Tay Hui Ying, marketing director of Platform Hospitality Group which manages a string of F&B outlets including the popular Entier and Botanica+Co, opens up on their struggles during the height of the Movement Control Order (MCO) and the adjustment they had made to cope with the drastic policy.
Is the MCO and subsequently conditional MCO the most challenging period in your career in F&B?
We have seen low seasons, literally hazy days, but there had not been a time where it was illegal for a customer to sit in our restaurants. We recorded revenue as low as RM520 on the first days of the MCO at our most vibrant outlet, a scenario we honestly had never imagined would occur.
While many parts of the world were facing lockdowns and people were encouraged to stay home, our city went from a concerned but generally relaxed state of mind to ground zero almost overnight. This MCO tests the agility of the company; in a time like this, you have to re-model yourself in an extremely short time for the run ahead. It hasn’t been easy – with incomplete information coming in loosely and the uncertainty surrounding this pandemic, we had to make bold and swift decisions with what we think the next few months would look like.
With the historically low revenues we had drawn in through the MCO and the expected slow recovery of the industry, we had to look into cost-reducing strategies. It has been challenging balancing this equation – to create the best-case scenario for the business, stakeholders and our people. At the same time, this must take place without compromising the quality of our guests’ experience.
But we remain hopeful – food is inextricably tied to our culture, and we know that the habit of eating outside of our homes is not something that can be easily replaced. If we’re not able to dine in for a while, we are going to take the food to our tables at home. For now, we have to continue re-inventing ourselves to persist through.
Platform Hospitality has a number of restaurants/bars and each has its own selling point. How were they affected? What new initiatives have you taken to mitigate the effect of the MCO/CMCO and adapt to business needs?
First of all, our bars have been affected the most drastically, and we had actually begun to see the effect of the pandemic on the bars before the MCO even started. Bars are in themselves a largely social place and take-home solutions are just not sustainable for the business. That said, we did come up with some bartender home kits, where pre-made cocktails are portioned into kits where you can easily put together in your pantry. For now, these items and selected offerings from Pacific Standard are more of an add-on to our offerings as part of the whole meal experience, and we’ve put these together with Entier on Entier’s e-ordering platform.
As for Botanica+Co, we had decided to concentrate three outlets (Botanica+Co in Bangsar South and Alila Bangsar, and Botanica Deli) into one during the MCO. Even before the MCO started, we had already started looking at food delivery and takeaway seriously, not just on food ordering apps (like Grab and Foodpanda) but also to develop our own platform – Bo+Co To Go. So once the MCO came, we were well prepared for it.
In terms of deciding which platforms to use for takeaway and delivery, we were very selective about it, and eventually subscribed to a number of them depending on the nature of our offerings and also our followers for that particular restaurant.
Botanica+Co serves a more diverse and approachable menu. It was easy to find a favourite dish for anyone – such as burger, chicken rice, pasta, pizza, salad, sandwich, etc. We felt that the nature of these offerings would easily pick up customers via food delivery apps such as Grab, Foodpanda and Beep. We had also streamlined the selections we put on these delivery platforms. For a wider selection, customers will be able to browse and take away from our own e-platform – Bo+Co To Go.
As for Entier, we have a targeted following and we’ve selected a route where people come to our platform instead of browsing us through a carousel of restaurants. While we were initially closed fully for the first three weeks of the MCO, we kept our online content going as we sold solely our signature Kombu Butter in jars via Botanica. We were comforted in our strong following on social media – comments and private messages, postings on their experiences with our bottled butter at home were coming in daily, and we remained continuously engaged with our customers.
For takeaway menus with both Botanica and Entier, we rolled out several initiatives, which have all been very well received:
Family meals – To put positivity to this period where we have been encouraged to stay at home, we’ve designed selections for both Botanica and Entier that are perfect for family meals.
Over at Botanica, we currently have three family sets, which are good for sharing up to even six pax: The Brilliant Botanica Roast Set, Bo+Co Chopsuey Indulgence Set and The Heritage Set. These sets each come with minimally five varieties of dishes suitable for your preference for Western, Oriental or Malay flavours. We will be adding another two sets to this series in the beginning of June, one of them a full vegetarian option.
