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From oil and gas, to the sandwich plate
Publication Date : 16-12-2013
After unrest broke out in Saudi Arabia, a Malaysian left his job at an oil and gas company to start a sandwich parlour at home
After an unexpected turn of circumstances, a gutsy former contracts administrator now earns his daily bread with a sandwich cafe.
It seems hard to believe, but sandwich cafe Stacks founder Ryan Tidan Bryce Jolly didn’t always want to make sandwiches.
Three years ago, Jolly was involved in the legal world, enjoying a comfortable lifestyle as a contracts administrator for an oil and gas company in Saudi Arabia. Things however, changed when he came back to Malaysia for a holiday.
“The events of the Arab Spring broke out when I was back here. My friends and family members influenced me not to go back, saying it was dangerous. They encouraged me to stay, and try getting a job here,” said Jolly, 31.
After trying unsuccessfully to return to the oil and gas industry, Jolly decided instead to delve into a completely different world — sandwiches.
“The thought of change scared me. But I made sure I took a calculated risk. First thing I did was to draft a business plan, because I had to look for investors and calculate start-up costs. My decision wasn’t on a whim or anything like that,” Jolly said.
The Sarawak-born Jolly, who is of Chinese, Kelabit and Iban ancestry, said he had always been fond of cooking, with one of his earliest memories being cooking ayam pansoh (chicken cooked in bamboo with spices) in his backyard with his mother.
Jolly said he was inspired to start selling sandwiches due to their consistency.
“If you do a product, you have to be consistent. I mean, I could do other finger foods like burgers, or pizzas or things like that, but I knew I needed to be able to find someone who’d be able to replicate it, up to 95 per cent of the original quality. And I knew that if I did something that needed a higher skill set, my staff may not be able to replicate it,” Jolly said.
“I didn’t want to be bound to the shop all the time. You can’t just stay in the shop and expect people to come, you have to go out and do the marketing.”
He then decided to open Stacks, a 1950s American style diner-themed sandwich cafe. Asked why he chose the theme, Jolly said he had always been attracted to the spirit of the people of that era, and had always been a fan of oldies music.
Jolly invested about 200,000 ringgit (US$62,237) into Stack’s opening, with almost a quarter of the expenses going into furniture. Unable to find local places supplying period American-style fixtures such as jukeboxes and diner-style lights, Jolly imported them from the US.
“I wanted to extend myself through my decor. I mean, I could just put a sandwich on a plate, but I thought it would be quite tacky. I wanted people to come because there was an identity to the place, an authenticity,” said Jolly, adding the look of the cafe was heavily influenced on pop-culture touchstones such as Back to the Future, and videogames.
Stacks was officially launched on December 12 last year, and sells mainly salads and sandwiches. All the food served is halal.
Asked which of his sandwiches were most popular, Jolly said the current top sellers included the Molten Grip, the Club Stacks, Smoked Salmon and Ryeless Rueben.
Jolly said he got most of his ingredients from local suppliers, with the biggest expense being chicken, which he spends almost 1,000 ringgit ($309) on every month.
“You have to weed out the bad suppliers from the good.
“For most of my smoked and cured meats, I get them from hotel suppliers. I make sure they cater to at least five- or six-star hotels. I think these guys know they what they are doing, and would never jeopardise their quality,” he said.
The cafe currently employs a staff of seven — five full-timers and two part-time staff.
Asked about the Malaysian sandwich industry, Jolly said it was encouraging.
“I think we’re starting to appreciate sandwiches now, but not everyone has accepted it as a meal food yet. A lot of people consider it as an in-between meal, or a snack, which is a bit of a flawed perception in my opinion. I’m selling ‘premium sandwiches’, which are supposed to be a full meal, and are made with premium ingredients.” Jolly said.
“With these premium sandwiches, we give people a chance to try how sandwiches are supposed to taste.
“In Malaysia, I notice most of the big sandwich brands usually sell either basic, or gourmet sandwiches, so we’re sort of filing a niche in the middle.
“Some Malaysians have only been eating low-grade sandwiches, where they get a lot of sauce and toppings, but miss the essence of the meal.
“Our concept is ‘heartier, happier and tastier’, so we have to be in line with it. We don’t sell out.”
Jolly said Stacks currently sells about 40 to 50 sandwiches on an average day, although he hoped this number would increase in future, hopefully to 80 to 90.
He added that since they were a relatively young outlet, turnover was not very high yet, though more people are strating to come to Stacks.
“I’m hoping to expand. I’m planning to open a kiosk unit: that was actually the original plan for this business. In future all my outlets will probably be kiosks. I’m also planning to open a central kitchen, and also expand to strategic places where there is demand for sandwiches, like airports and certain shopping malls,” Jolly said.