Interview with Ku Azharul Nizar founder of the Cowboys food truck

nizar pictureWe recently got the chance to sit down with Nizar the founder of Cowboys Food Truck to share his personal experience running and maintaining a Food Truck Business.

What was the inspiration and motivation for you to start your food truck business?

I’ve always wanted to venture into the F&B industry, I feel it’s quite exciting to create your own product/food. I asked myself, “Since the F&B market is quite concentrated, what can I do to set myself apart from others?” I was in the U.S. for 7 years, 4 years for my studies and 3 years for work. I worked in Texas, and during my time there I gained an interest in barbequed foods. I really liked their chicken wings and could eat it every other day. Barbequing was a norm there since the meat and produce were relatively cheap. Thus, when I came back, I decided to start this business with reference to the BBQ concept I saw in Texas. I thought both the food truck and BBQ food concept is something Malaysians will like, so I started cowboys food truck in 2014.

Being a food truck, do you still operate through a central kitchen?

Yes, I do have a central kitchen. I knew from the beginning that I would need to have a central kitchen. My home kitchen alone won’t be able to sustain the business. I needed a place where I can keep my stocks. Besides that, I also needed a place where we can clean and store the lorry safely.  It’s similar to renting a shop, but a central kitchen is cheaper in terms of cost.

Did you have any background in the F&B industry before you started this business?

Not really, I didn’t have much knowledge on the F&B industry. I studied industrial engineering back then. But in my opinion, I think to a certain extent there are similarities in terms of problem solving, planning, and decision making. The engineering background thought me how to break down certain procedures like food count and standardization.

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What are some of the pros and cons of operating a food truck instead of a physical shop?

When we just started out, the food truck concept was still very new, there were less than 10 food trucks in Klang Valley that had strong brand presence. That was a big ‘pro’ for us. Besides that, running a food truck is significantly cheaper than running a brick & mortar store. A food truck will also allow you to hedge your location bets in a sense, we are not confined to one particular location. We can easily switch up our location if we feel it’s not suitable. Similarly, since food trucks are more mobile, we can easily station ourselves at events or bazaars.

However, there are a lot of uncertainties when it comes to running a food truck. When we started the regulations were still very unclear, especially with regards to licensing. Weather and parking availability can also pose as a huge problem as well. It’s difficult to conduct your business during raining seasons or when there is no parking for both you and your customers. Another issue would be logistics, you may need up to 2 hours to prep and load everything, not to mention traveling time.

When you first started, what were some aspect that worried you the most?

The quality of the food was one of my biggest concerns, I was worried about how the food will turn out since we’re cooking it from the truck. I wanted to provide food that is freshly cooked as if you got it straight out of a kitchen. We made sure our produce is fresh and have no added preservatives. The other concern was making sure that the food we prepare was easy for my staff to cook and replicate. We use a lot of raw meat ingredients like chicken and beef, so having proper food safety & handling procedures is very important. As required by the Ministry of Health, all our staff have gone through proper food handling courses so they too know the importance of this.

Every business has its ups and downs. What were some of the lowest point you had to face?

They say that if you manage to pull through the first year of your business you should be fine after that. But during our second year, there was a period where sales were unusually low. There was a sudden drop in sales, and we couldn’t really figure out why. Yet I still had to pay my staff even though we weren’t making any sales. We also had staffing issues. Our team is relatively small so when someone decides to leave, it puts my business in jeopardy because I don’t have any backup or replacement. Fortunately for me, sales slowly started to pick back up. If you don’t look at that specific period, the business was doing decently overall.

In a way I had to change my mind set and not dwell on the bad times, but look at the bigger picture instead. I got through it knowing what my end goal was, which is to eventually grow Cowboys into a restaurant and have a physical shop. Having a bit of stubbornness can be good too. There were a lot of job offers to go back to the corporate world, but I declined them all. Since I started this business, I wanted to see it through and to achieve what I originally set out to build.

What actions did you take to solve all those issues for that month? 

I think the staffing issues were due to a lack of communication. You can’t approach staff the same way you would in a corporate firm. With companies, things are more implied, but for this business you have to be very direct and clear when you delegate work.

In terms of sales, we were riding on the food truck’s popularity before, and eventually the market became saturated and the hype died down, so we had to put in more marketing efforts. This is also the next step for us: to strengthen our marketing presence through social media. We want to create a strong brand value in Cowboys Food Truck.

