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SELECTED ISSUE
Leisure Management
2013 issue 4

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Leisure Management - Thinking big

Hospitality

Thinking big


Benjamin Yong uses his travels to influence his Kuala Lumpur-based hospitality empire, which includes a vegetarian restaurant, a ‘supermarket on steroids’ and now a hotel in Somerset, UK. The Big Group CEO speaks to Jennifer Harbottle

Jennifer Harbottle
Benjamin Yong is the founder and chief executive of The Big Group
Ben’s Independent Grocer is laid out over 50,000sq ft, and features supermarket produce alongside concession stands, boutique restaurants, cafés and delis
Ben’s Independent Grocer is laid out over 50,000sq ft, and features supermarket produce alongside concession stands, boutique restaurants, cafés and delis
Ben’s Independent Grocer is laid out over 50,000sq ft, and features supermarket produce alongside concession stands, boutique restaurants, cafés and delis
Ben’s General Food Store Café in Kuala Lumpar is part café, part deli
Botanical, in Bangsar Baru in Kuala Lumpar, was the second BIG Group eaterie to open, in January 2011. It is a vegetarian restaurant with a constantly changing menu.
Ben’s Pavilion is one of 11 concepts in The BIG Group family. The inspiration for the food and design comes from international research trips Yong undertakes with his team

There’s something satisfying about interviewing someone focused, successful and (probably) very rich, and finding out that they showed no signs of being any of those things as a youngster. It gives hope to others.

When I meet Benjamin Yong, arguably one of the most innovative food and beverage entrepreneurs in Malaysia, he tells me that as a boy, he had no idea what he wanted to be when he was older, except maybe an architect because it sounded “cool”.

Now, aged 34, Yong is CEO of The BIG Group, which owns and operates 20 restaurants and cafés, a boutique catering company and a supermarket called Ben’s Independent Grocer – a shopping experience that would impress both Jamie Oliver and Martha Stewart, for its stunning produce and design. Not bad for a kid who sold carrot cake to make pocket money, took a degree in physiology as ‘an easy option’ and went on to develop a chain of 10 restaurants called Delicious, which he sold for MYR11m (£2.1m) – and all by the time he was 30.

So how did it all start? Born in Malaysia, Yong was sent to boarding school in Melbourne at 15; he fell in love with the city and ended up studying and living there for 10 years. He credits Melbourne’s multi-cultural restaurant scene with igniting his love affair with food. “That city has everything,” he says, reminiscing about his favourite restaurants, delis, street cafés and foreign specialities in Melbourne’s famous food markets.

I share one of my Melbourne secrets with him – a run down little corner shop owned by a Greek couple, which sells to-die-for homemade hummus. He immediately dismisses my suggestion that he should get the recipe and replicate it in his own supermarket. “One of my concerns is how to take something precious and unique and turn it into something big without losing anything. It’s ironic that our company name is The BIG Group, as one of my challenges is how to grow it while remaining boutique-like. There’s something magical about being a small-feel, mom and pop business.”

Delicious
In 1999, Yong returned to Malaysia with a vague idea of bringing Melbourne’s café scene to Kuala Lumpur (KL). He started Delicious as a novelty idea by incorporating cafés into his mother’s clothing store chain called Ms Read. From there, he opened his first stand-alone Delicious restaurant with the premise of offering ‘affordable luxury’ (a phrase he claims is wildly over-used these days) and “a slice of good food, well-priced in a lifestyle setting.” He believes, humbly, that part of the reason for his success with Delicious, was the fact no one else was offering anything like it at the time. “In KL, we had hawker market stalls selling cheap food and fancy restaurants selling expensive food and nothing in between.”

So, with 10 Delicious restaurants under his belt and a turnover of MYR20m (£3.9m) why did he sell the business? At first, he says, it was about getting some investors on board to grow the company and learn from the corporates about how to run operations. He says what he learned was that the corporate way wasn’t his way, and after one too many battles about how he wanted things done, in 2010, he decided he wanted out. When he started The BIG Group in 2011, he made a decision that the company would never become corporate in its approach. How? I ask “By having a like-minded board, who understand what we do,” he says.

