Author’s Blurb: As someone who’s lived in Midwestern US for 4 years, I’ll be honest, I’ve never really found the appeal of the food there. Perhaps it’s very meat-heavy which is not quite up my alley, and I prefer more seasoning in my meals.
But I was surprised to learn that a few Malaysians fell in love with this cuisine, so much so that they opened a restaurant, Betty’s Midwest Kitchen to serve it.
Located in the small PJ neighbourhood of Aman Suria, this quaint restaurant debuted at a time where American cuisine was still served mainly by chain restaurants like Chili’s and TGIF, as well as fast food brands like KFC and McDonald’s.
Small-town life captured their hearts
“Midwestern cuisine is dear to our family. When we visited my sister [in Minneapolis, Minnesota], we fell in love with the farmers’ markets, roadside diners, and the various establishments in the Midwest. It’s simple and hearty,” Kevin told Vulcan Post.
Dictionary Time: Midwest is a region in the US with a more agrarian (agricultural) and rural lifestyle. Some notable cities in the Midwest are Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, etc.Bloomberg
At the time, Kevin was still working in a restaurant in Malaysia with his wife, and the pair had ambitions to start their own. Eventually, they were encouraged by their parents who financed their venture, and Kevin’s mother also joined to help the business.
“I had formal kitchen training at Taylor’s College Hospitality and my mum’s [culinary skills are] entirely self-learnt. Recipes are a fight of wills between me and my mum and if we convince each other that we like it, then it’s on,” Kevin recalled.
Finding its place in Malaysia
Betty’s Midwest Kitchen started in 2009 and today, they remain a popular family dining place for the local community.
“Picking a location was difficult but we were driven by price and traffic. Aman Suria used to be quite a young-ish hangout spot with a famous mamak restaurant nearby and it was relatively untapped,” Kevin explained.
Though they didn’t share numbers, Kevin felt that their cuisine has been well-received by Malaysians. Their meat dishes are mainly pork, which they believed helped with customer reception.
“Our most iconic dish would be our Dog Food,” Kevin shared, but before you freak out, it’s basically baked poutine (cheese, french fries, and gravy) that’s served in a pie dish that closely resembles a dog food dish.
Since the start of their restaurant till now, they’ve pretty much stuck to the same menu, which comprises a variety of burgers and ribs. And recently, they’ve been making their own bacon and briskets as well.
Expansion isn’t a priority
Despite all its years of operations, I was surprised to learn that Betty’s Midwest Kitchen never expanded past its only Aman Suria outlet.
“We have turned away offers for franchising before. This restaurant has been more of a way of life for us more than the income it brings. I don’t think it will be the same if it becomes a chain,” Kevin shared with Vulcan Post.
In a way, they embody what’s on the other spectrum of the American capitalist culture by staying small, portraying the charm of cosy Midwestern diners. From my experience, the latter was always found close to neighbourhoods and families as a staple hang-out spot.
Thanks to this charm, Kevin believes that they’re not quite in direct competition with big-time diners like Chili’s and TGIF, also because they’re not serving the same types of cuisine.
“If anything, I’d say the competition is local new restaurants that cater to the neighbourhood as we do. It’s not the product, it’s what we represent to our neighbourhood,” he concluded.
Bringing diners down memory lane
Since their selling point is the cosy diner experience, there’s an expectation for Kevin and his mother to always be there in person for their customers. But they receive something in return too.
They’ve had a lot of customers help out in R&D, most of whom are American but not necessarily Midwestern. “While their input is valuable, we also weigh that against the local opinion, but that rarely differs,” Kevin commented.
And these unofficial collaborations have paid off, it seems. Kevin shared that some of their proudest moments are when customers thank them for bringing them down the memory lane of their time in the Midwest.
Though this is a family business, Kevin doesn’t have plans to turn it into a heritage one, as he feels like that’s a way of the past. That being said, he plans to run it for as long as he can.
Bottom Line: As someone who’s had Midwestern food for 4 years straight, I can vouch for the authenticity of Betty’s Midwest Kitchen’s food. With how long it’s been run, it would be a pity to see the diner come to a close when Kevin decides to retire. However, not every small business is built with the purpose of expanding or chasing profits, and Betty’s Midwest Kitchen is is an example of that.
- You can learn more about Betty’s Midwest Kitchen here.
- You can read about more F&B-related pieces we’ve written here.
Featured Image Credit: Kevin Woon, founder of Betty’s Midwest Kitchen