Imagine starting a new business during COVID-19? You must be crazy, right? But that was exactly what Nicholas Thang, 30, did. The impact of COVID-19 on businesses was what started the ball rolling for Thang, who owned several restaurants as well as ran an F&B consulting company. Of course, it had to be a food-related business as Thang is all about makan-makan!
“Inspired by the scrambled eggs that my mother makes, I was lucky to have found my loved for cooking at 10. So right after SPM, it was straight to Culinary Arts! Though I was on partial scholarship, I felt I was behind my peers hence I worked part time and did some internships at five-star hotels, French restaurants, dessert cafes and more. Right after graduation, I went to Singapore to work in Mandarin Hotel but a few weeks later, I was headhunted through the recommendation of my previous employers from both my part-time stints and internships to be a head chef of an outlet in 1Utama at 22,” shares Thang.
There was no stopping Thang from there who moved on to more awesome things. He decided to start out on his own and opened a burger joint. Then, he started his F&B consulting company to help clients with their set-ups, menu development, kitchen planning, training, sourcing and more (to date, Thang and his team have worked on 66 projects across Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar, some own by him like two burger bars in Philippines, a bar in Myanmar, a Japanese Tapas Bar in Marina Bay Financial Centre in Singapore, and also a brand of churros and coffee café, Churrz, in Surabaya, Indonesia). Realising there was a gap of central kitchens, Thang and two of his college mates started NCR Tradings to provide such services to smaller F&B outlets. In 2017, with his wife, Thang started their own brand of snacks, HOFU, supplying to major retailers across the nation.
His proudest achievement to date? “Right now, when my wife and I moved into our flagship 4,000 sqft factory with my dream kitchen upstairs. It’s something we built with our own hands, blood, sweat, tears and hustling for the past 12 years – no bank loans, no help from others!”
And then COVID-19 happened….
With the F&B business being one of the most hard hit industries, it was the most challenging period for Thang. “Last November, we opened two outlets – a Korean BBQ in Melaka called Shu Peo K and we rented all seven lots in Peng Leng Ceng Food court in USJ Taipan. During MCO, we decided to pull the plug on our food court – we knew that if we didn’t service 100 too 150 pax a day, we’d be losing money on rental and salary. Fortunately, we managed to spin off some new items for our BBQ restaurant just for delivery. There are not many Korean shops in Melaka and since nobody could go out, the ball was in our court! Unfortunately, our café, Churrz couldn’t take the negative cash flow and I’ve decided to pull out of the business, which took a huge amount of money. Our snack business is also badly affected as a majority of our clientele are souvenir shops and touristy destinations,” says Thang.
But as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. “I had some extra steaks in my freezer from all the private events I held at my showroom. I decided to sell them online during MCO to recover some capital and so that I could turn off the freezer and save some electricity! But what happened was demand went through the roof and before I knew it, we opened an Instagram and a Facebook account, The Honest Butcher. Our idea of clearing the Japanese wagyu in our freezer turned into an online based premium meat delivery platform,” says Thang.
To be different from other online food suppliers, Thang decided to use technology to his advantage. “I did cooking videos, QR-coded them so you just need to Scan the QR and you’ll get cooking videos and tips to the perfect steak,” shares Thang.
When The Honest Butcher first started, it was just Thang and his wife running the show. “Every morning, I would collect all these wagyu and Angus beefs from different restaurants. They were all still in good condition but since nobody knew when they could reopen, most of them sold it to me at really good prices. In the afternoon, I’d cut the meats while my wife replied and coordinated with customers. Then we sent the orders out in the evening via Grab. At night, we would promote our products to all our friends and family,” says Thang.
What started off as cutting 50kg per week went up to 200kg per week at its peak. By May, Thang hired a chef help out with day-to-day operations. All this during lockdown!
Now that things are slowly easing back into the new normal, Thang is working on how to push his online butcher. “We are now supplying to restaurants and cafes instead of just directly to consumers. We’re working on products that can be frozen and put on supermarket shelves. I always wanted to get out of the F&B scene, and now getting my foot into the whole FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) market is pretty new. Running the online platform made me realise how much I didn’t know about online marketing.
“While The Honest Bucher is not as well marketed as some of my competitors, we’re lucky and fortunate to have great people who have been supporting and spreading good word of mouth about us. I open my private kitchen in my factory for lunch, by strict appointment basis and only 1 table per day dining. As crazy as that sounds, it’s because I want to be able to entertain and give a dining experience like no other! Who knows, I might just open an omakase steakhouse or expand the butchery into a more proper facility in the near future. For me, the future is full of uncertainty. Be it good or bad, we’ve just got to adapt and stop complaining. Don’t look back with regret. Keep calm and keep moving on,” says Thang.
His advice for those who want to pursue their passion like Thang did? “You know when everyone says don’t give up and persevere or how your time is not there yet? It’s all true. Work first, gain more experience, find your own path, don’t copy others. Listen to others but interpret it how you want to. Believe in yourself and never give up. With a tablespoon of hard work, a drop of dedication, and a pinch of lady luck on your side, nothing will stop you,” says Thang.
Check out their Facebook page here for a selection of meats you can choose from!