24/06/2021  •  7 mins read

Scaling Up Food Micropreneurs

In a time of economic uncertainty, micropreneurs get a leg up in growing their business with innovative solutions.

Chai Li Tiing

“I didn’t choose the entrepreneur life, the entrepreneur life chose me,” seems like something Hanif from Periuk Bujang could say. Like countless others, Hanif lost his day job in the event industry by a twist of fate (read: COVID-19). Unyielding to the challenges of his predicament, he decided to launch a food business, drawing from his wealth of experience operating a food stall with his late mother.

With the skills and knowledge his mother passed to him, Hanif took on the food and beverage business with a single item on his menu – the Nasi Ayam Kicap Sambal Gesek. And people could not get enough of it – word soon got out about Periuk Bujang and the number of orders hiked steadily. 

Yet operating from his home kitchen as a one-man show, just like the name of the business would suggest, Hanif soon found himself unable to scale up and fulfill the demands of his customer base. That is when he found Foodlab. 

“Periuk Bujang has been with us since the very beginning, and it has been our pleasure to watch his business grow from one dish to more than 10 on his menu. This is the kind of result we hope to help our ‘foodpreneurs’ achieve with the support and services that Foodlab provides,” says Zahaby Zainuddin, the Chief Executive Officer of Foodlab, a product of Social Enterprise Education Lab (SEEd.Lab) organised by PETRONAS and Tata Consultancy Services. 

Unlike most cloud kitchens, Foodlab’s ambitions are much loftier: to grow hand-in-hand with these foodpreneurs, especially in these hard times.

End-to-end support

During their ideation stage at SEEd.Lab, Zahaby and team conducted extensive research on microentrepreneurs in the F&B industry of Malaysia through focus groups and interviews to uncover the biggest challenges they face.

“We found that a lot of them lacked startup capital, which limited their access to kitchen equipment and adequate kitchen space required to scale up their businesses. Many of them knew how to turn ingredients into a delicious meal but did not have any experience marketing their products or getting the necessary permits and licenses to operate, particularly during COVID-19 movement restrictions,” he explains.

This is where Foodlab comes in. When a foodpreneur partners up with Foodlab, not only do they gain access to their 650-square-foot commercial kitchen with all the necessary industrial standard equipment, the team at Foodlab also provides accounting assistance, a Point of Sale system to ease transactions, access to markets, and marketing and photography services.

“We also handle the business permits and cleaning of the premises – all the nitty gritty details so that these foodpreneurs can focus on what they do best: the food,” Zahaby adds.

Since September 2020, some 25 foodpreneurs have tried out their services with either a Daily Pass, Flexi Pass or a Monthly Pass. Currently, there are three teams of foodpreneurs operating from the Foodlab shared kitchen located in Publika, KL: Pasta Kitchen, PichaEats and the aforementioned Periuk Bujang, while eight more foodpreneurs are waiting for a slot.

“We also handle the business permits and cleaning of the premises – all the nitty gritty details so that these foodpreneurs can focus on what they do best: the food.”

Zahaby Zainuddin

Chief Executive Officer, Foodlab

In order to get their foodpreneur’s products out there, Foodlab has struck up collaboration with multiple parties.

“We have managed to get these products featured in nine Kedai Mesra at PETRONAS stations. We are also listed on GrabFood under Foodlab Mix and Match where customers can order from all three of our foodpreneurs,” the CEO enthuses.

Paying it forward

“From the beginning, our goals are rather straightforward. We want to combat youth unemployment and sustain a profitable business doing that. While other cloud kitchens target more established businesses, we are looking at the young entrepreneur that’s just starting out, helping them navigate the challenges of a budding business,” Zahaby explains.

Foodlab’s target market is the under-35 entrepreneur crowd for which Zahaby holds a special affinity. Trained in food biotechnology, Zahaby had been fixated on launching a startup in the F&B industry for as long as he remembered. But it had not been easy, at least not until he signed up for SEEd.Lab.

