Wednesday, June 26

Food trucks gaining traction in Kuching


TA01931I was probably just a kindergartner when I had my first encounter with a Milo truck which usually showed up at the school for certain big events.

Although it was not exactly a food truck, I still remember how excited my classmates and I were as we waited in line to claim our drinks.

Even til this day, the Milo truck is still just as popular wherever it shows up, as seen at a recent charity marathon held in Kuching where throngs of people of all ages swarmed the vehicle, all wanting a good gulp of this timeless beverage.

While these Milo trucks will always draw large crowds, will the introduction of more gourmet-styled food trucks in Kuching become as popular in the long run, especially with their unique menus in play?

Food trucks are not an entirely new concept in the country. This industry subset has seen a significant shift over the past few years not just globally but within Malaysia as well, as we see these mobile food vendors focussed on serving meals typically found in restaurants.

This trend has been on the rise in Peninsular Malaysia. The growing number of food trucks in the country is not without their fan base, most of which will rely on the respective social media accounts to keep themselves updated on the latest locations.

Food trucks are growing popular so much so that there are even festivals held with food trucks being the main attraction. Vendors will gather at one spot, attracting foodies near and far to come and try the wide variety of food there.

Kuching has in the past year also seen the emergence of two unique food truck businesses: Kuching Food Kartel and NOMS On Street (Noms).

Of course, the key benefit of this business model lies in its mobility, as affirmed by Kuching Food Kartel business owner Awang Hasrullah Awang Ismail.

The Kuching based food truck operator noted that with fixed food premises, the downside is when there are no customers, businesses are stuck there.

“However, with a food truck, the business can go anywhere. If there are no customers at one location, the food truck can always move to a more popular place with large people traffic to generate business there,” he told BizHive Weekly recently.

Avertino Phua, a partner of Noms, added that the food truck is special because the chef and the crew themselves have to work in a limited space with limited resources, unlike in a restaurant.

“Therefore, we need a lot of planning, obviously, communications as well as efficiency to make the food truck a success,” he said.


On board with Kuching Food Kartel


With its focus on charcoal bun burgers, Kuching Food Kartel (KFK) officially started operations early this year with three partners helming the business.

While partners Awang Hasrullah Awang Ismail, Mahathir Ibrahim and Mohamad Azrin Abdul Wahab all come from different industries, together they share a common passion to succeed in the food truck venture.

Awang and Mahathir told BizHive Weekly that prior to their food truck venture, they were selling their signature burgers via stalls at various locations. When they shifted from their permanent fixed locations to mobile food wagons, business was overwhelming.

The idea for this food truck first came about when they watched the movie called ‘Chef’ – a movie about how a chef reignited his passion for cooking with the launch of a food truck business – and an article they read which mentioned the ‘Top 10 trending Food Trucks in KL’.

From thereon, the trio decided to try and conduct research on this idea, even going as far as to Kuala Lumpur and visiting five out of the 10 food trucks mentioned in the aforementioned article. It was then that the partners found the concept to be interesting enough to explore.

Back then, Awang revealed he had never seen these types of food trucks in Kuching, save for those that sell lok-lok (skewered food), night market trucks and drink trucks serving Milo or Vico.

Being the first to bring in this new type of food truck concept to Kuching and possibly overall to Sarawak, had its perks, with Awang noting that their foodie vehicle attracted and still attracts many people.

“The difference between selling at a stall and the food truck, is that people tend to like new things,” he said, adding that the response has been very good since they first began operations.

KFK has now even expanded with a bistro located at Satok which opened recently in September. The purpose of this bistro was to cater to those who do not have Facebook which is where KFK will regularly post the latest locations of their food truck.

“To make it easier for this group of people, we set up our fixed location, very near to our food truck before at Satok, so they can just come here and buy the burgers,” Awang said.

Mahathir added another reason for setting up an outlet, was to do the operations, all the processing and cooking inside there. “All the food will then be brought out to the food truck,” he added.


Eye on healthy offerings

Of course, it is not just all about the idea of a unique mobile food business which has attracted KFK’s more than 4,000 Facebook fans, but also its menu of six delectable and healthy burgers.

