KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 25 — Two years ago, brother-and-sister team Kate and Yew Kheong Lee opened The Red Beanbag to provide returning graduates from Australia a place where they can enjoy a much-missed brunch experience. With no prior experience in the F&B industry, the siblings knew starting the café was a gamble but they had to try.
These days their little-café-that-could is the most happening brunch destination in the Klang Valley. On weekends customers would often arrive early before opening hours simply to beat the crowds. Waking up a little earlier is a small price to pay for a decent flat white to go with their eggs Benedict or French toast.
These brunch champions, or Red Beanies, as the siblings call themselves, their crew and their fans, are here to stay.
How important was setting up the Red Beanbag as an Aussie-style café to your success?
While our target demographic was initially returning Aussie graduates, I would like to believe that we have managed to capture a larger demographic from what we intended. Now we see a diversity of customers that include expatriates and locals, families enjoying their Sunday brunch, hipsters and office workers.
When we started, we were afraid that not many would be able to stomach runny egg yolks or a very healthy option of Bircher muesli. There was also the conundrum on whether Malaysians would come out at odd hours such as 10am and pay to eat an Aussie-style brunch. Well, now we know that Malaysians would eat anything at any time of the day!
The Red Beanbag is absolutely packed during weekends. How do you deal with the overwhelming brunch crowds?
We were never prepared for the scale of this overwhelming crowd. We only started to gain momentum about four months into operations, when we started to have long waiting lists on the weekends.
We were very short-staffed during those periods. Our staffing problems never went away and human resource became a nightmare. We would sometimes plead with our friends to help out on the floor as part-timers (for a fee, of course).
We would always say that we would hire a manager. But with what little experience we had, finding the right manager was not an easy task in the early days.
Handling the operations, thus, became the biggest challenge and it was important to have a strong core team. The head chef, head barista and the floor manager are our eyes and ears. We feel that the team has been consistently improving to serve our customers in a more efficient manner, especially during peak periods – it’s not easy!
What is your working relationship like? How has it changed over time?
At the start, Yew Kheong was the barista and in charge of operations, while Kate would do the accounts and back-end stuff. Both of us would help out in the café itself and there really wasn’t a fixed schedule.
Now we have a manager and a team at full strength, so Yew Kheong has taken over the accounts role and the everyday management of the café while Kate is undertaking a basic culinary course in Sydney.
As we work together so closely, more often than not, there would be something both of us would disagree completely on. Nevertheless, family is family. We may have our disagreements but our personal relationship remains strong.
Share some lessons you’ve gained from starting a café with no experience.
We have learned that employees are our greatest asset. Over the hectic weekends and public holidays when we are most likely to get crowded, I can still count on everyone to give their 100% to ensure a smooth operation across all stations. Building a good back-end system is absolutely key to ensure our employees are fairly treated and have a happier working environment.
For others interested in starting their own café/restaurant, the first step is to take a step back and realise what they might be getting themselves in to. It is not a 1-2 years project; it could be a lifetime commitment.
If you have a big picture in mind, never overlook the small details. Get to know more people in the industry and never be afraid to share or ask, because sometimes the best advice comes from other café owners – people who have been there and done that.
What’s next for The Red Beanbag?
We have just changed our coffee roaster recently. By working closely with a micro-roaster in Perth, our current coffee blend is now customised to our requirements. It is leaning towards speciality coffee because the green beans that we are using are of the utmost quality and standards. This is really exciting for us.
We would to bring our coffee at The Red Beanbag to the next level by introducing other brewing methods in the very near future while also experimenting on other dishes to keep our menu fresh.
Right now, our team is at full strength and hopefully this will continue. The past two years have been such a whirlwind that we never really had the chance to really stop and take stock of the overwhelming response.
Now we do feel proud. This is what we are meant to be doing and we don’t want to stop at just here. Our expansion plans are not set in stone but hopefully we will have an idea of what our next project will be by the end of this year!
The Red Beanbag
A4-1-08, Solaris Dutamas, Jalan Dutamas 1, 50480 Kuala Lumpur
Open Tue-Fri 10am-10pm; Sat & Sun 9:30am-10pm
Tel: 03-6211 5116
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on October 24, 2013.