“Going into the world of startups on your own can be difficult. Even with all the knowhow, you’ll still need a hand to open doors to networks, funding and support. My challenges were the same as that of our foodpreneurs. I overcame them with the help from SEEd.Lab and I hope that Foodlab can in turn lend a helping hand for the foodpreneurs,” he explains.

Among some of the key achievements made possible by SEEd.Lab, according to Zahaby, was being shortlisted as one of the Top 50 finalists for the TERAJU SUPERB programme, a government programme offering funding to bumiputera startups. At the time, Foodlab was just three months old. In preparation for the programme, some five coaches from SEEd.Lab helped him refine his pitch and improve strategies.

“Going into the world of startups on your own can be difficult. Even with all the knowhow, you’ll still need a hand to open doors to networks, funding and support. My challenges were the same as that of our foodpreneurs. I overcame them with the help from SEEd.Lab and I hope that Foodlab can in turn lend a helping hand for the foodpreneurs.”

Zahaby Zainuddin

Chief Executive Officer, Foodlab

Even though they did not end up with the TERAJU funding, Zahaby reckons that the experience was invaluable for a new startup, along with the funding received during SEEd.Lab and the ability to leverage the network that resulted in the placement of Foodlab products at PETRONAS’ Kedai Mesra.

While he was lucky enough to get that much-needed boost, Zahaby knows firsthand the struggles faced by many microentrepreneurs and hopes to pay it forward with his own venture, along with six other partners he met in the programme.

Apart from business-expanding collaborations, Foodlab also has not forgotten its mission to effect positive social impact. Alongside fellow SEEd.Lab graduate, Teman Malaysia, an elderly care companionship provider, the startups have raised funds and have the foodpreneurs prepare food for elderly care homes, frontliners and the underserved segments of society.

Overcoming challenges

Now in its pre-seed stage, Foodlab is actively looking for funding to provide a runway for the business to grow and an avenue for all the foodpreneurs to grow alongside it.

“Foodlab is after all, a brick-and-mortar business. We need to have some runway to sustain the business and the kitchen space. Currently our kitchen in Publika is operating with full capacity with the three foodpreneurs. We have eight more foodpreneurs waiting to get a slot in our kitchens,” Zahaby says.

Foodlab is in talks with several parties, for a second kitchen located in either Subang or Petaling Jaya, which will be able to accommodate up to six teams of foodpreneurs. He revealed that the team is also planning the opening a third kitchen soon and is eager to see where the collaboration will take these businesses.

Looking to raise funds through multiple channels, Foodlab is clinching any opportunity to pitch to potential investors, apply for programmes akin to TERAJU SUPERB and organise reward crowdfunding – all of which to help extend the runway and enable expansion.

To get to this point had not been easy, but Zahaby believes that Foodlab had overcome worse. During the initial and most essential stages of startup: ideation and incubation, when most on-ground legwork was needed, the team was confined to their desks due to a nationwide Movement Control Order.

“We leveraged our networks to reach out through friends and families to get in contact with foodpreneurs. We talked to them via video conference to convince them that a shared kitchen works! A lot of them needed some convincing, largely because they were skeptical about sharing a kitchen. We let them in to do some previews and testing, eventually proving that it’s a workable concept,” Zahaby confides.

Foodlab foodpreneurs have recorded more than 8,000 sale transactions thus far, with some even raking in revenues of RM5,000 per month.

Going forward, Foodlab hopes to attract foodpreneurs from all across the different categories of the F&B business to try their services out. Zahaby reveals that there had been talks with a business making sambal spread, stroopwafel and other similar packed food businesses with longer shelf lives to reduce food waste.

When asked of his picture of success for Foodlab, Zahaby relays that their initial goal was to set up three shared kitchens in three years. With that well underway, the team’s main mission is to secure the necessary funding to help the expansion.

To learn more about Foodlab, visit www.foodlabmalaysia.com 

SEEd.Lab is calling for all young innovators in Malaysia to join its second cohort launched in June 2021. To find out more and apply, visit www.seedlab.my

Other Recommendations
06/04/2021 • 3 mins read

Meet ANYmal!

10/06/2020 • 5 mins read

A United Front Against COVID-19

31/05/2021 • 5 mins read

Meet BIKE!