Entrepreneur

These M’sians Opened A Restaurant Only To Shut It Down In 18 Months—But Not Because It Failed

  • Launched in 2016, Agak Agak, a social enterprise that formerly combined a restaurant and an apprentice training programme for underprivileged youth, has pivoted to focus on talent development, training courses and job matching.
  • Co-founder Ili Sulaiman explained the reasons behind the pivot and refocus, and also gave her take on the local hospitality scene and what it should grow to. 

Two years ago, two noteworthy foodpreneurs in Malaysia teamed up to serve good food and give back to the community. Basically, they had a two-pronged approach: run a restaurant that serves delicious food, and also provide a training opportunity for individuals from high needs communities to gain skills in hospitality and F&B.

The idea was for the restaurant to serve as both the sustaining business and the training ground for the youth in a one year apprenticeship programme.

Launched in 2016, the Agak Agak eatery in APW Bangsar has fed their share hungry customers, but they closed their doors for the last time on December 30 2017.

As Ili, one of the co-founders told us, “When you run a unique business like ours which entails making profits but ensuring you are equally giving back to society is that you really need to understand the balance between the two.”

“Our mistake was we thought we could do both at the same time but realised (luckily, quite early on) that running a restaurant is a business on its own and the training element of our apprenticeship program was also in itself a full time business.”

“The ability to focus was our biggest takeaway for the the whole experience. So as a whole we are now solely focusing on training and consulting.”

With that in mind, they launched into a rebranding exercise, and are now known as AA+. The organisation will no longer only be focusing on apprenticeship programmes, but will instead venture into on talent development, workshops, training courses and job matching.

Spreading Their Wings Further

“We are looking into various different opportunities working with existing businesses, other social enterprises and also individuals who want to upskill themselves,”Ili explained.

The trio of founders—Ili Sulaiman, Basira Yeusuff and Nizam Rosli—believe that their experience operating the apprenticeship programmes will serve them in good stead in this new chapter of their business.

The trio of co-founders / Image Credit: AA+

“Throughout the 2 cohorts, we had numerous interests for our training and workshops, particularly in service. We realised there was an opportunity to reach a wider audience, develop skills and in turn improve their employability,” said Nizam in a press release.

They are currently looking into various different opportunities working with existing businesses, other social enterprises and also individuals who want to upskill themselves.

Ili shared some of the workshops and areas they are now working on.

  1. The Serves Up workshop entails service level training where they upskill individuals on how to provide a smooth delivery of service when running the floor in a restaurant. They modified this training module to suit businesses alike and recently worked with Boat Noodle on a pilot project to upskill their employees on service.
  2. Their kitchen and finance training workshop shares their know-how with businesses or social enterprises like Picha Project. With Picha Project, they worked closely with the refugee families and help them to upskill their home cooks and chefs on how to operate their kitchen effectively, implement kitchen SOPs, assist with menu development as well as train them on how to do costings and managing their business finances.

Remembering Those Who Walked With Them Before

So far, Agak Agak have run 2 apprentice programmes (with the 2nd cohort having a graduation showcase on July 14), and these are the people that Ili speaks of very fondly.

“They still keep in touch with us, visit us and are our biggest supporters. Our biggest milestone is having 2 graduating cohorts that have flourished and done well for themselves. As a collective we are excited about whats to come and knowing that even though our restaurant didn’t work out we are still very excited about the future of AA+.”

Image Credit: AA+

She shared a little bit more about how their apprentices grew, both in hard and soft skills since joining the programme.

“Some of them could not even utter a word with confidence and crumbled at the thought of speaking to a stranger. They are now able to set up for an event on their own with minimal supervision. They can prepare, cook and execute catering events and dinner parties and more importantly they can speak with confidence and provide service to others with no hesitation.”

As a further testament to the effectiveness of their training, they have gotten many enquiries from restaurant and café owners wanting to hire their apprentices. “This is a clear indicator that we are doing something right,” said Ili.

Looking To The Future

Closing down the restaurant was a difficult decision to make, explained Ili, as “it was the emotional attachment we had to the space and the community we built at the restaurant that made it hard”.

However, this freed them to pivot the business and allow them the space to evolve into what they had always eventually planned to do: be training providers.

Image Credit: AA+

“We also realised we can work with other businesses and implement the training pathways or apprenticeship programme into their current businesses. We assist with the end-to-end aspect (from recruitment to lesson plan design to support etc.), the said establishment will support the trainees with a place to carry out their training.”

“With this we hope to be the bridge that connects passionate, capable individuals who want to go into F&B with Businesses who value good talent and want to see better work conditions in this flourishing industry.”

Speaking of the industry, Ili shared some of the frustration about the “lowly” perception of F&B which was and still is something she and her team are working to change.

“Malaysian hospitality is known to be the warmest and most welcoming, especially when welcoming others into our homes. However, it does not translate to the F&B establishments we have in Malaysia. So we asked ourselves why? The simplest answer is this: we do not take the profession of an individual working in F&B as a noble profession, we (the consumers) do not value or want to pay for the level of service that is currently provided in Malaysia [excluding hotels or fine dining establishments].”

“Lastly as a nation we are comfortable with the way things are. Therefore there is no real understanding and need for establishment to invest in proper training and development of their team.”

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The 3-year startup curse is real (where about 90% of businesses fail in their first 3 years), and making difficult decisions quickly is necessary if you want to move and evolve fast enough to keep what you’re doing alive.

As a social enterprise, AA+ has to balance both doing good in the world, and also keeping their business viable. We’d like to hope that they continue to show themselves and others that this is both possible, and sustainable.

  • You can find out more about AA+ and the work they do on their website here

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