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KUALA LUMPUR, July 28 — The earnest young man nursing a coffee looked up slightly and regarded me with a serious, searching expression as I walked past him to enter Butter + Beans.
I searched the air-conditioned interior, then realised the only person who could possibly be Teoh Wee Kiat, was him.
I called his number and observed the young man from inside the air-conditioned interior.
I walked out.
“Do you want to go inside?” a small smile transformed that serious face.
I spent the next two hours talking to Wee Kiat, one of the co-founders of myBurgerLab. I was certainly not unfamiliar with their work, as anyone who enjoys experimental contemporary Malaysian cuisine would be.
Even in the oversaturated and hypercompetitive niche of gourmet burgers, they’ve managed to defend their enviable lead by preserving the element of surprise, keeping their legion of fans watering at the mouth about their next envelope-pushing invention. (Mac & Cheese burger? Maggi-noodle coated fried chicken? What’s next?)
For some reason, I had always expected the myBurgerLab boys to be flashy brash rich brats, a misconception that was changed by my chat with Wee Kiat. Here’s what I learned:
1. Limited options can sometimes tip the odds in your favour
With their mile-long list of menu items, you’d think that the myBurgerLab Boys toyed with an equally impressive inventory of choices before settling on burgers. Surprise, surprise — burgers became their mainstay because that was the only food his partners could cook relatively well!
2. Experiment is fundamental to success
They had another lab prior to myBurgerLab: The Red Bean Bag Cafe was their test kitchen. His partners were part-timing there to learn the ropes about the food and beverage business, and they decided to rent out the kitchen at night to experiment. In all, they spent about eight grand doing taste tests with friends.
3. Not all millennial are immodest attention-seekers
Ok ok, I know my Gen X stripes are showing… but myBurgerLab was the pioneer in the recent wave of millennial entrepreneurs. Despite their phenomenal success and seeming ubiquity, they have not been featured in the media as often as their peers. Not because they’re aloof (as I’d thought once), but because they just never had the time to reach out and felt too pai seh (Hokkien for shy) to trumpet their achievements. One of the concerns Wee Kiat had about writing a book about their story is, “Would it sound braggy?” given their age.
4. Success rarely comes overnight
Despite appearances, it was no overnight success. He was prepared for the long hours of F&B because he has had some practice. One summer, he worked as part of the housekeeping staff in Yellowstone National Park. The last job he did was in audit “and you know how crazy audit hours are, so F&B is not much different,” he said with a rueful grin.
5. Stay grounded
myBurgeLab is entirely self-funded.
“Well, of course I had some help from my parents, but I’ve paid them back,” Wee Kiat added hastily.
The biggest surprise was, of course, his car. I don’t drive in Kuala Lumpur, so I asked if he could give me a lift to the bus stop outside his outlet in OUG.
My jaw dropped when he led me to a beat-up Proton Saga that had seen better days.
But you guys must be freaking millionaires! I thought privately. Or close to being.
Even with his stratospheric income (for a millennial lah), he balked at housing prices in Kuala Lumpur. “I’m looking to buy a place of my own, but the prices are crazy now. How to afford!”
It’s only something that a small towner would say, I pointed out.
Turns out dude is from a small town: Sungai Petani. “I don’t know whether you’ve been there,” he added after revealing this bit of personal trivia.
Not only have I been there, I have written a story about it, I thought. In the car, he continues to pepper me with questions about the publishing industry, the only hint (other than the boyish looks) that he’s from the millennial generation.
“I’m curious and I like to do things,” he revealed.
Sounds like a recipe for success to me.
* Alexandra Wong (www.facebook.com/MadeinMalaysiabook) loves cooking, eating and writing.
SEAPARK: 14, Jalan 21/22, SeaPark, 46300 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
OUG: 8, Jalan Awan Hijau, Taman OUG, 58200 Kuala Lumpur
SUNWAY: 3, Jalan PJS 11/9, Bandar Sunway, 46150 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
CYBERJAYA: Prima 4, Prima Avenue, Block 3513, Jalan Teknokrat 5, 63000 Cyberjaya (Behind Starbucks)