To distinguish themselves from the typical burgers sold at the stalls by the streetside, KFK decided to focus on one particular type of product which are the charcoal bun burgers, also known as the black bun burgers.

“The first impression of people was: ‘Can this be eaten?’ When Burger King introduced the black burger or when sometimes McDonald’s has a festive seasonal burger and they are selling it with black buns, people go for it,” Awang said.

However, when KFK sells the charcoal bun burgers, on a daily basis they get asked by people on the edibility of the burgers. The buns used for KFK’s burgers are of charcoal-based powders, which Awang stressed is not artificial colouring.

“Actually, these buns are good for us because it’s not colouring as compared to some places where they sell burgers with green, red, or blue buns, those are (made with artificial) colouring which are not good for us,” he said.

This makes KFK’s burgers more healthy, given the health benefits of consuming charcoal such as ridding our stomachs of acidity, compared to the regular buns usually used for burgers.

On KFK’s homemade patties, either chicken or lamb, Awang assured that these are produced on a daily basis and not kept for more than 48 hours.

“We are grilling the patties, therefore reducing the amount of oil inside when it is being cooked,” he added.

Another highlight of KFK’s charcoal bun burgers is that each has a different homemade sauce ranging from cheese-based sauces to spicy chilli-blended sauces. There is even a nasi lemak-themed burger available for those who would like to try the sauce burger style.

When queried on how they build their branding, Awang replied that the look of the food truck itself is building the brand of KFK.  Awang is confident that in Kuching, there is no one else who is selling the charcoal bun burger as outstanding as KFK does.

“From that particular point of view and also as the pioneer of the food truck in Sarawak, we combine this, so that, becomes the brand of our products.

“We are selling black burger with special sauce in the first food truck in Kuching, in Sarawak,” he said.

Having just the six charcoal burgers in their menu is part of their business strategy which takes after large franchises such as KFC or McDonald’s.

“We don’t put too much different products in our menu. We focus on those particular six special sauces with homemade patties and black buns,” he emphasised.


Keeping up with the trends

As a mobile burger business, KFK concentrates on social media as their target group because nowadays almost everybody is using it.

“Most people buy things online so our strategy is based on that platform,” Awang said.

As it is a food truck, Mahathir added that passersby are also a common sight for them, either those who walk by or drive by. Awang went on to say that people nowadays, in Kuching particularly, like to eat outside.

“They don’t like to cook meals for themselves, sometimes it’s better for them to eat outside rather than cook because it saves cost,” he said.

With people now trying to save as much as they can, he observed that this group of people find that having a burger is enough, just a meal to fill their stomachs.

On why customers prefer KFK, Awang believes that this is likely because in the market, their homemade burgers are considered very affordable. While their ingredients are on the pricier end, KFK will always try to minimise their profit just so that people from all walks of life can enjoy their food.

According to Awang KFK’s motto from the beginning, is to  try to sell as cheap as they can as a way to build a closer connection with the community here. In addition, KFK does charitable work whereby they will donate part of their sales to certain organisations.

“With the Sarawakian spirit strong and (everyone) supporting each other during this time, we always say this is a local product, local people and done locally.

“Things like this can increase our sales. This is our strategy,” he said.

Location wise, KFK does move around, choosing to set up in other areas other than Satok as they now have a bistro there.

“We need to change (locations) since we already have our bistro there (Satok) and so we will go to other areas such as Kuching town or Chinese populated areas such as Jalan Song,” Mahathir said.

An important factor to choosing locations is car parks or areas where people can easily park their cars.

On a side note, Awang said that there are customers who will just order from their cars and will drive around for about 10 to 15 minutes before coming back to the food truck to pick up their burgers.

“It’s easier and convenient for them,” he added.

Generally, choosing a location is a trial and error process. Mahathir recalled that there was a time they parked at Sarawak Plaza, in front of RHB Finance which turned out to be a difficult location.

“We were there for about three days, we parked there, we realised that it was not a suitable location.

