customers come to pick up their orders from designated pick-up points.
“We are dealing with a lot of people, so we are worried about contracting Covid-19 as well, but we try to protect ourselves as much as possible with masks, face shields and social distancing,” says Saw.
The way forward
Although there might be some challenges to expanding the delivery reach of hometown businesses, the benefits clearly far outweigh the negatives.
Angel for instance, says the enormous response to her father’s Alor Setar stall in the Klang Valley has really shown her father the path forward.
“He didn’t expect it to be so overwhelming, so he is really happy and feels such a sense of achievement.
“And his success has had a snowball effect as other hawkers have reached out to me to try and help. And now my dad keeps chasing me to do more, he wants to deliver to other states!” says Angel, laughing.
Lee meanwhile says that while it might be difficult for hometown businesses run by the older generation to pivot to online sales and nationwide delivery, it is crucial for survival at this point.
“Going online may not be so easy for the older generation. Like if my dad was doing it, it would be challenging for him. But it is important – even if you are a traditional brick-and-mortar business, you cannot avoid it.
“I think everyone has to learn and learn fast, because look how quickly the world has changed in the past year!” says Lee.