Friday, March 23, 2007

The charm and curse of being small

I WAS doing a spot of fishing a couple of weeks ago. Nothing great, just some river prawns, a few gelama and still fewer bebolos. The weather was kind and the boat ride was smooth. Nothing like a spot of fishing to calm the nerves...

The experience more than compensated the poor catch, though there were enough prawns for a black pepper dish at dinner with fellow anglers. Later, on the way back to Kuala Lumpur, we stopped for "soup gear box" just outside Kota Tinggi. It was simply divine!

"Soup gear box" is mutton soup, with plenty of bone marrow in the bones. You need a straw to suck the marrow. The trick in enjoying "soup gear box" is simple and effective - forget everything your good doctor tells you!

But that's the charm and curse of a small food operator. And there are quite a number of them all over the place. While they serve good food, their charm is in the smallness of their operations, where the proprieter personally welcomes his customers, engage in small talk and thank them with a smile and wave them goodbye when they leave.

It's the same with THE nasi minang shop in Tg Malim. Andrie opens his shop at 1pm sharp, come rain or shine; the customers may be waiting outside but he just won't open the doors till it's 1pm on the dot. The food? Simply out of this world!

The Tanglin nasi lemak just behind the National Mosque is another all-time favourite. In the mornings, expect a long queue before you get to the food counter. And when you do, pray that the sambal sotong and ikan bilis have not finished.

The owners of these outlets have no plans for expansion. They seem quite happy to operate like this for ages. The Tanglin chap (Zainal) did try to open an outlet in Bangsar but this failed. It lasted for a couple of months only.

Nevertheless, a few did manage to transform themselves from a small, popular operators in their small town to become upmarket operators in posh outlets in the federal capital.

Surprise, surprise! Yik Mun pau of Tg Malim is now available in cafe style shoplot in the shopping complex of Plaza Damas; Kluang Station (where the roti kaya and kopi O is to die for) have outlets in Tesco (along the MRR2), Ikano in Damansara and in Ipoh; the Kemaman kopitiam is also popular in Kuantan; and Johor Baru's mee rebus is keeping operator and customers burping (also in Plaza Damas).

The curse for the small operators is simple and clear - their business is likely to remain small unless they think big and move to bigger markets. Yes, they may be charming outlets in their own way. But no, they won't enjoy bigger turnover and their popularity is quite localised.

Why can't these small one-shop operators like the "soup gear box" in Kota Tinggi; Andrie's nasi minang; and Zainal's Tanglin nasi lemak go a notch higher and expand to other towns? And after that, when will they venture abroad to Tokyo, London, Paris...?

Shouldn't the people responsible for franchising be on the lookout for good outlets and maybe guide them to expand their business? Some of these small operators may not be aware of such possibilities. If they do, they would still need much guidance, encouragement and help. Maybe their resources are limited; maybe they had tried and found the going tough and rough.

And maybe nobody bothers. Since everyone seems to be speaking about and championing big businesses, RM9 and FTAs, the smalltime operator is left behind to continue being "happy" with their lot.

If we are looking at promoting the Malaysian brand abroad, some serious efforts must be made. The Pelita Nasi Kandar guys are already in Chennai, while another Malaysian nasi kandar outlet recently opened in Perth. They have proven that it can be done!

After years of shouting himself hoarse when speaking out for the Third World, the Mahathir brand is so well-known. For many years Malaysia was Mahathir, and Mahathir was Malaysia. This is both good and bad. So much so, people overseas still keep asking about the Old Man, often followed by names such as Anwar Ibrahim, Proton, the Twin Towers and F1 Sepang.

Is it still Malaysia Boleh? I wonder...


*cosmic freak* said...