“Not easy for people to find parking. That’s why we had to move to other places,” he said.

The locations also depend on where there is demand or ‘requests’ from the followers on Facebook. For instance, KFK had joined a three-day event at Summer Mall because their fans on Facebook had requested them to go to Samarahan.

“The sales was very outstanding because food trucks are very new to them,” Awang said.

KFK gives each location a trial period of a minimum of one week. The reason is they need that amount of time to at least get to know the customers and to monitor how much they can sell per night.

“We have to look at it from the sales perspective, also. If sales are okay, then we will stay at the location for awhile,” Mahathir said.

To date, KFK can mostly be found at their three main locations which includes RHB Islamic at Satok (Maxis, Jalan Satok), Esplanade Waterfront Kuching (just opposite the Astana) and opposite The Hills Shopping Mall (Warong Nusantara).

Currently operating at night only, KFK is looking into opening the food truck during the daytime. However, there is the obstacle of parking availability and suitability, especially given the size of the food truck.

Awang shared that it is not easy to simply park anywhere and that if they were to do that, authorities may consider the parked food truck as an obstacle to other road users.

Other challenges KFK has faced include internal problems in the form of obtaining good employees.

“People don’t see selling burgers as a good business. They keep saying that working with McDonald’s, big franchises, is better than working for smaller local businesses.

“So, to get good workers is very hard for us, that’s a major problem,” Awang admitted.

With about 13 part time employees working with KFK now, Awang said that when employing new people, he will always emphasise to them that they are not looking for workers but more specifically, partners.

If these partners are interested, KFK can assist them on this particular business, providing them the equipment and everything else and letting them run it, thus making KFK a profit-sharing business.

“This is the module of big companies, rather than they do it all themselves. That’s why we will train them on how to cook, how to manage, we train them on everything, starting from cleaning, organising, etc,” he said.

Despite being registered with a permit with DBKU, challenges faced by KFK also include the fact that food truck businesses are not recognised by authorities.

“Hopefully, the government can help us, small medium enterprises (SMEs), entrepreneurs like us,  rather than give us problems.

“Hopefully, this food truck industry can be developed by the government in Kuching.

“To start a business, you need to have a big fund, we hope the government can recognise or have a special fund for food trucks,” he insisted.

Awang noted that as DBKU does not allow people to sell anything using their houses as the premises and since to rent shop lots is expensive, he believed that operating food trucks is one of the solutions.

Moving forward, with the success of the KFK food truck business, the partners anticipate the launch of a second food truck perhaps next year in January.


Eating out with NOMS On Street


A newcomer in Kuching’s food truck scene with its own take on the American and European (Italian) cuisine is NOMS On Street (Noms).

Serving gourmet street food daily from 7pm to 11pm, the Noms truck is a favourite go-to for many Kuchingites in search of scrumptious on-the-go meals since its opening on September 16 this year.

Established by Ardeles Phua who is also the chef, Kelvin Chong and Avertino Phua, these young partners share a mutual passion for food.

According to Avertino, Noms was set up not to be just a simple food truck. In fact, Noms stands out in the sense that they have various departments whereby each play a part  in the success of the food truck business. These include the production team, sales team, marketing team and advertising team.

“All of these departments are led by young entrepreneurs who share the same dream,” he said.

Noms chose to focus on the aforementioned cuisine because they were amazed and inspired by how the Americans and Europeans have their meals from the food trucks.

This got the partners thinking of sharing the same interest with everyone here, especially the Kuchingites.

Avertino told the BizHive Weekly that they wanted to introduce a new concept where people can grab their quality quick meals while enjoying it street style in Kuching.

“After going around tasting and making food from all over the world, we decided that American and Italian cuisine best suited our Western-themed food truck,” he said, adding that Noms caters to all the food lovers out there who love to try something new and love going for food adventures.

Noms does not stick to one particular menu, but will change the items, depending on their chef.

“We will constantly change, perhaps like two or three months later. (We will) not only stick to the current menu itself,” he said.

