Starting with being the executive chef during the pre-opening days of Penang Mutiara Beach Resort back in the 1980’s, 10 years later, German native Werner Kuhn now owns eight F&B establishments in the Changkat Bukit Bintang area.
We caught up with him to talk about how he came to Malaysia and the journey behind his business ventures here in the land of nasi lemak.
When did you decide to pursue a career in the restaurant business and why?
My mind was set to pursue a chef career at the age of 15, starting my apprenticeship in Germany. The professional kitchen environment naturally suited my persona, allowing me to be creatively rebellious yet shaping my understanding of what it means to work successfully together in a team. My early years led me through independent restaurants, catering at large scale events, cooking on cruise ships, trains and in hotel kitchens around the world. After a fast paced career in the catering industry, I decided to open my first restaurant in Kuala Lumpur in 2005 recognizing a market demand in traditional western-style cuisine. For a chef, the ultimate joy lies in creating a product that brings people together. Starting my own restaurant was the culmination of translating my life-long learned experiences into a business opportunity and being able to freely create my own interpretations of my passion for good food.
What are some of the challenges of being a restaurant owner in Malaysia?
External factors such as decreasing tourist arrivals and the current economic downward trend are the main challenges. The labour market is the second hurdle. Pursuing a career in the restaurant industry is more of a lifestyle choice than a job, so finding the right talent is challenging as well. Odd hours, physically demanding work and mental stress are part of the package when working in a restaurant. However, if the role suits you, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences running a successful service. Lastly, sourcing good quality produce and ensuring its consistent supply is still a main challenge in Malaysia even though it has improved dramatically over the last couple of years.
We know that service is key. How do you motivate your staff to keep a constant and great service ethic?
My philosophy of team culture is based on the early guiding principle of Ritz-Carlton: “Ladies & Gentlemen are serving Ladies & Gentlemen”. We strive to instill a sense of pride in our team members. Everybody needs to be heard. No position is more important than the other. I want our crew to feel that, live that. We are all part of a service centric society these days and being a waiter is no more no less a profession than any other service related discipline. In fact, I still believe it is a great stepping stone into “real life” humbling and educating, giving you an opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life. Those who find joy in this can make a great career for themselves. Some of our staff are with us from Day 1 and many have ventured into the world and occupy top positions such as Director F&B, Restaurant Management and Group Sommeliers. If you want to grab an opportunity, we sincerely want to give it to you. Our people can feel that.
What is the key to success in communicating to the public?
Public Relations is about telling, not selling. A strong concept is crucial to communicate a core message to the market (WHO are we, WHAT are we doing and WHY are we doing it). Beyond a good dinner, we want to sell an experience to the customer. Once we have a customer in the door it is up to a warm, responsive service crew and delivering a product that inspires you to a return visit.
What are some trends that you see in the field of restaurant management that might help new restaurant owners?
The foundation is still a solid financial understanding (Reading a P&L statement). Your business stands and falls by realistically estimating expected returns, ensuring a steady cash flow.
Secondly, ensuring being heard in the market place by leveraging social media channels & 3rd party collaborators to communicate your core message is a vital element to get recognised in the market space. You might just have created the best dish in the world, but if nobody knows about it, it is worthless. Being tech savvy and up to date in this context will definitely give you a leg up in pushing your restaurant to greater heights.