PETALING JAYA, Sept 25 — As a young boy, Ernest Ong would help look after his parents’ eatery Nyonya Restaurant in SS2.
So it made perfect sense when he took a leap of faith 10 years ago and left the corporate world to join the food and beverage (F&B) industry.
“I needed to do something different and F&B was probably the only other thing I knew how to do,” Ong told Malay Mail.
That was when the then-29-year-old rounded up some friends and opened the first Tom, Dick & Harry’s in Taman Tun Dr Ismail.
Proving to be a successful neighbourhood bar, other food-related pursuits followed suit soon after.
They include the now-defunct New York Times-featured Hoofed, two more Tom, Dick & Harry’s outlets, Durian King in TTDI, which he started with his brother Erik, and modern Malaysian coffee shop Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock.
Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock first burst into the Malaysian dining scene in 2013 and has grown to five outlets today with two more opening soon in Glenmarie and Dang Wangi.
“It was challenging at first. We lost money for two years straight. But we pulled through and that’s how we developed the brand,” said Ong.
Arguably the jewel in the crown of Ong’s food empire, for now at least, Malaysians cannot get enough of the popular restaurant’s uncomplicated menu and positive vibe.
“When people talk about this brand, they talk about being Malaysian, being muhibbah, being united.
“It brings a positive message to the customer but we also want to instil some social message to our customers,” Ong said, adding that what a brand stands for was important in business.
The three challenges restaurateurs face
Providing a glimpse into the cutthroat F&B world, the 39-year-old Computer Science graduate from Monash University said staffing was one of the major challenges for food outlets due to its labour-intensive nature.
“The second is to expand in the beginning because of cash flow but once you have 10 outlets, then building your next outlet is easy — you would have built your reserves and cash flow by then,” he explained.
And then there’s managing the shareholders and their expectations.
“You also have to manage characters because they’re not your customers and that takes a lot of time and effort,” said Ong who is the main shareholder of his food enterprises.
How our dining scene has evolved
As a seasoned pub operator, Ong said Malaysians’ drinking habits and spending power have changed over the past decade.
Back then, patrons who frequented Tom, Dick & Harry’s rarely enquired about promotions and specials — they would simply order their usual.
“The way they drink is different too. Young people today are more health-conscious.
“They’d drink one or two beers and go home whereas 10 years ago it was yum seng (cheers) all the time,” he said.
Passion, experience and that bit of luck
Asked what advice he’d give aspiring food entrepreneurs, Ong said passion always trumps how much money one has.
“I know people who have a lot of money that went into this industry and got burnt.
“A lot of people think running a restaurant is hiring others to manage it but it doesn’t work like that.”
To succeed in the industry, you need passion, experience and 1 per cent of X-factor, Ong added,
“That element of blessing or luck is true from my experience.
“You can have two restaurants selling the same thing, same price and offering the same service but why is one always full and the other empty? You see that all the time.”
While it’s not necessary for a food business owner to know how to cook in order to be successful, Ong said food knowledge is important.
A passionate food lover who enjoys cooking and hosting, Ong developed 80 per cent of the dishes on Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock, and Tom, Dick & Harry’s menu.
His next milestone is sailing the world
Growing up, Ong loved fishing and always wanted to own a boat to sail around the world.
Now that he is an avid boater and has met other sailors who have done it — including professional explorer and adventurer Mike Horn — Ong plans to go off on his adventure in two years’ time.
He became friends with Horn, who is currently circumnavigating the globe via the North and South Pole, when he sailed to Malaysia and no marinas would accept his boat due to its size.
Ong’s nautical interests also led him to start a chartering company, Sea Urchin Charters, five years ago that specialises in sail fishing.
“Rompin, Pahang is the top three sail fishing spots in the world but no one knows. The funny thing is everyone else that’s not from this country knows,” he said with a laugh.
More than a pastime, Ong has used his boating skills to send relief when Penang was hit by floods two years ago.
He told Malay Mail he finds joy in helping the needy, whether it’s building orphanages or providing aid to disaster-stricken areas in Malaysia.