Flavourful and affordable cili crab bento satisfies many Penangites after going online.
The founder of Cili Panda (who is also the founder of Phoenix Asia Academy), Mr Kenneth Quah, started by providing daily meals to Chinese students in their in-house canteen of Phoenix Students Hostel for China students. When COVID-19 came, it caused a huge impact on his canteen business, but that didn’t stop Kenneth from marching forward. “Let’s try and bring our food outside our in-house canteen”, Kenneth said to his team. Next, Cili Panda was born.
An Interview with Kenneth Quah
1. We noticed that you lived in China for about 11 years. Would you mind telling us why you chose to come back to Penang?
I came back to Penang because I received an invitation from a university in Penang, to help promote local universities to China.
Born and raised in Penang, Malaysia, I decided to come back and live in Penang for good. I still travel to China on a regular basis, and will usually stay there around 2 weeks on each trip, just to take care of my business in China.
2. We’ve tried Cili Panda crab bento, and the crab is really fresh. How do you maintain your seafood at its freshest?
In order to maintain our seafood at its freshest, our suppliers deliver the live seafood straight from their farm to our kitchen.
At our peak after taking our business online, we received a huge number of orders, and luckily and thankfully our suppliers were able to take up the challenge and delivered fresh live seafood to us on time.
3. What was your expectation on the number of orders when you first launched the crab bento?
In the beginning, we only launched the normal bento sets. We received around 300 – 500 orders per day, which was pretty promising.
Thus I was thinking… with some special dishes and promotions, we would be able to further increase the orders. My estimation was around 50 – 100 more orders.
The result turned out to be a pleasant surprise! Our crab bento became so famous that we received around 1,000 – 1,200 orders a day. I really appreciate the support and take it as a blessing from Penangites.
4. How many people are on your team and what brought you all together?
Before Cili Panda, I was running a hostel business in Gelugor, where we had an in-house canteen. Our chef and facilities mainly catered to the students from China.
Because of the pandemic, over 130 students went back to China and only 8 of them were still living in the hostel. It was a huge impact on us, as we still needed to bear the costs like rent, staff salary and so on.
So I told all my staff, let’s do something different, let’s take our canteen food outside the hostel using delivery.
We started on October 5th. The number of orders we received went from 60 sets per day to 100 sets per day, 200 sets per day and 400 sets per day. Finally, it reached our full capacity, so we decided to move from the canteen to a real shop, which is in Lebuh Tye Sin now.
Before we kick-started, I knew branding and packaging were very important. So I got my good friend, who is a designer, to help me with all the design stuff.
I chose the word “Cili” and purposely used the Malay spelling for the business name, as it is very easy to remember. While for the word “Panda”, the inspiration came from Chengdu, Sichuan. This is because our specialities and unique taste are from Sichuan. I thought it was a good combination, and decided to make ‘Cili Panda’ our brand name.
Right now, we are lucky to be able to reach our full capacity in our first shop in Lebuh Tye Sin, catering around 1,000 – 1,200 orders per day. We are planning to expand again to other locations, perhaps in Bayan Baru first, and later Ayer Hitam, Bukit Mertajam, and to more places.
When it comes to manpower, we increased from 6 to 10. We also hired more drivers. At the moment, we have 50 members of staff and are still hiring.
To me, customer service is relatively more important than other skills, and that’s why all new staff need to be trained to make sure they can provide the right services to all the customers. I am grateful to my team, including my managers who are working very hard to achieve what we want.
5. What made you decide to take your business online? What were your thoughts during the planning stage?
I think in today’s digital age, going online is the only option.
Most importantly, when we go online, we need to have control over our business, such as branding and customer service. When our business relies on other delivery platforms such as Grab, FoodPanda or other big brands, we are actually living in others’ shadow. That is not the branding that I want.
So I have to think about creating our own brand and online presence, and this needs to be 100% under the control of our team.
In the beginning, Facebook was the fastest and most cost-saving way to achieve the branding effect I want. At present, in addition to Facebook, my friend is helping me to build an online order system or platform, where all the orders will be managed online.
I am very thankful for the support of Penangites. With Facebook alone, we have gained genuine followers, who are real customers that will come to order from us. We feel blessed, and will do our best to contribute more to Penangites.
6. You and your team did a great job. What are your vision and mission for Cili Panda?
Our first mission is to deliver the best service to Penangites, which means that we will strive to present Cili Panda in a healthy, clean, and modern way. And then, we will try to expand our services from there to other cities and regions.
The speech at the charity event was from the depth of our hearts because we know most people are suffering, especially in this pandemic. We hope to give back to society while we can. It is part of our responsibility to help those in need and experiencing difficulties.
Thank you for the compliment about doing a great job, but we still have room for improvement. My staff and managers operate from different backgrounds. Some are from factories, tourism, restaurants, etc. When we met, there would be many ideas to improve our business.
