Entrepreneur

"We Embrace Competition"—Why This M'sian Team Welcomes New Players To The Healthy Food Scene

These days, many Malaysians are watching what they eat in order to have a healthier lifestyle. However, some are still struggling to find where they get healthy meals at affordable prices.

Seeing this shift, private equity analyst turned restaurateur Jason Ooi founded HALE at Menara Hap Seng in 2016. The restaurant mainly sells healthy burgers, pasta and rice.

In November 2017, HALE started a food delivery service. At the end of 2018, two more outlets were launched.

While Jason focuses on business development, his managing partner Chuah Kee Wei runs the entire operation of the business.

HALE was recently awarded for the “best menu innovation in health” while Jason received the Rising Star Award at the QSR Media Asia Conference & Awards 2019.

He noticed two things as he was running HALE: (1) food customisation was in demand, to satisfy the customers’ needs, and (2) customers were mainly foreigners and not many locals.

His observations led him to open HALE’s sister restaurant, Agrain by HALE.

Image Credit: Agrain by HALE

Using a customisable grain bowl concept, Agrain by HALE serves Western-inspired recipes with an Asian twist. Each bowl has more varieties than just the usual leafy vegetables.

Customers can choose from a wide selection of carbs, proteins, supplements, toppings and dressings. Otherwise, they can choose directly from Agrain by HALE’s pre-set bowls.

Agrain by HALE covers three key areas that are important for its business:

  • The food needs to be warm and bring a sense of familiarity through local flavours. Something that reminds the customers about home-cooked food but also distinct enough to make them come back for more.
  • Their menu is rotated every four months or so. They make sure to incorporate the freshest available ingredients during that period.
  • They have to be receptive to the customers’ suggestions and feedback, and flexible enough to adapt to these changes without compromising on their principles.

Malaysians Moving From Fat To Fit

For the past three years, Jason and his team have seen that the awareness towards a healthier lifestyle has changed significantly. They have received a lot of enquiries, especially from the corporate side, to deliver healthy meals.

However, it is still at an early stage. There are many people who want to eat healthy food but not aware of what they have access to.

 Malaysians generally encounter two obstacles in embracing this lifestyle:

  • They are still very value-oriented and have preferences for heavy-flavoured food.
  • The healthy food consumption goes hand-in-hand with how much they spend.

“We want to accelerate this shift in perception by providing an easier entry for people to embrace healthier food choices,” Jason said. “Hence, our food needs to be sustainable in terms of price as well as taste.” 

Balancing Taste, Value, And Health

Agrain by HALE targets working individuals who care about what they eat. They are conscious of their food choices but, at the same time, their taste buds need to be satisfied.

“We noticed that our customers start off with things that they are familiar with, but eventually, they try out different toppings that are more uncommonly found in Malaysia and stick to that,” Jason added.

They’ve observed that not many people can afford meals that cost more than RM15.90 on a regular bowl. So Agrain by HALE’s protein bowl starts from RM13.90.

Image Credit: Agrain by HALE

Also, they strive to provide greater value by increasing food quality while maintaining or reducing prices.

“People are willing to pay a little more to get more value in return.”

This strict expectation on food comes with a cost. Despite that, the team believes when people start demanding more for higher quality food, they will be able to see lower prices for their supplies.

Mixing And Matching Models

The team are in a unique position where they are exposed to both running a physical restaurant but also do food deliveries.

They’ve found that the experience on the back-end is very different. Customers that order their food to be delivered are not necessarily the same as the customers that will dine in. This includes their entire experience and demands.

“If we want to do both things right, we have to consider getting certain aspects right that we don’t usually think of in our operations if we only do one or the other.”

Image Credit: Agrain by HALE

Nowadays, many restaurants and food deliveries use messages about eating healthy because they feel that these are the messages that people are looking for.

Unfortunately, the team feels that a large group are only doing it on the surface due to how costly it may be (due to the lack of demand).

“For any business, the longevity of each customer is important and your product is the best signal of the practices that you enforce,” Jason commented.

“As awareness grows, those who stand true to their words are the ones that will last.”

More Players On The Field

As they are in a relatively new market, the team hopes to see more players in this space, which would indicate the growth of the healthy food segment.

“We embrace competition because that would mean that we are all moving towards the right direction,” Jason commented. “It makes a lot of sense because as income levels rise, we all demand of a higher quality lifestyle. That starts from what we eat on a day-to-day basis.”

“There’s so much more to learn in this market. We can all learn from each other to help us understand and serve our customers even better. Not just in terms of products but the entire experience as a whole.”

  • Find out more about healthy eating habits at Agrain by HALE’s Facebook page.

Feature Image Credit: Agrain by HALE

 

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