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Most Malaysians likely have enjoyed a or two meal at Nanyang kopitiam-styled diners. There are so many options in the market these days, from Oriental Kopi to Papparich.

One up-and-coming name in this scene is Hock Kee Kopitiam.

Founder and CEO Nick Ng was born and raised in Pontian, Johor. He pursued Business Information Technology at Coventry University, but after interviewing at an IT company, he realised the field wasn’t the right fit for him.

So, he spent the next decade working in a bank instead.

“After leaving the bank, I tried my hand at various industries, including buying and selling houses, which provided a good income, but I didn’t find any real satisfaction in it,” he went on.

Where his passions lied, rather, was in food and “people-watching”.

Image Credit: Hock Kee Kopitiam

Not motivated by just financial gains, Nick wanted to experience a life where he could fully commit to doing something he loves.

That led him to open Hock Kee Kopitiam in 2018.

“Many people say I am fearless because I had no prior experience in opening a restaurant,” Nick said. “I’m not afraid of facing new challenges head-on. I know many people might have opened restaurants without success, but I firmly believe that if others can do it, why can’t I?”

A personal touch to an extensive menu

At Hock Kee Kopitiam, variety is king.

They serve between 100 to 150 dishes, including traditional Malaysian foods and classic dishes with a modern twist.

The menu is typically updated once every six months, allowing the team to introduce new food and drink options while removing the less popular ones.

All dishes are actually developed by Nick himself.

Image Credit: Hock Kee Kopitiam

“As the founder of Hock Kee Kopitiam, I take a hands-on approach in curating the menu,” he elaborated. “I voice my concerns more because, like our customers, I have high standards. I want to ensure that every dish we serve is something I would be excited to eat myself.”

The challenge that comes with offering such a wide variety of options, though, is consistency. To that end, Nick shared that it’s all about listening to customers, who he deems as “the best QC (Quality Control)”.

“If a customer says a dish isn’t delicious, we take it seriously,” he said.

Taking it seriously means checking the kitchen processes, ingredients, and preparation methods to ensure everything is as it should be.

“Mistakes can happen since chefs are human too,” the founder clarified. “If we find an issue, we have the chef prepare a new dish for the customer. If the customer still isn’t satisfied, we’ll refund their money.”

The chain does have a central kitchen, but it is only used to make basic sauces.

Image Credit: Hock Kee Kopitiam

To prioritise quality, Nick insists that the chefs cook every dish. Each of their six branches has around 20 chefs responsible for different tasks.

“Many people have asked me if this approach is too slow and if the employee costs are high,” he shared. “However, every time I open a branch, I treat it as the first store. If the existing branches of Hock Kee can maintain quality, why can’t the subsequent ones do the same?”

He elaborated, “Opening a store is like managing a country. Food is our weapon, and employees are our generals. We have to protect our country, which is Hock Kee, so I have to make sure that I have prepared the right ‘weapons’ and have enough ‘generals’ to manage the entire operation.”

Spreading Muhibbah across Malaysia

Just recently, Hock Kee Kopitiam announced the happy news that it has gotten halal-certified by JAKIM.  

Nick said that the process was rather smooth and manageable. When they did encounter bumps during the application process, JAKIM officials were very supportive and helpful.

Image Credit: Hock Kee Kopitiam

This is great news for all six locations of Hock Kee Kopitiam across Malaysia. There are four outlets in Johor (City Square, Taman Molek, Toppen Mall, and Sutera Utama) and two outlets in Kuala Lumpur (Bangsar South and Kota Damansara).

He shared that the first Hock Kee Kopitiam, which was at Johor Twin Galaxy, unfortunately shut down during the MCO.

Despite the challenging period, Nick continually refused to give up. “I strongly believe in the mantra: ‘Don’t complain. If you can’t change the environment, change yourself.’ This mindset drove me to continue pursuing my vision for Hock Kee Kopitiam, despite the setbacks.”

Image Credit: Hock Kee Kopitiam

As mentioned, though, there’s quite a lot of kopitiam-styled diners these days. Halal-certified ones are rarer, but they certainly exist.

But to Nick, healthy competition actually makes for learning opportunities. “They each have their strengths and weaknesses, just as we do,” he said about other establishments.

Image Credit: Hock Kee Kopitiam

Specifically, he believes Hock Kee Kopitiam’s strength lies in the quality of food, while the weakness is in their marketing. But awareness is the first step towards improvement.

Next stop: the world stage

In terms of expansion plans, Nick revealed that they’re opening a new outlet at Tuah 1985 in Kuala Lumpur soon. Hock Kee Kopitiam is also on track to open another one to two outlets in Kuala Lumpur, bringing their total to 10 stores in KL and Johor.

Image Credit: Hock Kee Kopitiam

“The most important thing is to focus on doing our job well, rather than following the crowd and rapidly expanding without a solid plan,” Nick added. “Opening 50 branches just to keep up with others can lead to losing our direction and compromising our standards.”

So far, the kopitiam brand isn’t offering franchising opportunities, even though people have asked about it.

“Sure, franchising can bring inaccessible capital, but I don’t feel right about selling those opportunities if I don’t have the confidence to help others succeed,” Nick explained. “It’s a big responsibility, and I’m still deciding whether to take that on now.”

Image Credit: Hock Kee Kopitiam

He also recognises that franchising can bring in funds to optimise the business. “But let’s be honest, how many people are doing it for that? Most are focused on making money. Of course, I want to make money, too, but I have other priorities now.”

And those priorities involve getting more people to love the brand’s food. With this, the team dreams to go international, starting with Singapore and Indonesia.

Staying true to your path

When reading these business stories, it might seem like all sunshine and rainbows. What we see from the outside, though, isn’t usually the full story.

Nick opened up that there was a particularly tough period when Hock Kee Kopitiam was severely understaffed. During this time, they couldn’t meet customer service and food quality expectations. Complaints were pouring in, and they were constantly getting criticised.

Image Credit: Hock Kee Kopitiam

“It was rough,” he admitted. “At one point, I felt so overwhelmed that I considered giving up. But that feeling only lasted about two hours. I was too tired, and my confidence wavered for a bit.”

Taking a step back, he was able to reevaluate the situation and devised a plan to address each challenge one by one.

“Having a firm belief in what you’re doing is crucial,” he reminded. “Life is full of ups and downs, and that’s completely normal.”

Ultimately, it’s about seeing things through, and like Nick, having faith that the things will start looking up again as long as you’re putting in the work.

  • Learn more about Hock Kee Kopitiam here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about F&B businesses here.

Featured Image Credit: Hock Kee Kopitiam

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