One stop shop
Today, I’m sitting with Yong at one of the cafés inside his Ben’s Independent Grocer. Even to refer to it as a supermarket seems wrong, considering it’s nothing like anything most people will have experienced before.

Occupying 50,000sq ft, Ben’s Independent Grocer is like grocery shopping on steroids; the produce is bright, the lighting is arty, the presentation is dynamic and alongside food items, the store is packed with little nooks selling items so gorgeous you want to touch them, even if you can’t afford them. Concession stands selling wild and wacky one-off items, such as Japanese delicacies or homemade ice creams on cute vintage-decorated sticks, add colour and drama. Nestled among everyday staples are the boutique hang outs, such as a pork restaurant called Swine, a European-style bakery called B’Witched and an uber-trendy deli café selling everything from sliced meats and raw fish to gluten free salads and pasta dishes.

Yong says he was inspired by department stores such as Harrods in London and Le Bon Marché in Paris, as well as the failed David Jones luxury supermarket in Australia – “great concept – too early for its time.”

Yet this supermarket was never on the cards when he started The BIG Group. Initially, he only had food and beverage businesses in mind. He started by opening and operating a café called Plan b, based on a New York deli-meets-Melbourne café concept. At a breathtaking pace the company opened multiple Plan b sites in its first 24 months, as well a restaurant concept modelled on a home-styled environment called, simply, Ben’s. In an expansion that saw Yong open three restaurants in one month, after the first year, The BIG Group had six different dining concepts with a total of 16 outlets in KL.

Around this time, Yong says he met with a developer to talk about renting a site to open a central kitchen for his outlets. The developer had a site, but he wanted to put a supermarket in it and by the end of their meeting, Yong had agreed to open and run it himself. It was at this point he recruited a retail team and started a retail division to look after the supermarket – a behemoth-sized project he admits “being really excited about until a week before it opened, when I suddenly wondered what the hell I’d taken on.”

As it is, the supermarket has been a huge success in terms of marketing, branding and providing The BIG Group’s F&B business with a price advantage, through economies of scale. “If I want to put an exotic or imported item on a menu, I can make it affordable by ordering a pallet and selling it in the supermarket as well.”

It’s in the supermarket where Yong indulges his love of the quirky and uses it to trial new mini dining concepts that he may one day develop into a stand-alone restaurant. Opening these inside the supermarket means he doesn’t have to pay rent for the property and from a marketing standpoint, they help keep his restaurant brand boutique enough to avoiding being labelled a chain operator.

But even in a business already viewed as unique among customers, he has to tread gently when trying new ideas. Shucked, the seafood bar that sits in the middle of the fish aisle, may serve oysters from Colchester in Essex, UK now, but to begin with, Yong says it only served locally-farmed Malaysian fish, until people became comfortable with the concept.

Small plates
Today, BIG has 11 concepts under its F&B division. As well as its Plan b café chain and its Ben’s restaurants, Yong has remained true to his word and kept an element of what he does small. He’s developed a number of intimate, boutique concepts, gaining himself a reputation as an eclectic business entrepreneur. These include Hit & Mrs, a chic-industrial-themed restaurant built in an old bakery shophouse – when I ate there, I felt a little as though I was being fine-dined in a charity shop – albeit an upmarket one. At BEAST Bar & Grill, carnivorous diners can enjoy hearty steaks and burgers and as an antidote to all that flesh, Botanical is BIG group’s stand-alone vegetarian eatery.

But where does Yong get his inspiration from? He says that while the rest of us are visiting beaches and temples on our holiday, he likes to travel to supermarkets and restaurants. His research trips are legendary within his company and you can imagine the management team falling over themselves to go with him; he says he spends hours dining in the most hip and happening eateries with his chefs whenever he visits a city. When he returns, they take the favourite meals they’ve eaten and give them an Asian twist for their own menus.

Yong’s passion for cooking at home also inspires the menus in his restaurants, but he admits that making something special for a group of friends is completely different to cooking for a business. “I always say I’m a cook, not a chef,” says Yong. “I’ve tried replicating some of my recipes in a restaurant – yet while a whole leg of lamb works great for my friends round my dining table, it isn’t viable in a commercial setting here yet.”