For Entier, items that are served as a whole or in a large meat-cut are available for takeaway. Entier’s concept surrounds communal sharing of our nose-to-tail menu, and customers that come to our platform are already well acquainted with this dining style.
Home cooking kits – With family mode kicking in during the MCO, people were not simply only looking for run-of-the-mill products, they also wanted to add a dose of fun and do-it-yourself into their experiences.
Botanica operates a central baking kitchen, and we realised that pastries were especially high in demand, on some days even more than food. Therefore, we created four home baking kits for those who wanted to bake something of their own but did not want the fuss of going through the precise preparations of ingredients. These four recipes are available in our Botanica Home Chef Kits: chocolate chip cookie, banana cake, Valrhona chocolate pudding and pizza.
At Entier, we knew that certain favourites simply had to be enjoyed a la minute. Therefore these five Entier Cooking Kits were created to satisfy without compromise: escargot pasta, beef ragout pasta, nose-to-tail ox Japanese curry, asparagus and our famed chocolate souffle.
Pastries and gourmet goods – As mentioned above, one of our observations on orders from Botanica throughout this MCO and even after is that the pastries are extremely popular. It is pretty interesting looking at data of the ordering patterns, bread and sweet treats are probably some of the most demanded items during this period. After our initial observation that the demand for pastries was quite high, we expanded our selections so that more varieties were available.
For Entier, I think that social media most certainly played an integral role in keeping our story alive. The feedback and engagement with our audience have been extremely encouraging, and we have since our widely-received Kombu Butter added more creations to the gourmet selections. You will now also be able to take home in jars Entier’s Chicken Liver Pate and Chitose Strawberry & Lavender Jam. The newly launched Burnt Basque Cheesecake has also seen days of full orders.
Virtual gift cards – There has been a trend of gifting since the MCO started. We’ve noticed many people placing orders, and requesting for their orders to be packed into several bags for different Lalamove drivers to pick up and send their purchases to a number of addresses. This prompted us to set up a virtual gift card system, where you will be able to purchase credits of RM100 or RM150 per unique voucher code, and give it to your friend so that he/she may use them on Bo+Co To Go or Take Home Entier.
With the easing of restrictions, what steps have you taken to ensure you meet the SOP set by the authorities?
Health declaration and temperature check points prior to entry to our outlets: Customers will have to have their temperatures taken by our staff, and scan a QR code to key in details that the government has mandated that we collect. It is a simple step that requires a bit of co-operation.
Reduced seating and strict adherence to the social distancing rules: We keep a distance of 2m apart between each dining party, and a maximum of four people to one dining party. People ultimately still look forward to gathering and dining together in groups, and for those we have to split them up to two different tables. As a result, we have now reduced our seating capacity to below 50% of our pre-Covid 19 days.
Strict and regular training of our staff to ensure adherence to the mandated SOPs: One-time-use menus across all our outlets to avoid the passing around of menus from hand to hand. We have switched to using solely one-time-use menus with QR codes which you scan to view our menu from your mobile device. Our customers have all reacted positively to this and felt that it had given them confidence to dine with us.
Do you foresee normalcy returning or is this new normal the normalcy going forward? When will your business performance return to pre-Covid-19 levels?
It will return; it is just a question of when, and I wish I am able to give you an answer. As adaptive creatures, I’m certain we will find a way around adapting to the situation. If you look at post-911, security in all airports and buildings was boosted and we were resistant to this change initially, but now it’s a norm. Our general attention to hygiene and sanitisation SOPs, what to do when you are unwell, etc, will be heightened and practised more widely moving ahead.
As long as we are still navigating through the pandemic, the dining landscape will remain different from pre-Covid-19 days. We foresee that takeaway and delivery remain essential for the next months, and we are constantly working on new ideas to launch for our customers.
As social beings, our nature to gather, to group and dine will be there. If the day comes that the pandemic is fully over, I believe we will return to normalcy. If not, we will adapt to it.
Any message to share with diners or peers in the F&B industry?
More than ever, the business is now about people – the people that work for us and the people that we serve. With F&B being an industry where margins are already low to begin with, this is a historically difficult time for all of us. Please continue to support your favourite eateries and restaurants so that they can still be here in months to come.