During the MCO, many F&B companies were forced to move from dine-ins to exclusive deliveries.
This could have been a challenge for upscale restaurants, however, as they typically use the saying “eat eyes first” in their dishes and base their reputation on providing a premium, high quality dining experience.
With that in mind, we asked three upscale chefs how they managed to keep their businesses going during the pandemic.
1. Akâr Dining
Akâr Dining is a modern French gourmet restaurant that opened on March 9 in TTDI just a week before the start of the MCO.
We have already written about it as one of the 10 Klang Valley restaurants to open during the pandemic.
As a brand new restaurant, building a brand reputation was one of their bigger issues at a time like this.
Beef Ragout Pasta was one of their dishes made available for delivery / photo credit: Akâr Dining
They had put together a limited take-away menu with simpler dishes, not to increase sales, but to increase brand awareness.
"It was done to hopefully draw more attention to our eating style and hopefully get these customers to dine with us when it becomes available," said Aiden Low, Head Chef Akâr Dining.
Since the kitchen had to be consumed within a certain period of time from the time it was cooked, temperature control was important.
And that was one of the issues with relying on grocery deliveries as temperatures were a factor they couldn't control.
This can potentially affect the user experience. To find a way out, they launched hearty French dishes with a twist as the main menu for food delivery.
Editor's update: The information in the above paragraphs has been edited to be more accurate.
This change in menu also required Aiden to study the ingredients he used in the meals.
As the import of ingredients was almost impossible thanks to the flight stop, Akâr Dining had some problems with the procurement of ingredients.
Therefore, Aiden investigated more locally available products in order to minimize the consumption of imported goods.
Some of the food available from Akâr Dining / Photo credit: Akâr Dining
“Malaysia is rich in seafood with lots of options to work with. Cameron Highlands has the perfect weather to host a lot of native and non-native Sami, giving us a wide variety of job opportunities, ”he shared.
Finding similar substitutes was also one of the ways they met their logistical challenges, such as replacing butter with animal fat.
2. Enfin by James Won
Enfin by James Won is another French restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. Their niche is focused on preserving Asian heritage through the use of specific ingredients.
Through the MCO, Enfin acted as a charity kitchen serving 1,000 meals a week.
They had to figure out what types of packaging were appropriate for their food while hygiene, sterilization, and how to store their meals for half a day without compromising taste and overall food integrity.
Based on this experience, they then worked with BadBoyCooks and launched EnfinX, a delivery platform to offer their customers luxurious convenience.
One of Enfin's dishes and its private dining room / Photo credit: Enfin by James Won
After dinner was allowed again, the Enfin team was greeted by some unsightly guests on the premises – vermin.
Eradicating them became their top priority, in addition to complying with the government's socially distant SOPs.
“Pest control was a big problem because many companies were unable to perform their routine maintenance and pests were widespread throughout our premises. It took a couple of weeks to get it under control, ”said James Won, Enfin Owner and Chef.
When Enfin reopened its doors to guests, they focused on serving and entertaining corporate clients.
"We listened to our customers about what they want for the future and what needs they have in order to entertain their corporate customers," he said.
James curated a new menu that focused on more local ingredients, offered free corks for the first two months, and cut the number of courses in a disgust to be aware of reducing service time.
Dictionary time: With Dégustation, small portions of all typical dishes of a chef are tried in one sitting.
“We didn't work for lunch and we kept those hours for our delivery service because we have a lot of corporate customers who rely on these for their long Zoom meetings,” said James.
The team also reduced the minimum spend for the regular VIPs who dine in their private dining rooms.
"This way, we gained a greater number of new customers because our entry barrier was at a low cost," he said.
Despite the challenges, none of their employees were laid off or cut, and salaries were paid on time.
“Your well-being was our number one priority. We want our team to be able to serve with warm hospitality and not worry about anything other than keeping our customers happy, ”said James.
3. Nobu Kuala Lumpur
Nobu Kuala Lumpur doesn't need an introduction to its prestige for Japanese-Peruvian cuisine.
The rooftop restaurant in Kuala Lumpur was founded in New York in 1994 and is one of 29 franchise companies worldwide.
During the CMCO, the Nobu At Home menu was introduced to deliver the custom menu items to customers' doorsteps.
To further personalize the experience, the deliveries were made by the staff themselves.
The food was packed in bento boxes for Nobu At Home / Photo credit: Nobu Kuala Lumpur
"We have adjusted the menu to take into account how the logistics affect certain dishes."
"This meant that we only included dishes that retained the same quality, texture and feel after delivery," said Chef Philip Leong.
The radius for the delivery locations was also limited so as not to affect the quality of their food.
Since they couldn't recreate the coating in the store, Nobu used slim packaging to make up for this.
Once they were able to re-open dine-ins, they knew their high prices could drive customers away, especially at an unstable time when most have either lost their jobs or received wage cuts.
"This meant that when we reopened, we had to respond to the current climate and the excitement of Malaysians in order to finally eat out after months of being stuck at home," he said.
They had to come up with a promotional offer tailored to the needs of the customers and make up for the losses they had from being blocked.
Some of the dishes on the Omakase Two-Person Menu / Photo credit: Nobu Kuala Lumpur
For this reason, they started the “Omakase Menu for Two”, which was offered for two people at a lower price of around 400 RM, so that regular customers can dine more often while encouraging new customers to try their food.
"The response has been overwhelming and we are continuing several promotions based on the same mechanic," he said.
Another initiative by the restaurant was to allow guests to prepare certain dishes at their table.
These were made available to those who ordered their promotional dish during dinner.
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These chefs and their establishments definitely embodied the phrase "where there's a will, there's a way".
We thought it was next to impossible to really extend the dining experience beyond the four walls of a luxurious home, but they proved us wrong.
It was undoubtedly a challenging time for any business, and it was no different for fine dining.
However, we believe that they will all emerge stronger and wiser from this pandemic.
- Read how other industries in Malaysia handled business during the pandemic here.
Featured image source: Aidan Low, Chef at Akâr Dining / James Won, Owner and Chef at Enfin von James Won / Philip Leong, Chef at Nobu Kuala Lumpur