Interview with Wong Zhen Ken founder of a’Roma dinings

It is said that the F&B industry is one of the hardest and riskiest industries of all time. Recently, we got the opportunity to sit down and interview the founder of a’Roma Dinings, Wong Zhen Ken to share his experience on how to succeed in the F&B industry.

What inspired you to start your restaurant?

My family were sort of into the F&B business already. My dad’s company does coffee and supplies to many different businesses, restaurants, cafes and hotels. We started the restaurant with the objective of also showcasing it for our coffee. It was challenging at first because I was from a finance background, and this was all very new to me. Plus, we started this business rather quickly. We knew there would be some ‘teething problems’, but as it turns out there were more issues than we expected.

What was the concept of your restaurant?

When we started this restaurant, we pondered on how we should position ourselves. Should we position ourselves as a high-end restaurant or set our prices lower and make things more affordable?  Eventually, we settled on making ourselves a ‘premium casual’ restaurant. The objective is to create an ambiance which is classy but yet cozy where we serve quality food at reasonable prices which encourages people from all walks of life to come dine in our restaurant. There’s no dress code whatsoever, you can wear shorts and(or) slippers and you’d still be welcomed. Customers are more than welcome to bring their kids along too because we’re trying to create a more family like dining experience.

What are the few important aspects to look out for when starting a restaurant business?

One of the main aspect is finding the right people. Staffing is vital because this business is all about customer service. You need the right people to serve your customers efficiently. Imagine having a huge crowd of customers flowing in but no one to provide the right quality of service, people will get agitated and this reflects badly on the restaurant’s image.

Needless to say, the chef is also very critical. We started our restaurant with an Italian chef and an Italian concept. But when he breached his contract, we had to power through without him and in the mean time look for a suitable replacement. So that was also quite challenging.

Besides that, you must look at sustainability. You shouldn’t venture into any business with just the bare minimum. Because you won’t necessarily breakeven immediately, so you’ll need some operating capital to act as a buffer. Location feasibility is also another aspect to look out for. To be honest, people come to this area for the local food. There’s a few well-known local restaurants nearby, such as the chicken rice shop, the famous fish head noodles, and the O&S restaurant, whereas we are a western restaurant of a totally different calibre and nature. So, getting people through the door can be challenging, because they already have an agenda coming to this area for food.

In addition, having proper planning is also really important. A detailed business plan is crucial when it comes to the success of your business. People assume that when starting a restaurant, you’d only need to look at the renovation aspects. But in reality, there’s so much more to take into account. You need to ask yourself ‘what’s going to happen if we don’t have a chef?’ ‘Who’s going to cook?’ ‘What’s our contingency plan?’

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What made you decide on this location?

Space. We picked this place because we could get a wider space. We can take up to 120 customers if we’re maxed out. As you can see, we have a lounge area as well as this interior section. Plus, the rental here is not as expensive as other locations, like Bangsar for instance. I think with the same amount of money we could only get 1/3 of the space there.

What were some other unexpected challenges that you had to face?

Getting the right customers. We didn’t think getting the right customers to come to our restaurant would be difficult. For example, before a’Roma, this place used to be a ‘western mamak’, so people used to come in thinking that we’re still the same restaurant. And when they looked at our menu and prices, most of them will be put off by the prices because their expectations were different.

Another challenge was overcoming off-peak seasons. This restaurant has been running for almost two and a half years now, and there were periods when we had very little customers coming. Take the recent election period, for instance. We didn’t have many customers coming in because the economy was unstable, and people were very caught up in the election. All these outside factors will indirectly affect your business, and you have no control over it. So your business needs to be able to withstand all these unexpected obstacles and continue to operate regardless of the circumstances.

All entrepreneurs have their ups and downs. Can you share with us some of your lowest points in your business career?

I think the lowest point has to be at the beginning, when our chef left. At that time our team wasn’t strong yet and we lacked experience in this field. We have gone through 3-4 head chefs throughout this entire business.

We interviewed a lot of candidates, but there weren’t many that were suitable. That’s why I mentioned earlier that getting a strategic location is important. Because if you get a good location, it’ll not only be easier to get foot-traffic but to get more workers as well. However, if you were in the right location but fail to capture your audience due to the struggles, that will be another headache.

In terms of management, it was all trial and error as everything was very new to me. I tried to observe and learn from others, and then I tried to emulate them as best as I can. We didn’t have many customers at the beginning, but in a way because we had less customers, we get to engage with each of them at a more personal level.

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What did you do for marketing?

We were quite fortunate that Eat Drink KL visited our restaurant and did a write up on us back in 2015. We didn’t know it was them, so it was a pleasant surprise for us. The write up brought in a lot of customers for that period and we were really grateful. Also, we banged on the fact that most of our food are made in-house. Our pastas are freshly made in our kitchen, and even our coffee is made in-house.

If you’re able to turn back time, what’s the one thing you’d change?

We should have done more planning and talked to more experienced owners. Be more mentally prepared to put in the long hours. Depending on your restaurant, you might need to work 7 days a week. Holidays for others are not holidays for you(Laughs.)Our business usually only operates at night, but can you imagine if we opened from morning till night, we’d be busy all the time. And then there was the challenge with the chefs. Overall, I think we could have planned everything more efficiently before starting this business.

What is the vision for this business? How do you see it growing?

For now, we don’t plan on opening another branch just yet. Not until we reach a certain calibre first. Because once you open several branches then your attention will be divided, and you’ll lose focus over your business. It’s important for business owners to be hands-on with their restaurant. Plus, I see it as a way to network. By being hands-on, you’ll get to meet a lot of people and maybe even form collaborations. I think in terms of expansion, we might be planning to renovate the space upstairs, as a start.

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What advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs out there who want to start their own restaurant?  

Plan properly before you start. It’s not as easy as you think.You only see the success stories. But did you know how many have tried and failed? Even in this area, I’ve seen so many cafés that have started and failed. The food and beverage industry has one of the highest failurerates. The mistake everyone makes is that they just want to be investors, but are not hands-on with their business.

Besides that, in my opinion, try not to have too many partners. I’ve heard of businesses that consist of 10-15 partners. You’ll have too many disagreements in terms of decision making and planning. Getting everyone on board on an idea or making certain changes will take longer than needed. Also, it’s better to have a partner that knows the industry well or has expertise in the industry.

Lastly, you need to think of your exit strategy as well. How long do you plan to do this? 10 years? 20 years? Decide if you want to commit and you’ll need to give yourself a timeline. In this aspect, planning everything carefully will help a lot. Don’t give up immediately when you don’t break even. Usually, people think that six months or one year is enough to determine your success rate, but my advice is to try to have enough capital to buffer the business for at least the next two years.

VISIT a’Roma dinings:
Operational hours : Monday CLOSE. Tue-Thurs 4pm-11:30pm, Fri&Sat 11:45am-12am, Sun 11:45am-11:30pm
Location: 1, Jalan 20/14, Paramount Garden, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia


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