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Chinese restaurants in M'sia get creative in face of rising costs

Publication Date : 31-01-2014


What will it cost for Chinese New Year revelers to eat out during the festive season?

At the Tropicana Golf and Country Resort, the buffet will cost non-members 88 ringgit (or US$26.30, plus 6% government tax and 10% service charge).

Of course, effort has been made to sweeten the deal. According to events and promotions assistant manager Amy Tiang, in addition to free yee sang, the resort is offering free-range chickens, raised in a farm owned by the resort and fed a diet of home-made organic feed.

There is also an early bird offer. If you made your reservations before Chinese New Year’s eve, you’ll only have to pay 62 ringgit.

Based on the early bird figure, Tiang calculates a price increase of 4.8% from last year’s price of 59 ringgit.

Over at the Imperial Garden Restaurant run by the Tai Thong Group, there are five set menus priced from 788 ringgit to 1,988 ringgit. Marketing manager Cherine Yap said the 888 ringgit and 1,388 ringgit sets are expected to be the best sellers, where they will feature rainbow-hued tong yuen, naturally coloured with blue pea and rosella flowers, screwpine leaves, purple sweet potatoes, pumpkin and corn.

There has been no price increase from last year, but from 2012, a rise of between 10 ringgit and 20 ringgit had been reported. In recognition of fewer baby boomers in comparison to the past, the marketing team has also proposed menus designed for six, starting from 488 ringgit to 1,288 ringgit.

At Chuan Le Xiao Zhen, a month-old restaurant in Taman Segar, Cheras, featuring a Szechuan style of one-pot stir fried vegetables, meat or seafood, prices can start from as low as 18 ringgit.

To maintain his competitive edge within a foodie enclave where no less than 1,000 eateries are vying for a slice of the dining pie, owner Dave Looi has decided not to publicise the price of his salmon yee sang.

But he is not averse to saying diners will be getting good value for money with the thick sashimi cuts of salmon in comparison to the paper-thin variety offered by most.

Judging from feng shui predictions for 2014 as a time to tighten belts, will the above eateries be faced with fewer mouths to feed as they usher in the Year of the Horse?

As it is, restaurateurs have reported marked increases in food costs. Prawns are said to have seen the most dramatic increases. Over just a year, 1kg of tiger prawns has jumped from 28 ringgit to 42 ringgit.

Based on group volume, the Tai Thong Group will be purchasing some 10,000kg for the season and they are confident it will be a sell-out.

“It is common in Chinese culture to make feasting a part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. So we are not worried. No matter what, the dining crowd will definitely be there,” smiled Yap.

In response to the price hike, Yap said the way to go is to ensure diners feel they are getting value for money.

In the 1,988 ringgit set, for example, you will find Alaskan king crab. At market prices, a 3.7kg box of Alaskan crab from Kodiak, Alaska, is worth at least 1,117 ringgit.

Having a unique menu is also crucial. This year, Yap hopes diners will like their eight-fruit yee sang.

Another thing is to cut back on elaborate garnishes. These days will see less carrot pagodas. In place will be cherry tomatoes on parsley and spring onion flowers secured by red chili bands — attractive enough to fulfil aesthetic functions and capable of doubling as mini salads as well.

Forward planning is another crucial factor in ensuring the best prices are passed on to the consumer. This, revealed Yap, can be based on past sales records.

For example, if the purchasing department knows the group’s outlets will require some 5,000 suckling pigs for the season, they can place an early order with the supplier who can then inform the farms to prepare.

“This way, the purchasing department gets to lock in the price, protecting us from sudden fluctuations. Ordering early also allows the suppliers and farmers to manage things more effectively,” Yap explains.

She was referring to factors like deliveries and organising feed planning for livestock.

A farmer who knows how much feed he will require might be able to look at better price quotes for bulk orders.

For this, decisions must be made early. The Chinese New Year menus for Tai Thong were created as early as September last year by group executive chef Lee Wei Hong.

For Lee, who started life as a kitchen helper at 15, there is no such thing as an overpaid chef.

The rainbow tong yuen, priced at 11 ringgit per bowl will require seven melt-in-your mouth glutinous orbs to complement a sweet, warm, ginger-spiced syrup. This means 70 balls for a table of 10. The Imperial Garden has a capacity for 80 tables. In just one single night, diners may consume up to 5,600 tong yuen. All together, Lee and his team will have to hand roll 84,000 balls to last the 15 days of Chinese New Year.

“My staff is about to lose their patience with me,” smiled Lee.

Looi of Chuan Le Xiao Zhen said that while sustainability is a main concern in the face of price hikes, one can never cut back on ingredients.

And the man is elaborate! Around 60 types of herbs and spices are needed for the oil that he uses. All in, Looi can use about 20,000 ringgit worth of spices in just three months.

To meet revenue targets, his trick is to spruce up kitchen management.

“Wastage is the biggest financial drain. If one staff wastes 1 ringgit worth of water a day, just imagine what will happen when you have 10 staff doing the same thing? In one month, it is not impossible to see 1,000 ringgit going down the drain,” Looi said.

Having an honest supplier also counts.

“Take chicken wings, for example. If it comes frozen, you’ll be paying 20% extra for ice. Vegetables must also be delivered in the correct weight, or you’ll end up short-changed,” Looi said.

He is also subtle when it comes to rising prices. Just a 20 sen increase in a 1.50 ringgit bowl of rice is already good enough for him.

“Just imagine 20 sen multiplied by 200 bowls a day. That is already an extra 40 ringgit,” he smiles.

So how many will be eating out this Chinese New Year?

Cyber cafe owner Nicholas Tay and and his wife, Yuki Teh, will be forking out 1,000 ringgit for a nine-course meal at Kechara Oasis Viva Home to feed 12 for the reunion dinner. He has his reasons.

“I don’t know how to cook,” admits Tay who is also not keen to handle the aftermath of a large dinner.

However, Tay’s sister, Linda, will be eating at home, back in her husband Regis Koh’s hometown in Malacca where her in-laws will be taking charge of the cooking.

According to the sales services executive, it would be impossible to cart her husband’s entire clan to any restaurant because all in, there are 40 of them!

On how her mother-in-law manages to whip up such a large feast every season, Koh says it all boiled down to teamwork.

“Everybody chips in. One brother will buy the beer, another will buy the soft drinks, a sister will take care of the tit bits… This year, my elder brother is taking care of the meat and vegetables,” says Koh.

And what if anyone is short of cash?

“Ahh, easy, the ones who have a bit more will cover for those who don’t have enough,” said Koh.

*US$1 = 3.35 ringgit


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