When we think of places for a catch-up session with friends, the usual options are mamaks, cafes, and bars.
However, cafes are not really spots you can go to on a regular basis, with their mid-range prices, whilst bars can be quite limiting for non-drinkers. This leaves mamaks as many people’s go-to option, but not everyone necessarily enjoys the type of food served there.
As a way to solve this and give Malaysians a place where any Tom, Dick, and Harry can come together, Ernest Ong created a kopitiam-styled restaurant called Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock.
Staying true to his roots
As a kid, he would often help out at his family’s Nyonya restaurant in SS2. This carried on until he left to pursue a Bachelor in Computing from Monash University, Australia.
His experiences in the F&B industry left such an impact on him that he ended up leaving his career at an American petrochemical company to pursue one of his milestones.
“I have always had milestones in my life,” Ernest told Vulcan Post. “One of them was that I told myself that I am going to learn from the corporate world for 10 years and then start something of my own.”
After gathering some friends, Ernest established a bar named “Tom, Dick and Harry’s” in TTDI, KL. The neighbourhood proved to be a successful location for their first venture, and they went on to expand to two other outlets.
Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock popped onto the local F&B scene not long later.
Heading an F&B empire
Opened in 2013, the eatery serves local favourites such as nasi lemak, kuey teow goreng, and asam laksa. Along with those are kopitiam classics such as roti bakar and iced Neslo.
Its founding philosophy is to be a place where people could have a meal together regardless of race and religion. The brand’s name clearly reflects this intention too.
“I wanted a place not just to dish out good products, but a place where we can also dish out the Malaysian Spirit, the Muhibah Spirit. Hence our tagline ‘Biarlah Real’,” Ernest explained.
Having grown up in the field, Ernest said the interest was instilled in him. “That was the only thing I knew how to do then. If I had to invest my last penny on something to start off with, it’s got to be that.”
It should come as no surprise that the founder cooks “pretty well”, and played a main role in curating the restaurant’s menu.
Speaking candidly to Vulcan Post, he shared that he believes a lot of people are capable of cooking well, but, the concern actually comes in the form of addressing the eaters.
By sticking with the kopitiam concept, Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock were able to properly shape and develop their offerings towards the initial goal.
This also ensured that Ernest avoided the entrepreneurial trap of doing things to serve oneself instead of the recipients, or, as the Malays would call it, “syiok sendiri”.
“We had a concept for Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock. We developed the menu based on the concept and not based on what I like to cook. Cooking for the right crowd and dishing something that would fit the taste buds of the masses, that would require some skills and experience,” he explained.
It’s similar to how one might be a great cook at home but not the best at being an F&B chef. Maintaining the quality of the food with the quantity and meeting a majority of customer’s preferences can be a tricky balancing act.
It’s just part of the journey
Looking around the Klang Valley, there’s no shortage of kopitiam-styled eateries. From decades-old mum-and-pop shops to shiny new restaurants, there are plenty of options to choose from.
But this doesn’t faze the founder much.
“We certainly have some measures to maintain our quality. We dish out not just good products, but we also dish out good Malaysian Spirit.”
On the contrary, his biggest and “never-ending” challenge of running businesses in the F&B industry has more to do with the people. Specifically, human resources.
Ernest’s experience of 13 years and counting in the field has taught him that this is a consistent trial. And more so after the pandemic, where it seems that everyone wants to open an F&B outlet.
Good food and drinks are always in demand, and people want in on the profits. “Your staff will move along with this growth but then that’s life,” he quipped.
“If you ask me 10 years from now what is the biggest challenge, I would give you the same answer. If you ask the rest of my peers, I think they would give you the same answer—staffing.”
According to numerous reports, employee turnover rates stem from long working hours, lower salaries, and general changes in the working landscape.
But this isn’t stopping Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock from working towards their rapid expansion.
They plan to first open 40 outlets within the Klang Valley (there are currently 15 outlets) before growing beyond the city’s borders.
It’s not surprising that Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock is pursuing a more modest growth trajectory instead of biting off more than they can chew. While some entrepreneurs get too ambitious, Ernest believes in a balanced strategy.
“There is a very fine line between passion and career. Most of the time you need a career to fuel the passion and not the other way round,” he concluded.
- Learn more about Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock here.
- Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.
Featured Image Credit: Ernest Ong and Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock