IT SOUNDS like an unlikely combination but medical tourism and weddings are among the key drivers of growth for the vegetarian food business in Penang.
In the past five years, Penang has established itself as a major destination for medical tourism in the Asean region.
Penang Global Tourism director Ooi Geok Lin said for the first four months of 2012, international tourist arrivals to Penang was 193,856, compared to 198,930 in the corresponding period last year.
“Indonesians comprised over 43% of the 193,856 visitors, Singaporeans are second with 14.18% of the arrivals, and visitors from China are third with 7.85%.
“A significant percentage of the arrivals are in the medical tourism segment,” she said.
Last year, the total number of tourist arrivals at the Penang International Airport was 604,930.
With the major hospitals in Penang promoting medical tourism in foreign markets, this sector in healthcare has boomed.
The increase in medical tourism has helped to boost the food industry, notably the vegetarian food business on the island, according to Lily’s Vegetarian Kitchen proprietor Lily Wong.
She said the medical tourism sector generated about 20% of the vegetarian restaurant business in Penang.
Lily’s Vegetarian Kitchen, which is located at Madras Lane in the heart of George Town, carries an array of vegetarian food ranging from nyonya, Oriental, fusion to even Western cuisine.
“For our business, over the past five years, we have been getting support from the medical tourism market, in particular from Indonesia,” said Wong.
“Patients seeking medical treatment in Penang and their families will come to us for advice on a healthy vegetarian diet.
“We will then prepare for them two meals daily, which they will eat at our restaurant, during their stay in Penang, which is usually one week,” she added.
When it comes to the post-surgery diet packages, Wong said it is important to include fibre (fruit, vegetables and whole grains) in your diet.
In the simplest medical sense, not only are high-fibre foods healthier than their low-fibre counterparts, fibre plays a major role in preventing constipation — a common complication after surgery.
She added that around RM500,000 is required to start a vegetarian restaurant today.
“The vegetarian restaurant business is expected to experience a strong double- digit growth yearly,” she added.
Established in 1991, the Sri Ananda Bahwan restaurant chain is another favourite on the vegetarian food map.
Sri Ananda Bahwan’s managing director V. Hari Krishnan said the medical tourism business contributed about 50% of the restaurant’s vegetarian food business.
Hari said the healthcare tourists demographic at his food establishment were also mainly from Indonesia.
“They will stay in Penang for one to two weeks.
“During the period, we will prepare for them vegetarian food made from fresh mushrooms and soya bean-based products.
“Substitutes are used to create healthier vegetarian dishes. For certain dishes, we don’t use any coconut milk at all.”
Hari expects the vegetarian restaurant business in Penang to grow steadily (about 30% yearly).
The vegetarian restaurant market size in Penang, according to Hari, is estimated to be over RM30mil per annum.
While most of the Sri Ananda Bahwan restaurant branches offer a mixed menu (meat and vegetarian meals), Hari saw the need to diversify and went ahead with the plan to have only vegetarian food served at one restaurant.
He started a 100% vegetarian restaurant in Penang Street four years ago.
Weddings are another strong driver of growth for the vegetarian food business.
For You Yen Vegetarian Centre director Heng Song Ling agreed that this market is filled with potential.
He said his restaurant can prepare vegetarian dishes for about 1,000 wedding tables a year.
“The wedding banquet segment is about 30% of our business,” he revealed.
In the case of Lily’s Vegetarian Kitchen, Wong said about 10% of her business comes from the wedding segment.
Hari revealed his Sri Ananda Bahwan restaurant provided vegetarian catering for 70 to 80 weddings per year.
“Vegetarian food was not popular at weddings 10 years ago because of the limited variety of dishes.
“We have fresh soya bean and mushroom-based products that can be transformed into a broad range of vegetarian meals, which explains the growing popularity of vegetarian food for weddings,” said Hari.
In terms of investment, Hari said about RM300,000 was required to start up an Indian vegetarian restaurant nowadays.
The vegetarian food business in Penang, however, faces the challenge of finding good and experienced chefs.
At the For You Yen Vegetarian Centre, which was established in 1985, Heng said quality chefs were expensive to hire and very difficult to find.
“A vegetarian chef undergoing training gets paid about RM2,000 a month, whereas a fully trained one can command a salary of over RM3,000,” he said.
Hari said foreigners from Nepal and India, with the necessary cooking skills, are now being recruited to be trained to cook local Indian vegetarian dishes.
“The foreigners have good skills but they need to be trained on how to cook to suit local tastes.
“A fully trained Indian vegetarian chef can command a salary of around RM1,500 to RM2,000,” he said.
To address the problem of chef shortage, the Malaysian Indian Restaurant Owners’ Association set up a centre in Kuala Lumpur last year to provide training for Indian vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, said Hari.
To ensure a consistent supply of quality vegetarian chefs, Wong provides training (for a fee) for those who want to learn to cook vegetarian meals and also to entrepreneurs keen to set up their own business.
“The course is about two months long, depending on what they want to learn,” she said.
To provide variety in the market, Quay Cafe proprietor Tony Koay said vegetarian restaurant owners should specialise in different menus and constantly upgrade them.
“For example, we specialise in vegetarian local delights such as nasi lemak, wan tan noodles, mee goreng and laksa,” said Koay.
Heng said For You Yen restaurant’s focus was more on traditional vegetarian meals.
For whatever vegetarian meal that suits your taste, Penang is now a destination to cater to those of a meatless persuasion.