I ask him whether he’s happier in the retail or F&B market. “I’m excited by both,” he says. “What I’ve learned is that you can’t do everything on your own. It’s all about creating a great team. There’s a formula for bars and a different one for restaurants and retail, so I build separate teams and let them do what they’re good at.”

Yong admits that sometimes, he can be a nightmare to work for: “It’s true that on occasions, I have an idea on a Monday and want it open by that Friday. I think there’s something really refreshing and exciting about doing things spontaneously.”

The concession he’s opening at 4pm on the Friday afternoon of our interview is the result of a decision made on the Monday morning at 10am. It’s an American-themed stall selling what Yong describes as the next big thing; cronuts – a cross between a croissant and a doughnut. The area has been decorated with American flag-covered ceilings, vintage US memorabilia and lovely old-fashioned boxes for packing the cronuts. My bet is that someone like Yong can’t help but get involved in the minutiae of the business – while he’s chatting to me, staff members tap on his shoulder every few minutes to check he’s happy with the way the store’s new concession is shaping up.

Cashing up
While opening concessions and boutique eateries in store keeps BIG relevant as a brand, Yong knows it’s not the fastest way to make money. “If I wanted to make easy money, I’d sell toilet roll! You don’t have to do anything to it, everybody needs it and it sells itself. There’s always an opportunity cost with any of our concessions because they take up space where we could be selling toilet roll.”

Right now, Yong’s travelling more than he usually does. This is because he’s about to open a heritage-listed ‘restaurant hotel’ in Somerset, UK, called Langford Fivehead. With eight rooms and a restaurant that can also accommodate large functions like weddings, it’s the first overseas business – and first hotel – for The BIG Group. Yong hopes to use it to set up a supply chain with farmers in the Somerset region so he can export their produce to KL for his restaurants and supermarket. He also sees it as a way to build relationships with suppliers and operators in the UK, ahead of an expansion of Plan b cafés and Ben’s restaurants in London next year.

The UK’s not the only overseas market he’s got his sights on. In 2015, Yong wants to roll out Plan b and Ben’s across Indonesia and Singapore. He’s also got plans for more Plan b and Ben’s within Malaysia, although he says the Malaysian market has almost reached saturation with these two brands.

Does he have a favourite business, I ask? “The closest I can get to answering that is saying it’s like a parent trying to choose a favourite child,” he says. “The newborn may be the most exciting and take up most of your time, but you can’t neglect the firstborn, because they got you where you are and are the ones which will end up looking after you – and the newborns – later in life.


BIG Group - Timeline (All in Kuala Lumpur)
2010
Plan b Bangsar Village – Nov 2010

2011
Botanical – Jan 2011
Ben’s Pavilion –February 2011
Ben’s KLCC – April 2011
Ben’s General Food Store Bangsar Village – April 2011
Tate – June 2011
Ben’s Independent Grocer- Oct 2011
Ben’s General Food Store Solaris Dutamas – October 2011
Ben’s Solaris Dutamas- Dec 2011

2012
Ben’s BSC – Jan 2012
Journal by Plan b – Jan 2012
Hit & Mrs – November 2012
Puran b One Utama- May 2012
Plan b Paradigm Mall – May 2012
Plan b Midvalley – May 2012
Barn BBQ Bangsar Village – June 2012
Ben’s Bar Solaris Dutamas – June 2012
Ben’s Penang- Dec 2012

2013
BEAST – June 2013
Plan b Ipoh – July 2013

LANGFORD FIVEHEAD

BIG opened Langford Fivehead this summer. The grade II* listed building is set in the Somerset levels; it has six ensuite bedrooms, some with four-poster beds and all with views of the seven-acre grounds.

Langford Fivehead’s restaurant, The Langford, offers quality food using a mix of home-grown produce and produce from local suppliers, cooked in the newly refurbished kitchen.

Head chef Olly Jackson has more than 15 years’ experience in 2 AA Rosette kitchens and looks to provide ‘wholesome dishes cooked with innovative methods and flair.’

 



LANGFORD FIVEHEAD

Originally published in Leisure Management 2013 issue 4

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