THE Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur has more than 100 restaurants, cafes and snack stands to meet every kind of craving. Now that list includes a novel and seemingly quixotic option: Santan, a cafe that serves airplane food in cardboard boxes.
As restaurant concepts go, “quick airplane food” isn’t an obvious winner.
But Santan is owned and run by AirAsia Group, the region’s most successful budget airline.
With profits declining in the industry, the company is looking to diversify – it wants to reduce flying from 80% of its business to about 40% by 2025 – and earthbound airplane food is central to its vision.
Over the next few years, it plans to open more than 100 new Santans.
“A year ago, when I first conjured the idea of turning... our in-flight food choices into a fast-food restaurant, everyone thought I was crazy, ” says AirAsia’s chief executive officer Tony Fernandes.
“Just as they thought 18 years ago when I said I was starting an airline. Look how that turned out!”
That may seem like an inapt comparison. But the idea of creating “the first Asean fast-food franchise”, as Fernandes puts it, isn’t inherently crazy.
South-East Asia’s expanding middle class is increasingly keen on upgraded dining options. And Western fast-food outlets, such as McDonald’s and KFC, have been proliferating.
In Malaysia, Yum! Brands, the owner of KFC and Pizza Hut, has opened more than 1,000 outlets, making it the country’s – and the region’s – most successful food-service operator. So the market is potentially vast.
The problem for AirAsia is that winning customers in South-East Asia’s cut-throat restaurant industry will be much harder than winning passengers on budget aircraft.
For one thing, Fernandes may be misreading the competition. Those American fast-food outlets make up a mere fraction of the 167,000 food and beverage businesses in Malaysia, the vast majority of which serve local fare.
That makes KFC a relative novelty: an expensive foreign twist on a local favourite (fried chicken). A one-piece chicken-and-rice combo in Malaysia costs about RM12.50, while a plate of local chicken rice typically goes for half that.
Another problem is that what Fernandes calls “Asean food” doesn’t really exist.
Santan’s menu is a puzzling hodgepodge of vaguely regional dishes: nasi lemak, Vietnamese pho, Cambodian pineapple fish-fillet noodles and others.
In the air, a menu is a compromise intended for a diverse set of customers who don’t really expect much choice. On the ground, a menu needs to match quirky and far more specific cravings.
Nobody, anywhere craves “Asean food”, just as nobody craves “European Union food”.
Instead, South-East Asians seek out – and often debate – the highly distinctive cuisines of respective nations, such as Thailand or Vietnam.
Of course, if Santan’s food was uniquely good, that might not be such an obstacle.
And meal prices average RM15 with a drink, about 25% more than a chicken-and-rice combo at KFC, and double what a similar meal would cost in a local eating place.
And that could be the biggest problem for AirAsia. A chain offering generically regional dishes will find it difficult to compete with the hundreds of thousands of small, independently owned eateries that make South-East Asia one of the world’s great culinary destinations.
It’s like Taco Bell trying to win over Mexicans or Olive Garden hoping to entice diners in Tuscany.
Why choose the corporate compromise when you can have the real thing?
Two decades ago, AirAsia revolutionised consumer expectations in the region with the catchphrase: “Now everyone can fly.”
Can it now revolutionise what everyone eats?
The thing is – everyone in South-East Asia can already eat. — Bloomberg
Adam Minter is also the author of Junkyard Planet: Travels In The Billion-Dollar Trash Trade and the forthcoming Secondhand: Travels In The New Global Garage Sale.
The views expressed here are solely his own.
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