Were you worried about closing down due to the lack of sales for that period?

It didn’t worry me too much because we still had some reserves left to buffer. But if there were no sales continuously then I think we would have no choice but to throw in the towel. Luckily, the low sales for that moth was just an outlier. Also, I think we managed to sustain ourselves because we streamlined the cost of our kitchen. We tried to reduce our wastage, increase productivity, and keep everything stored efficiently.

Which is more important to the success of your business, events or foot-traffic?

At one point, we did a lot of catering events for corporate firms. They were very supportive of us because they wanted to attract more customers. Today, 50% of our sales are derived from these corporate events. Ideally, we hope to engage with these companies to do more catering events. But the con is that you have to approach them and not the other way around. However, foot-traffic is still important as well because it puts your brand name out there.

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With that being said, can you briefly explain what is your location strategy?

When we first started in Subang, we picked a spot that had a lot of foot-traffic. However there were some permit issues so we had to move. Next, we tried Damansara Uptown, but the roads were very narrow so the location wasn’t suitable. We finally decided to station ourselves at Taman Tun because there weren’t many food trucks stationed there. We were the first modern food truck that offers western food. In addition to that, the spot we picked had relatively easy parking. Nevertheless, we still regularly go to Subang every Thursday. Though we finally got a permit to conduct our business at Subang but the location that was allocated to us which was inside the market isn’t very visible. Thus, we focus on social media marketing to make our spot more popular.

There are a lot of misconceptions that food tucks do not have to worry about location feasibility. Yes, one of the advantages of operating a food truck is that you’re not tied to a specific location. But, you’re constantly searching for a place where you are visible and can operate your business smoothly. The thing is, you need to have several fixed locations where your loyal customers can come regularly. People are willing to go the distance for your food if they know you’re there, but don’t expect them to waste their time hunting for you.

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Which aspect of the food truck business could you potentially lose money without even realizing it?

I think the area that poses the most cash flow concerns should be the cost invested into inventory. Since we serve western dishes, most of our ingredients are imported which makes our cost higher. We have to minimize wastages and plan our portions carefully. We try to reduce wastage by packing the amount we need into bags. Also, pricing your margins properly at the right price is important, because if your calculations do not cover all your costs sufficiently, you could still be losing money with every sale.

Besides that, you can also end up spending a lot on labour. I used to pay my staff on an hourly basis, but I discovered that this was inefficient because some events like food shows may take up to 14 hours and if the event can’t make you enough money, then you’re on the losing end. At one point we stopped doing these events, because they lasted 12 hours, from 10am to 10pm. Furthermore you need to allocate 2 hours for prep and clean up time before and after the event. Some of these events can have rentals of up to RM300 associated with them, and all these costs add up. So if you’re not sure of the sales, you could lose a lot of money there.

You could also lose quite a bit of money on the little things. If your staff forgets to bring a kitchen item or order an ingredient, then you’ll have to buy it at the hypermarket or convenient store. Sure, it may seem like it’s only RM1 more expensive, but after a whole month all these little added costs accumulate.

What is your vision for Cowboys Food Truck?

I want Cowboys food truck to not only just be a food truck business but to one day be a family restaurant as well. If the location is right, we don’t mind investing in a physical shop. We are not hell bent on getting a location now but somewhere down the road I want to have a physical restaurant as well as keeping the food truck running.

Would you encourage others to start their own food truck business now?

Don’t start a food truck business just because you want to. Because the fad has passed and the market has become saturated, it’s very hard to compete with other food trucks that have been doing this for years. But if you already have a stall and have been operating for a while, then upgrading to a food truck is viable because you already have a customer base. Otherwise, think carefully if food truck is the best delivery channel for you to conduct your business.

VISIT Cowboys food truck:
Website: http://www.cowboysfoodtruck.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cowboysfoodtruck/
Instagramhttps://www.instagram.com/cowboysfoodtruck/
Operational hours : 7pm-11.30pm everyday CLOSE on Monday. 
Location: Alternate between Subang and TTDI
Subang: Located inside the parking lot of the Pasar Moden SS15. 
TTDI: Parked along Persiaran Zaaba, in front of Shell TTDI / Lim Tayar


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