Starting a food business during MCO: The tiny bento shop that could

Hinode Bento offers bento sets such as this Bara Salmon Don with cubes of salmon sashimi. – Pictures by Kenny Mah and courtesy of Hinode Bento
Hinode Bento offers bento sets such as this Bara Salmon Don with cubes of salmon sashimi. – Pictures by Kenny Mah and courtesy of Hinode Bento

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 22 — When is the right time to start a business? Or a second business for that matter?

For some, that decision requires months of planning. Agonised deliberations and copious quantities of self-doubt. To not move forward seems the easiest path.

For others, the answer is more straightforward. Now is the best time to start a business; it’s the only time, one could argue. To leap in the fray when most are scrambling to get out.

One such business is Hinode Bento which was launched in late October, a time when many food and beverage (F&B) businesses were experiencing everything from tentative recovery to cost cutting.

Branding expert Kian Tee was inspired to create a clean, Japanese-inspired design for Hinode Bento.
Branding expert Kian Tee was inspired to create a clean, Japanese-inspired design for Hinode Bento.

No, this wasn’t an enterprise that was months in the making, delayed by the lockdown and only now finally opening shop. This was an F&B business that was created specifically in response to the growing demand for delivery options among consumers.

The team — comprising branding professional Kian Tee, chef Kuan Woo, operations-focused Jackson Ngew and Viko Ng, who heads front of house and customer service — first got to know each other by chance through work.

Hinode Bento is actually the team’s second collaboration; their first business is a Japanese restaurant located at Bukit Jalil called Rinjin Shokudo.

Chef Kuan tested various methods to allow the cooked foods to cool before packing.
Chef Kuan tested various methods to allow the cooked foods to cool before packing.

Kian shares, “We were inspired to start this brand during the movement control order (MCO). Just like other F&B brands, we packed our dine-in menu for delivery but then discovered not all dishes are suitable to be packed and delivered. When the food reached the customers, there’d be water condensation due to the heat so it became soggy and unappetising.”

Based on this observation and constructive feedback from customers, the team decided to create a Japanese-style bento that would be more suitable for delivery.

“The first thing that came to our mind is Japanese train bento,” says Chef Kuan. “The food is designed and packed in a way it can be consumed anytime throughout the day and still taste great. Inspired by that, we took a few months to try this out.”

What he is referring to, of course, is the iconic ekiben or station lunch box (“eki” refers to the railway station, “ben” a shortened version of bento). A to-go version of the ubiquitous Japanese packed lunch box, an ekiben is usually stacked carefully at bento shops in stations for passengers to grab them, to be enjoyed later in the office, for a picnic at the park or even on a train.

Bara Unagi Don features grilled eel, crab stick, ‘tamagoyaki’, ‘edamame’ and ‘kyuri’ (Japanese cucumber) on Japanese rice.
Bara Unagi Don features grilled eel, crab stick, ‘tamagoyaki’, ‘edamame’ and ‘kyuri’ (Japanese cucumber) on Japanese rice.

Selecting appropriate ingredients and methods of cooking is key. Chef Kuan explains, “Basically the food is cooked, put aside to be cooled down and packed into the bento box to avoid the heat and water trapped inside. The bentos are then kept at the right temperature to keep the freshness of it and ready to be served or delivered.”

Popular bentos include Bara Salmon Don with cubes of salmon sashimi and Tori Tsukune Bento with handmade chicken meatballs. The exquisite Bara Unagi Don features grilled eel, crab stick, tamagoyaki (rolled omelette), edamame and kyuri (Japanese cucumber) on Japanese rice.

Beyond delivery — which many other F&B businesses have pivoted to — Hinode Bento is also positioning their brand as an everyday gift-giving option; one doesn’t need to wait for the Mid-Autumn Festival to purchase extravagantly packaged mooncakes for family and friends or for the Dragon Boat Festival to enjoy a savoury-sweet Nyonya chang.

“Hinode actually means sunrise in Japanese. We hope this bento can bring more genki (‘energy and health’ in Japanese) and encouragement to those who receive our bento to face their everyday challenge,” says Kian.

Jackson Ngew manages the backend operations for Hinode Bento, ensuring every order gets delivered.
Jackson Ngew manages the backend operations for Hinode Bento, ensuring every order gets delivered.

To this end, the Hinode Bento website allows customers to customise and write a short message on the bento label. Kian adds, “Sometimes our staff would even draw random doodles on the label just to give customers some surprise; if you get one it’s your lucky day.”

According to Kian, Hinode Bento initially shared the shop with another brand called Hinoiri Japanese Cuisine. Similar to how Transparent Coffee and Coley Cocktail Bar in Bangsar take turns using the same space (the former during the day, the latter at night), the same principle was applied here.

During the mornings and afternoons, the shop dished up Hinode Bento’s packaged meals while in the evenings, the space was taken over by Hinoiri which served an omakase style dinner. Eventually there was a change in operation and the team decided Hinode Bento should focus more on delivery.

Jackson explains, “The whole initial idea of the bento is that it’s meant to be eaten anywhere. The bento is designed so that you can enjoy it at home or outdoors, whatever way or wherever you like.”

Customer-focused Viko Ng adds a handcrafted touch to the bento box with a cheerful doodle.
Customer-focused Viko Ng adds a handcrafted touch to the bento box with a cheerful doodle.

That approach and quick pivot to delivery is very much in the same vein as to the reason behind the business. Jackson recalls, “Hinode Bento started on October 22,t 2020, so the MCO was actually the reason this brand was founded as our other dine-in restaurant Rinjin Shokudo did get affected during the lockdown period.”

The impact on their first business taught the team a lesson: it would be wiser not to focus too much on dine-in but be open to a delivery model instead.

Viko shares, “We decided we needed to be more flexible and adaptable, to look at the situation and also changes in consumers’ behaviour. We do think that venturing into online and delivery is challenging but it’s also a need, moving forward.”

Their strategy appears to be working, given encouraging feedback from the early adopters who form their first pool of customers. Viko adds, “We are very glad they love what we had to offer, from the food to the bento as a gifting idea. We are thankful for our customers’ honest opinions, which helps us to improve each day.”

Bentos for sharing, anywhere and anytime you like.
Bentos for sharing, anywhere and anytime you like.

Currently Hinode Bento has only one location in Bukit Jalil for both delivery and pickup. In the coming year, the team is planning to expand to more locations in order to widen their reach as well as strengthen their brand positioning.

Kian sums up the Hinode Bento philosophy: “You see, we want our brand to be more than just another food brand or a food delivery brand, but to also carry the idea of delivering care, warmth and love to our customers and their loved ones.”

As the year comes to a close, maybe the story of a tiny bento shop that could can be an inspiration to us all. Not only to look for opportunities but to look forward. Better days will come, not through us waiting for them but by us making it so.

Hinode Bento

F-5-1, Pusat Perdagangan Bandar, Jalan Persiaran Jalil 1, Bukit Jalil, KL

Open Tue-Sun 11:30am-4pm; Mon closed

Tel: 016-327 9512

hinodebento.com

facebook.com/hinodebento/