One of my fondest memories was my trips to the wet market with my dad. I would always be in awe over how he haggled with the stalls and looked for the freshest fish, meats and produce. He has a really good eye on getting the best deals without compromising on quality.
– Ismail of Hjh Maimunah
Hjh Maimunah began its story in 1992 as a café on Beach Road – a venture by Madam Mahiran Abdul Rahman, who named the business after her mother.
An entrepreneur in her own right, her mother organised trips to the Mecca for pilgrims, which included cooking for them.
“Singaporeans cannot eat the local food for 40-50 days straight [so] we would bring the ingredients from Singapore to the Middle East,” shared Mdm Mahiran in a previous interview.
Today, Hjh Maimunah has expanded way beyond the original space, with 2 restaurants in Bugis and Joo Chiat, a catering arm, accolades which include a 2016 Michelin Bib Gourmand Award.
And taking over the helm today are Mdm Mahiran’s 3 children, Ismail, Mastura and Maria.
Ismail, Mastura and Maria grew up amidst the smells and sounds of Hjh Maimunah’s kitchens.
“[I recall] seeing my parents wake as early as 4.30am every morning [and return] only at 7pm. That was when we would get to spend time with them. During the weekends and holidays, we would help where we can, serving the customers, clearing tables and cashiering,” Ismail shares.
Growing up with the brand, the children found their way into the family business across the years.
His sisters joined right after graduation.
Mastura has worked closely with their parents for the longest, helping with administrative duties, day-to-day matters as well as in management.
Maria’s background was in Theology (study of the divine), but because “she enjoys whipping out recipes”, she now ensures they always serve up quality food for patrons.
Unlike his sisters however, Ismail took a delayed route.
“I wanted to be a part of the business since I was a teenager [so] I’ve always cared more about the business than school. I was never an A+ student,” he laughs.
“But National Service changed me. My parents had a wealth of experience [but] I realised a formal education was just as important.”
Following that, he threw himself into marketing studies and moved to Florida for 3 years for his MBA, where he also served as Area Manager for the Obama campaign.
Upon his return, Ismail joined the family team – the final ‘apprentice’ returning to the nest.
He’s now in charge of marketing and business development – a role stemming from his interest in forming “creative concepts and strategies”.
“At the end of the day, we are doing what we enjoy,” he says.
And as his mother had shared, “it isn’t work if you are doing what you love.”
Hjh Maimunah, Renewed
“The transition back to business after studies was not a smooth road.”
One of the biggest changes made was in the management to become more employee-centric, Ismail shares.
“We send those who are interested for up-skilling courses and developed [new procedures to make new staff training more efficient]”.
On the food side, although the heavy duty cooking is not handled by them, they are involved “one way or another”.
Maria is her mother’s student in exploring what’s on the menu. Meanwhile, Ismail and Mastura are “breaking cooking into a science”.
They want to serve traditional Indonesian cuisine without “compromising on taste, texture and quality”, he says.
“Leveraging on technology and new cooking methods are ways to keep it sustainable”.
Embracing Change And Community
One issue that worries them is that they’ll fall out of favour with patrons for their prices, where premium ingredients can cost up to $15 per meal.
It’s a “compromise”, he says, “to meet the customer’s expectations and rising costs.”
“But we are not selling cheap food, and to retain a certain quality, we have to get the best ingredients from the market”.
Hjh Maimunah embodies what Malays call ‘Gotong Royong‘, which means ‘cooperation in the community,” Ismail says, reflecting on the ‘Kampung’ culture of the company.
Many of their ingredients are sourced from small-time traders in Indonesia.
“We tell them we need something, and they bring it over,” Ismail told Channel NewsAsia. “It’s a personal relationship.”
‘Gotong Royong’ involves helping one another, beyond the specified job scope. To take pride in what they do, knowing their contributions are not only helping team members, but are for the betterment of the community.
But some of the ingredients that they use like beans jering or petai, are a turn off for the younger diners – which motivates the siblings to listen to their customers and make changes.
“Change is necessary,” he reiterates, so long as it aligns with their core value of feeding satisfied customers.
“With that said, we believe that educating the public on Indonesian dishes (especially non-conventional one) is key to keeping the traditional alive and appreciated.”
“Asian cuisine is unique in its own way […] I would really like to see more people continue to appreciate traditional food.”
To parents who bring their families by, Ismail expresses his joy that they “are sharing Kampung cuisine to their children”.
Hjh Maimunah For The Future
With goals larger than themselves, Ismail reveals that they plan to go international in the next 2 years. “We are looking to see which market is feasible to expand into”.
But for now, they still have their work cut out for them in the highly competitive F&B market.
“Whenever people think of Malay food, they will definitely think of us, and because of that, we have a huge responsibility to retain certain aspects of our food.”
Featured Image Credit: Mr. Ismail Didih