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From boy baker to BIG shot in world of food

Benjamin Yong’s BIG group has been expanding at a breathless pace. In two years, it has opened over 20 F&B outlets – and counting – including a bar, a steakhouse, a meat-free restaurant and a supermarket. (PHOTO: KAMARUL AKHIR)

Publication Date : 22-10-2012

 

When Benjamin Yong was 13, he started baking carrot cakes in his home kitchen, supplying a family friend's cafe in town.

The cost of ingredients for each cake was 13 ringgit. He sold each for 60 ringgit.

"It was a great business model. Pure net profit, no overheads," Yong, 34, says, chuckling.

Today, the savvy boy baker has grown into arguably Malaysia's most successful - and innovative - restaurateur with his chain of fusion restaurants, cafes, and noodle and rice joints.

This year, the burly, gregarious bachelor expects his BIG group of restaurants and supermarkets to rake in 50 million ringgit (US$16.24 million) in sales.

In the pipeline are expansion plans across the Causeway. He is scouting locations for up to 10 outlets in Singapore, which may open as soon as the middle of next year.

Yet the food business was not always an obvious choice. Yong first pursued a psychology degree in Melbourne in the 1990s. Then he toyed with the idea of becoming a graphic designer.

He stumbled into the food and beverage business only in 2004, when he was working in his mother's fashion boutique. The space in a mall for her shop was too big, so they decided to combine it with a cafe.

After raising 300,000 ringgit from friends and family, Delicious - his first eatery and the brand that made him famous - was born.

He was inspired by the hearty, affordable fare and casual vibe of Australian restaurants, and hoped to replicate it in Malaysia. But with his experience limited to waiting tables in a restaurant while studying Down Under, Yong faced a steep learning curve.

So the first Delicious was built partly - believe it or not - using the Complete Idiot's Guide To Starting A Restaurant, which he bought at the former Borders store at Singapore's Wheelock Place, while on a trip. "Laugh all you want, but it provided us good, basic, functional ideas on starting your first business," he deadpans.

But soon Delicious' mix of affordable, casual fusion food and luscious desserts, served in a chic minimalist setting, became a favourite among Malaysians. "Delicious marked an evolution in Kuala Lumpur's cafe scene," notes food critic and popular blogger Yoong Wan Yen. "It offered a range and quality of food rarely seen outside hotels - and made it affordable to most people."

It swiftly became profitable, registering a turnover of 2 million ringgit in its second year.

The popularity of Delicious - which would later grow into a chain of 10 restaurants - soon attracted the attention of the public-listed E&O group, a property and hospitality conglomerate.

E&O first bought a majority share in Delicious for 3 million ringgit in 2007, before buying Yong out completely in 2010 for another 8 million ringgit.

Yong, however, is modest about his early success. As a business novice, he feels it was "dumb luck" he found a good team of employees and that the business quickly took off.

After selling Delicious, he is replicating the same philosophy of good food at a reasonable price with the BIG group. At his new signature chain of restaurants called Ben's, for instance, a hearty Asian-style duck confit salad goes for 23.90 ringgit, while the pad thai seafood linguine costs 22.90 ringgit. Ben's also sells 20 kinds of desserts, which have become a signature of his.

"If you look at our restaurants, you'll realise you always get good value," he says. "I'm not so naive to think money isn't important in running a business. But I make sure it's not the driving force."

The BIG group has been expanding at a breathless pace. In two years, it has opened over 20 F&B outlets - and counting - including a bar, a steakhouse, a meat-free restaurant and a supermarket.

While some have questioned the wisdom of opening so many restaurants so quickly, Yong points out that expansion helps him achieve economies of scale, while catering to a wider audience.

"Kuala Lumpur cannot support 10 Ben's. So we have eateries with different concepts to appeal to a wider audience," he says. "Now that I'm older, I'm acutely aware of the number of people whose livelihoods depend on our business, so these decisions aren't made lightly."

In Singapore, he plans to open Ben's and Plan B, another casual eatery.

Asked if there is an ultimate target for his business, he simply shrugs.

"There is no endgame. We're doing this for the love of all things food," he says. "We're just really lucky that it sustains our livelihoods as well."

 

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