For me, I am open to ideas and advice that any of my team members offer. I am not a chef, but I believe I have tasted more food than any other person.
In recent years, I have travelled to over 150 cities in China. I’ve tasted Chinese cuisines from South to North, East to West. With my experience in eating different cuisines, I can offer good advice to my team.
In my opinion, if we want to run a successful restaurant or cafe, we must make our decisions based on the customer’s point of view instead of focusing on how much we can earn per set.
If your intention is all about how you can earn, you’d be better off selling the economy rice. But we don’t do that kind of business. We are building an enterprise. That is the mindset, ideology, and methodology we use to run this business.
Part of our vision is to have a personalised bento set for each customer. There will be a system to record each customer’s customised dishes to trace back the customer’s taste for their next order.
Our long-term vision is to expand our business to KL and Singapore after Penangites are satisfied with our food. Many of my friends out there ask why we aren’t selling our bento in other cities.
Finally, I am not a tech-savvy person, so I have to learn many things from young people. One good quality that has helped me so far is that I am ready to listen, and I am open to advise and new ideas. Of course, I’ll have to do my homework on the ideas before implementation.
7. What is your personal view on the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you see this as an opportunity or a disaster?
Covid-19 is definitely a disaster for everybody, but it might not be the only disaster or crisis that we face. Life is indeed full of challenges.
We can learn to accept the crisis. I truly believe that life is not always sunshine and rainbows. When crises come, we must be prepared and dare to innovate, and that’s the reason why we need education, which teaches us to solve problems and find opportunities amid crises and grow.
Covid-19 is a huge challenge for everyone and we must know how to solve the situation and problem that we are facing. For example, if you are selling handicraft, it’s definitely not the right timing for this business. But you can always think of other businesses. Instead of just complaining, try to work on something, which may lead to a great start.
Back then, in my education business, I could earn RM5,000 – RM20,000 per sales, but now I accept RM8 – RM13 per sale. For me, it’s still money. it’s a good sign that I am growing.
This can be applicable to everybody if you can’t seem to sell your products during the pandemic, try other methods. Especially on online platforms, your competitors are everywhere. The key is to keep on innovating how you can differentiate yourself from others, to make yourself unique. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to compete with others in this digital world.
8. Many founded their business startups during the pandemic. Do you think this is good timing for business startups? Do you have any advice for them?
I think everyone is working very hard. Ever since the pandemic, I can see that my cousin, my sisters, my friends and many others are selling cosmetics products online.
I saw quite a lot of “live” sessions on Facebook. I am not sure what they put on their face, I think it should be some kind of lotion or powder. Some even wash their face online. It’s actually fun, I can see they are doing quite well. For me, it’s a good sign that everyone is trying to do their best.
My advice… there is no good or bad timing. Just do it, and don’t be worried. Instead of thinking without taking any action, it’s better to kickstart and do something. By doing it, you can learn. If you make mistakes, you can improve further.
If you are slow in getting customers, you have to think deeply about what could make them choose you over your competitors, what their demands are. For example, will cheaper prices or better customer service bring you more customers? From there, you continue to improve.
I believe this is how online business works. If customers like your service, they will share it and bring you more customers. So it is definitely worth spending time to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and figure out what their thoughts are, the things that can motivate them to buy from you again.
9. What does your typical workday look like? How do you keep yourself productive?
Since I also have other businesses to take care of, I will usually allocate 70% of my time on Cili Panda and the remaining 30% to my other business.
Cili Panda needs more attention as it’s new, and I will need to focus on the challenges and the growth direction of Cili Panda. I also spend a lot of time communicating with my managers, my chefs, my team to make sure the entire team is on the same page.
Besides, the key to keeping myself productive is to accept failure. This is very important. The bigger rejection we can accept, the more positive energy we will have in our daily lives.
Embrace failure, recognize weakness and improve from there. That is part of life.
10. What do you think about business digitalisation in Malaysia as compared to China? We can see quite a lot of news on FB that even small vegetable hawkers in China are already using WeChat Pay and have gone cashless.
Malaysia is a special market as we have multiple races, and hence different markets and different strategies. However, Malaysia is also a very small market with a population of about 33 million only.
If you are just looking to earn money, or just to make sure you live in a good house, targeting only the Malaysia market is fine. On the other hand, if you want to be the best in certain fields, you need to expand and look into the whole ASEAN market.
I think Grab is one of the most successful case studies that we can learn from. For example, how Grab looks as a whole in the Southeast Asia market.
As I mentioned earlier, Malaysia is a very small market. If we want to become an advanced country, first we must be politically stable and have good and stable internet facilities such as 5G. With these in place, Malaysia will be well equipped to take advantage of its strategic location and stand out in the ASEAN market.
In addition, we must be prepared for the worst. Before MCO 2.0, I already started to think about what is the worst that would come in the next 3 months, 4 months and even beyond 2022.
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