Noms’ current best seller is their signature Mama Mia sandwich which is actually a Cuban sandwich. Avertino explained that the Mama Mia consists of a six-inch baguette with a few layers of fillings inside. The first layer will be the grilled chicken, second the premium ham, third will be the cheddar cheese and the fourth will be roasted tomatoes and Noms’ special sauce.

“This baguette, once we close it, we grill it until there’s a crust. So, one bite in it, you can taste each layer,” he said.

The difference between Noms’ sandwich and burger, compared with the other burgers out there is that they do not fill them with sauce. This is because the sauce can cover the original taste of the patties.

“But, ours is light, so you can savour the original taste of the patties and other ingredients inside,” he said, adding that this is the chef specialty.


Brand loyalty a key sign

Noms is building their brand with the help of the public and social media, with Avertino saying that the public support as well as the power of influence of the social media has brought them to where they are right now.

Avertino acknowledged that social media does help a lot because Noms does not like to do self promoting for their products.

“We encourage people to tell the truth. Basically, we depend on the customers and we don’t force them to like a post or something. No, it depends on what they think,” he said.

However, he noticed that on the first day of their operations, a lot of people posted up pictures and tagged Noms and gave good comments.

“Even to some critics, we reply and say that we are trying our best to change this or that,” he said, noting that with food, everyone has different tastes.

That said, most of the feedback that Noms has gotten, out of 10 people, at least eight people that bought their food say that their food is good.

Other than social media, Noms hopes to build up their brand and business with word-of-mouth marketing and is looking forward to this form of advertising to help spread word of their food truck.

“I think it’s interesting because to all the food lovers especially, let’s say we eat something nice, for sure we will tell our friends like ‘Hey, why don’t we try something new in Kuching?’” he said.

Noms attracts a surprising range of customers, from youngsters like students, working adults, retirees and many more. They even have a number of regular customers whom Avertino is able to recognise by name, face and even remember their usual orders.

He observed that Kuching people love to eat and that food never fails to gather the people here. It is because of this norm that he hopes that when people come to the Noms food truck, they will bring their friends to come over and try their delicacies.

To date, the partners have only faced a few downsides with the food truck business which include the weather, rising cost of food and proper locations.

“The food truck does not have any proper shelter so the first thing that we face will be the weather changes. This is a pretty big impact to us because we cannot serve our food especially if it is a rainy day,” he said.

That said, weather hazards such as the haze and rainy days has not really deterred Noms’ customers from lining up for a bite of their tasty meals.

“On our first day of operations, haze was pretty bad, but I’m shocked customers willingly came out just to come to Noms.

“Also, there was one rainy day when I customers still willing to come down with umbrellas and wait for their food,” Avertino said, adding that they were touched by all their loyal customers’ determination.

The rising cost of food supplies is also a challenge for Noms given the rising inflation in the country. Noms is particularly affected because most of their supplies and ingredients are imported.

However, Noms has found a way to overcome this by cutting costs on their production and overheads. They will not cut costs on the imported ingredients as doing so will change the taste of their food completely.

As Noms is still new, Avertino said that they are trying their best to solve these challenges and obstacles. That said, they would also like to urge the government to assist young entrepreneurs in their endeavours.

He suggested that perhaps the authorities can provide food trucks a proper location with shelter at which to operate their businesses.

“Actually, we are looking for let’s say, (for) one day there’s a specific place to operate, a big space (where) we would like to gather all the food trucks,” he said.

In a years’ time, they hope to set up a market place for food trucks, complete with tables and chairs for customers to enjoy their food and beverages on.

On to their current operations venue, unless otherwise updated on Noms’ social media accounts, food lovers can find the food truck at Jalan Tun Jugah.

This site was chosen because there are plenty of car parks available which makes it convenient for customers to just park their cars and come down and grab their food from Noms. It is also because Jalan Tun Jugah is located at one of the main roads in Kuching.

However, Noms does not just stick to one place given that they do accept catering to events such as corporate functions.

Overall, Avertino hopes the food truck community will build up here in Kuching. He invites all those people interested in the food truck business but do not know how to go about it to find Noms, adding that they are willing to assist them and answer any queries.