Saddled With A $100K Debt, This Queen Of Nasi Ambeng Slowly Built An Empire Of Halal F&B Bizs

In 2010, Madam Sa’adah Jan (who goes by the moniker Ummi Abdullah) suffered a failed conference management business venture with a partner.

This setback weighed her down financially, as she ended up racking a $100,000 debt.

She had to sell off her four-room flat, have her car repossessed, and even let her maid go.

Her family of five then had to move into a one-room rental flat with her sister and mother, who was stricken with cancer.

They also lived on a very tight budget of about only $300 a month, as the bulk of her husband’s salary were dedicated to repaying her debt.

It was an admittedly tough time, but this tumultuous period also served as a positive turning point in her life.

A Wake-Up Call

“There were seven of us inside a small flat. I had to do something… for my children who were so used to sleeping on a bed,” Ummi told The Straits Times.

So when she browsed through Facebook a couple of years ago, she “realised that there’s a need and demand for home-cooked food among working mothers.”

“As a stay-home mum, I cook for my family everyday, so I was thinking: ‘why not just cook extra?’ Then I can sell it to these ladies who prefer home-cooked meals,” she said in a Channel NewsAsia video series ‘On The Red Dot’.

Image Credit: Dapur Ummi Abdullah

She then started posting pictures of her home-cooked Malay dishes on Facebook for ordering, and it slowly evolved into a home-based business.

That was how Dapur Ummi Abdullah started back in 2011, which was aptly named as the business literally started in her ‘dapur’ (Malay for kitchen).

Her venture immediately took off, with deliveries made to 300 families everyday.

But as her orders started snowballing, she realised that her small home kitchen could not accommodate the huge demand.

“The dishes I was selling on Facebook was getting too popular and it caught the attention of NEA (National Environment Agency), who informed me several times that I had to get a central kitchen if I wanted to continue with my business,” said Ummi in an interview with Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore.

But central kitchens were just way too expensive for me at the time so I ended up renting a stall at a food court located in an industrial area so I could cook everything and delivery my orders from there.

“Obviously, it wasn’t the right thing to do, but it was the only thing I could afford.”

So after two years of operating from home, Dapur Ummi Abdullah moved to a coffeeshop in Kelantan Lane, before relocating again to Tanah Merah Country Club in November 2012.

Starting Afresh With A Central Kitchen 

She eventually saved enough money to apply for a license under NEA to set up a central kitchen, and rented one in Sembawang in end 2013.

In the early days, both Ummi and her husband would work for 20 hours; and the couple would be so exhausted that they would usually end up sleeping in the playground near the kitchen.

According to Ummi, her work day starts as early as 4am, and would only end at midnight.

In an ‘On The Red Dot’ video, Ummi was seen waking up at 4.30am to get fresh ingredients from the Geylang Serai Market, where she’d spend an hour or two running her marketing errand.

This is where I get my supply of vegetables, meat, and spices. I like to personally do my marketing, and I also get to save a lot on cost. Some suppliers charge a delivery fee when they send it [the supplies] to my place.

With dedicated diligence and meticulous spending, her business continued to flourish.

Image Credit: Berita Harian

This allowed her to expand the business and introduce catering services for wedding and other events, as well as a Confinement Tingkat meals for new mothers in August 2014.

Today, her business serves 1,000 customers daily.

Over the years, Ummi said that many of her customers had mistook the central kitchen for a dine-in restaurant, so they get disappointed when they realise that they can’t sit and eat when they arrive.

So she decided to just make the leap and open a 60-seater restaurant in Bedok called Ambeng Cafe to accommodate her customers.

Nasi Ambeng platter / Image Credit: MIss Tam Chiak

It specialises in ‘nasi ambeng’, a traditional Javanese cuisine made up of a mountain of rice with a variety of meat and vegetable side dishes served on a round tray.

Ummi’s ‘nasi ambeng’ consists of 14 different types, and is typically shared among four to six people.

This signature dish of hers has been given the culinary nod by several food critics, and Ummi was also listed in the Top 50 World Street Food Masters List.

The restaurant often draws snaking long queues, especially on weekends; and sells about 200 platters of ‘nasi ambeng’ daily.

A Serial F&B Entrepreneur 

Ummi soon earned the nickname ‘queen of nasi ambeng’, but she did not wish to rest on her laurels.

Bolstering her entrepreneurship spirit, she went ahead to strengthen her foothold in the F&B industry with the launch of Tiffin Club (a cafe for The Esplanade’s staff lounge), Noosh Noodle Bar & Grill, and Anggerik Bakery in 2016.

Also located at The Esplanade, Noosh is another halal eatery that serves up a fusion of Asian and Western dishes.

Noosh’s bestseller, the butterbeer / Image Credit: Noosh Noodle Bar & Grill

Noosh’s bestseller is its Butterbeer, a beverage inspired by the Harry Potter movie.

Ummi first discovered the creamy, butterscotch flavoured soda at a cafe in London, where she attended the prestigious culinary school Le Cordon Bleu.

She fell in love with the taste at first sip, and immediately thought of replicating it to sell at Noosh, which is targeted at her younger customers.

Back in Singapore, she researched online for the recipe, but always felt that the taste was lacking.

She experimented for weeks, with the help of her sister and chief baker at Anggerik, until they got the right flavour.

While the Butterbeer has earned the title as a bestseller, it has also drawn criticism from customers who disapprove of a Muslim-owned restaurant selling such ‘beer’ beverages.

Some of her family members even advised her to remove butterbeer from the menu, but she figured that it’s best to ignore the naysayers.

If a restaurant like Swensen’s can sell Root Beer Floats and still get a MUIS halal certificate, it shouldn’t be a problem for me.

The famous ondeh-ondeh cake / Image Credit: Anggerik Bakery

Meanwhile, Anggerik Bakery’s bestseller is its decadent ondeh-ondeh cake, which has received plenty of stellar reviews.

Anggerik has two outlets – in East Village and Woodlands – and it serves traditional Malay desserts and cakes, as well as some flavours with a Western twist.

All Anggerik Bakery cakes are also served at Noosh.

Latest Venture Worth $30K

She invested $30,000 to start up her latest business venture, Kakak Kentang, which is housed in the new ‘hipster’ foodcourt called FOMO at Sultan Gate.

Giant potato cutlet / Image Credit: Seth Lui

The highlight of its menu is its upsized potato cutlets. This giant ball of goodness comes in both beef and chicken versions, and are drowned in two different soup bases: the soto ayam, or the tomato-based broth.

Ummi said in an interview with Berita Harian that she was first approached by the owners to sell her signature nasi ambeng, but she said it was impossible as the stall’s kitchen size is too small.

This spurred her to think up of a new menu. Moreover, potato cutlets are her favourite, she reasoned.

To ensure the quality of the food served, Ummi and her husband makes an effort to personally prepare the food at the start of the business.

By manning the stall in person, Ummi said that it serves as a good way for her to suss out the customers’ response towards her new dishes.

No matter how good a reputation you may have, Ummi is well aware that in this competitive industry, you’re only as good as the last meal you cook.

When Berita Harian asked her secret to success to surviving the cut-throat F&B industry, Ummi simply cited two simple reasons: good food, and good customer service.

I hardly work in the kitchen now. Besides the office, I make it a point to interact and mingle with my customers who visit my restaurant or cafe.

“I’m empowered by my hardworking staff, especially those who work in the kitchen.”

Featured Image Credit: Dapur Ummi Abdullah / Parenthetical Pilgrim

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