Food & Drink Businesses: Innovation makes the difference!

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Innovation is more important than ever for F&B Businesses to differentiate themselves amongst competition. In fact, in this day and age, there is a need for a constant updating, just to stay in the game! This point was highlighted at the Inspire F&B Forum held at the Radisson Hotel recently.

Moderated by Fatin binti Arifin, Marketing Manager at bruneihalalfoods, the session dealt with, ‘Innovation in the changing landscape of Brunei’s F&B industry: Presentation, Branding & Technology’ and featured a panel comprising Nabil bin Ibrahim, Sales and Marketing Manager at foodpanda; Dr Chong Wee Fong, the owner of Sweet Nyonya Delight Café; and Nicky Wong, the Proprietor and Partner of CheezBox, Gong Cha, Pan & Wok, Bite Twice and Bake Culture.

Asked what innovation is in the F&B industry, Dr Chong highlighted that it is about sustainability and profitability. “Innovation is really doing something different. You have to be unique and different from the others. In other words, how you differentiate your restaurant from the others,” he said. “Innovation today is really essential to sustain your business. It’s also for profitability, so if you don’t innovate, you are in danger of going away.”

Nicky Wong asked on what trends he has noticed in F&B, said, “Coming from Brunei, when I go abroad I notice there are a lot of different foods that you cannot get in Brunei. But from a business perspective, most of them don’t work in Brunei.

“So we look at what is the right food or the right product to bring to the market, because there are so many similar restaurants in Brunei, so what’s our unique selling point? That’s what you must always be asking.”

On how to figure out what will work in Brunei, he said, “We don’t have a winning formula, so it’s all down to experience and what we believe will work. It’s really about trial and error.”

Discussing his expansion strategy, Nicky Wong shared, “Bite Twice is a new concept that we launched a few months back, where we specialise in different varieties of egg tarts. So the most important thing about this kiosk concept is being scalable.

“Traditionally when you open a new café, you rent a shop lot, then you have to spend a lot for renovation costs, you need to recruit at least five to eight people.

“The concept that we wanted was one that we could scale fast, and we wanted as small a space as possible. At our outlet at The Mall, Gadong, the space is very, very small and we manage to squeeze three people in.”

He highlighted that the concept is scalable such that they can open multiple new outlets quickly, should they choose to.

“The egg tarts were not in our plans at all, and were just sold at Pan & Wok. Somehow it was in our top three sales. So we decided to create a spin-off for the egg tarts alone.”

Nicky reiterated that there are lots of new kinds of food that don’t exist in Brunei. “So you test the market and see what opportunities you can get out of spin-offs.”

Meanwhile, Dr Chong was asked about his strategy with Sweet Nyonya Delight Cafe. “For me, I go for a centralisation strategy. So I centralise everything into one area so that it’s easier to control resources and easier to control manpower and so on,” he said. “So that’s my strategy. In Brunei, everybody has a car. If they think it’s good enough, they will drive to your place. That’s my thinking, and that’s also what the management is thinking.

“In this time of economic uncertainty and this type of hypercompetitive environment, with increasingly rising costs of raw materials as well we have to be very cautious, so I think from there the centralisation strategy is perhaps still the best to go with at this moment.”

Discussing restaurant in-novation, Dr Chong shared, “Innovation in a restaurant is doing something differently. I would consider it more as a strategy. If you look at innovation in Sweet Nyonya, I would look at the kitchen itself,” he said, noting that their innovation was in utilising the latest in cooking technology, using an oven that reduces cooking time and energy consumption.

Dealing with the question on how to ensure quality and standards, he said, “On quality itself, coming from a background in Nestle, where quality is of no compromise, we do the same thing at Sweet Nyonya. For quality I personally check from the suppliers, and in the kitchen what I do is random tasting.”

“So now and then, I will ask the chef to cook, or even before the food goes out, I will have a sample of it to make sure that it is of the same quality when it goes out. And then of course, taste is individual with each customer. What is right for me may not be right for the customers. So I always get feedback from customers.”

“Sometimes you’ll see me out in the front personally asking the customers, and I think that is the base where you control your quality,” he added.

Nicky asked on the topic of food quality, and shared, “The whole idea of Pan & Wok is we make it fresh every day. Our kitchen starts at 5am, takes a few hours to prepare the first batch of food for the morning, then in the afternoon we have another round of fresh food.

“It’s similar to a café and restaurant because we cook the food, but the business model is very different because again, back to the scalable business. So again, traditionally when you open a café or restaurant, it is so hard to scale. So it’s down to the business and how you’re going to monetise it in a much more efficient and productive way.

“So this is why, again, trial and error, to see if something works in Brunei. In fact, people quite accept the concept so far.”

Asked if Brunei can offer F&B franchises and innovations to the rest of the world, Dr Chong said, “Yes. In every business there is an opportunity, it’s just a matter of someone coming up with a very unique idea, do it well inside the domestic market first, test out every part, iron out every mistake, then make the corrections, package it into a system, then you can go off to franchise into the market.”

“Brunei has a number of advantages that can be used among the Asean region. Among Asean members there is free-trade already. One of it is that Brunei has very low costs for energy. That is an advantage for production. Another thing is Brunei has good seafood. That is another thing that you can look into.”

The session saw Nicky Wong asked by a member of the audience what his most valuable lesson had been from running a franchise. “Gong Cha is our first really big franchise that we bring to Brunei,” he shared. “The intention was to learn something from them and then do our own franchise. After running Gong Cha from the first few months, it’s very different from our previous experience in running CheezBox.

“So to be a franchise owner, you need to build a lot of systems. Franchises are all about systems – SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). It’s not like the traditional way of doing things our way, with no system at all, and that is why we cannot scale.

“Even with a system in place, it took us six to nine months to fully master how the business is supposed to be run.

“So learning from that experience, we apply the suitable parts of the core experience to our Pan & Wok and Bite Twice now,” he added. “Create a system. Without systems, franchising is impossible.”