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Here’s the 33-year history of Pahang-born Thong Kee whose digital queue system went viral

To Kentson, the scent of coffee has always been more than just a morning pick-me-up; it’s the smell of home. “I grew up in a ‘kopitiam house’—a house turned kopitiam,” he told Vulcan Post.

Hainanese coffee and kopitiam culture has been a huge part of his family’s life. Born to the founder of Thong Kee Café (Thong Kee), Wong Mun Thong, Kentson has been helping his father out alongside his siblings since the age of 5.

Today, he’s the director of the restaurant chain which has a presence in 9 locations, with 1 of them operating as a cloud kitchen. Kentson is also the brains behind the TK Queue System that went viral recently for its streamlined delivery and take-out organisation amidst the MCO, but more on that later.

The photo that went viral of the TK Queue System in Pandan Indah / Image Credit: Ryan Liew

Making a name for themselves

Once named Thong Kee Kopitiam, the restaurant chain was founded in 1988 after Mun Thong picked up the skills of making Hainanese coffee from a barista.

Wong Mun Thong making coffee at Thong Kee / Image Credit: Thong Kee Café

Prior to settling down in the F&B industry, Mun Thong had worked as a renovation worker, direct sales rep, insurance manager, and chef to earn for his family. 

Lots of hard work was put in to hone his skills in coffee making. Word spread around the neighbourhood, and Mun Thong soon made a name for himself and launched the first Thong Kee chain in Bentong, Pahang.

Kentson’s brother in the family’s kopitiam house / Image Credit: Thong Kee Café

25 years later, Thong Kee was finally ready to expand to the Klang Valley. In 2013, its first outlet was opened in Pandan Indah, KL. To the family’s dismay, however, it wasn’t well-received by customers.

Kentson disclosed, “Just to give you an insight of how bad it was when we first started in Pandan Indah, we only had RM180 in sales on our opening day and this was before deducting operating costs like ingredients, utilities, rental, etc.”

Despite only filling up a few tables with customers throughout the day, it didn’t break the team’s spirit. 

Innovating while sticking to their roots

The Pandan Indah outlet was rebranded as Thong Kee Café, a response at the time to attract more youth to try the brand’s Hainanese coffee. This was because kopitiam culture wasn’t exactly an attractive hangout spot, especially amongst the youth in KL, according to Kentson.

He wouldn’t be wrong to say so though. I was in my teens in 2013, and meeting up with friends in a hot and noisy kopitiam full of elderly folks wasn’t the ideal brunch spot. If the majority of people around my age felt the same way, it makes sense that branding it as a “café” instead of “kopitiam” would be more appealing.

Additionally, Thong Kee’s team decided to stand out by innovating their menu while still staying true to their roots. They introduced a new set of menu items, like their croissant with kaya and butter.

The menu item fuses a French pastry with something locals would find familiar—kaya butter toast—present in every kopitiam, even mamaks. While it is difficult to confirm, Kentson claims that Thong Kee was the first kopitiam to come up with this breakfast item that is now quite common in others too.

You could also order a croissant sandwich with ham and cheese / Image Credit: Thong Kee Café

“Before this, croissants can only be found in bakeries or cafés because the production for croissants is rather complex and expensive, hence it wasn’t the best choice for kopitiam,” Kentson explained. “But our founder decided to be first out of the box, as he believes that good food brings good people, and that’s how our fusion croissant came about and quickly became one of the best sellers in Thong Kee.”

Furthermore, Thong Kee’s Hainanese coffee, the Signature 1+1 Bing (1+1), has an added texture of foam from being blended in a mixer from Italy.

I guess we did achieve our goal when we saw more people (especially from the youth group) enquire about Hainan coffee, especially our 1+1. That’s when we realised we’ve finally grabbed the attention of fellow Malaysians of all ages.

Kentson Wong, 2nd generation Director of Thong Kee Café

Still remaining relevant today

Not too long ago, Thong Kee went viral when a photo of its food delivery pick-up system was posted online. Known as the TK Queue System, the restaurant’s TV displays order numbers that tell food delivery riders and customers which orders are ready for collection, organised by numbers’ respective ordering platforms.

Built by Thong Kee’s in-house developers in 30 sleepless days, the TK Queue System first made its debut during MCO 2.0 in its Sea Park outlet. The idea came about when Kentson was managing the team’s operations at the front counter during the MCO.

“We saw the chaos experienced by our customers and delivery partners, so we decided to come up with a system that could control the crowds and ease up the operation flow for the kitchen and bar,” Kentson told Vulcan Post.

With Kentson’s IT knowledge from university, he knew he could think up a system to manage Thong Kee’s front and back end. The system would ideally handle the ordering and ticketing process, while the team and hawkers get to focus on the restaurant’s operations and food.

Upon launching the TK Queue System, Kentson reported that it was immediately well-received by both customers and delivery partners. Staff training wasn’t a big issue, as the Thong Kee team was already quite familiar with the restaurant’s existing POS system, which was built to be simple and straightforward. 

Thong Kee’s queuing system isn’t just limited to takeaway or delivery orders though. To streamline the entire operations, even dine-ins have changed.

An organised restaurant to maintain social distancing / Image Credit: Thong Kee Café

Instead of the regular kopitiam format of ordering your food from a specific hawker stall, customers who visit Thong Kee will head to one single counter to order all their items there, from coffee and toasts to noodles and rice. 

It takes inspiration from fast food restaurants, where all menu items are displayed on large backlit screens. Orders will be passed through the restaurant’s internal POS systems for the hawkers to fulfill them in a timely and efficient manner.

“If the food serving speed is fast, and the customer is able to have their food fast, the turnover rate for the table will be fast as well. Therefore the queuing time for each customer who is waiting for a table will be shortened a lot as well,” Kentson said. 

This is especially important during the current times where social distancing must remain, with tables at least 1 metre apart. Limiting the number of diners in a restaurant would mean losses to the business, and if turnover rates of customers are quick, this would increase the restaurant’s revenue.

Of course, you can also find traditional kopitiam food here / Image Credit: Thong Kee Café

Though Kentson did not disclose how much capital was put in to implement the TK Queue System, he did state that the digitalisation has been profitable in terms of better managing the team’s operational flow.

He further added that even without the pandemic, Thong Kee had already invested a significant amount of capital to build a cloud based POS system and the brand’s own app.

The MCO, while not the catalyst to this digitalisation effort, was what sped up the launch of Thong Kee’s digital systems in adapting to the new norm. And of course, there’s more down the line to blend the old with the new.

“We have a lot of upcoming plans for the business and system involving proper tech integrations like QR ordering, table management, payment gateway, and more,” Kentson added. 

  • You can learn more about Thong Kee Café here.
  • You can read about more F&B-related pieces we’ve written here.

Featured Image Credit: Wong Mun Thong, founder of Thong Kee Café

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