I grew up with Yik Mun's pau in Tanjung Malim, and at the original restaurant in Tanjung Malim, aside from the pau, the mee hailam is also great. I wouldn't say 'to die for', cos, thats simply overrated. heh. but then again, I grew up eating Popiah S Ali and air batu campur at Taman Kanak Kanak in Ipoh, there's an old kopitiam in ipoh which has the best mee goreng, then Yik Mun Tanjung Malim. Recently, my brother-in-law took me to Kluang Station at IKANO and he said, the original Kluang Station at Kluang, undefeated by all kopitiams, simply the best, he said.

I think its possible, and actually the only way to promote Malaysia. If you see, in all major capitals of the world, must exist a Chinatown. so, Malaysian, with the well-known fusion of food and culture, must be able to make "Kampung Budaya" in all major cities around the globe. It is possible. it only depends on the government to give such effort. frankly speaking, those bulks of expenditures like 100million ringgit for a tak nak (ban smoking) campaign should be put for this purpose if the government still allows tobacco companies to market their products here and gain lots of tax revenue from it. that is merely an example. a personal opinion.

it is possible. Malaysia memang Boleh. Kalau zaman dahulukala, Tanah Malaya boleh memonopoli perdagangan asia dengan hanya laut selat yang luasnya sekangkang kera, terbukti orang Malaya (in this case, bukan Melayu, but Malaya in general) mampu menguasai perdagangan dunia.

probably thats the importance of history. you'll never know where you're heading to if you don't know where you come from. (those are words from one of the greatest world leaders I know)

Asri said...

Small, extremely popular food operators are plentiful. Why some of them don't expand could be explained by deeper observation of their mode of operation.

They are mostly family run with one or two supplying the leadership, quality control and more often than not, the actual recipes.

Expanding would mean dilution of control and loss of quality. As any smalltime proprietor would tell you, if they're not hands-on 24 hrs a day, the business would simply collapse.

btw, Sup gear box is not mutton. It is 'kaki lembu'.

Anonymous said...

Hah, typical A. Talib and cerita kedai makan.

Anyway, you were wondering: "Why can't these small one-shop operators like the "soup gear box" in Kota Tinggi; Andrie's nasi minang; and Zainal's Tanglin nasi lemak go a notch higher and expand to other towns?"

The answer many people know (and sadly, many will choose not to believe) is just this: "Melayu".

Yik Mun and Pelita, and many others (Kayu Nasi Kandar and other types of businesses like Mydin's, Giant, etc) for example, are run and managed by Chinese and Indians, respectively.

Food by Y.Mun & Pelita are nothing to shout about. Yik Mun pau decades ago were much better and I'm sure whichever small little foodstall Pelita started at, the food back then must've been waaay better. By the way, the food at Pelita now is bad (at best!), if you ask nasi kandar connoiseurs.

But that is beside the point. My point is they became bigger over the years and opened up branches.

But the Malays stay in their small towns and tepi jalans. Malays are generally (and even genetically, perhaps!) not an enterprising lot.

They can handle small and maybe medium-sized SIMPLE operations, kedai makan, cottage industry, nasi lemak tepi jalan, pisang goreng, kedai jahit (mcm Pertama Kompleks) and such but when it comes to expanding, a majority will start menggelabah.

Pemalas, day dreamer, easily lured by big-spending-with-small-earning, terlebih bergaya & tak padan dgn pendapatan, etc, etc...

The Pangkor Treaty summed it all.

I'm a Malay and that is what I see.

Anonymous said...

To P.Manis & civ96110,

Both of you are correct but at the same time, not so accurate.

Popular 'body part' for sup gear box is the lembu's kaki. Other than the marrow in the bones, the joints are popular too since there are lots of yummy cartilage there.

But there are also food stalls that use kaki kambing and people simply call them 'gear box' too. Lembu or kambing, they are simply kakis, albeit different in size, taste, texture, etc.

Among the popular one that uses kaki kambing is the Mee Rebus Tulang in Johor Baru (not to be mistaken with Mee Rebus Stulang), where they serve the mee rebus with a fork, spoon and straw.

Damn, I'm hungry now...