Starting a new restaurant concept that succeeds is a challenging task. Cumi & Ciki speak to John Teo who explains how to do it right. His company, New Convox, has launched a very interesting dining concept called My Cookbook. If you are someone who is thinking about starting a restaurant or creating a new kind of dining and entertainment business then John Teo’s entrepreneurial story will inform and inspire you. We interviewed him to learn a little more about his company.
All Photos Courtesy of John Teo of My Cookbook
1. John, thanks for joining us for one of our entrepreneur interviews. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about your current business. What are you doing exactly?
I am currently attached to my dad’s company, New Convox, where we have been supplying tableware, buffet-ware and furniture to hotels, restaurants, cafes, corporate offices, telecommunication companies, food courts, etc, for the last 31 years. I am the Marketing Director for this company and my job is basically to spearhead the sales section of this company, especially to grow the business in the furniture division.
I am also the Managing Director for JIA, a retail division of New Convox located at Damansara Perdana where we house and sell some of the top European range of furniture as well as tableware. The 6000 odd sq ft retail outlet occupies 3 stories of the building and also one more lot, a few doors away from it. We target mainly walk-in, medium to higher end customers. We have some interesting brands which are being retailed namely Dedon – Germany ( the best outdoor furniture in the world) , XO by Phillipe Starck – France (mainly chairs and accessories designed by Phillipe Starck) , Halo – UK (vintage trunks and sofas), Slide- Italy(contemporary lighted plastic furniture which are suitable for outdoor usage) , Innovation- Denmark ( sofa beds), Pedrali – Italy ( Modern dining tables and chairs ) and etc.
2. You weren’t always in this career line. What made you switch into the restaurant business?
I have always enjoyed eating since I was very young. My parents have always pampered me with good food in 5 star hotels, as most of the 5 star hotels in Malaysia are our customers and usually we patronize their restaurants to support them. I have seen so many restaurants being setup over the past 15 years. Regarding the restaurant business, I have often heard so many remarks saying it is a tough business, very time consuming, difficult to find staff, not worth trying out and the complaint list goes on, but I seriously wanted to create something new in the market and open up a new category in dining and food, in the hope that it would help the Malaysian food scene become more exciting and more forward looking.
3. When did you start the business?
I joined the business 12 years ago and started JIA 5 years ago. Last year JIA managed to win the Global Innovator Award, a prestigious award given out for retail excellence and we are the only winner representing Asia to receive that award in Chicago.
4. Who are your main competitors? How do you compete against them?
Wow, do you need me to list my competitors.. the list is so long (He laughs). I have a lot of competitors because each company competes with different brands and products. Some companies only do tableware and thus they will compete under the tableware section while some companies only do contract furniture, so my furniture division will be competing with them. Now I guess you could say, I am competing in the restaurant arena as well!
Business is forever evolving. Customers evolve and expect new things all the time, competition becomes more intense, the economic environment has become more volatile and so it is becoming increasingly difficult to project or plan long term. Another main concern is always the shortage of good people – good staff, i.e. quality manpower. Running a business is never easy. All these points I have listed, are things we have to face everyday and we have to safeguard in order to maintain our competitive level. Friends always envy me and say, “You are so lucky, you are the boss, so you don’t need to go to work early”. I don’t understand why there are so many who think this way. Maybe a lot of people love sleeping in or hanging out so late, that waking up early in the morning is considered such a hassle. When you are the boss there is no 9 to 5. Basically when you open your eyes, and turn on your phone, your work has already started. When you sleep, only then does your work end.
Imagine I have New Convox which runs on office hours, JIA on retail hours and My Cookbook on restaurant hours. On public holidays, retail outlets and restaurants are of course open for business. For as long the business is operational, you will always be on standby, for whatever problems might arise.
If one does not have the energy level to keep it up, then one should not get involved in it. It’s as simple as that. You’ve got to love it, embrace it. Otherwise, you will get drained out very easily.
6. Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
I am a person who doesn’t look back and regret. No point keep on thinking “I should have done this ; if only I had..” What is done, is done. As years goes by, experience also builds up. 10 years ago, you do not see things the way you see them now. Definitely your approach in doing things have become more seasoned, experienced, practical and realistic. In life if we keep on regretting, there would be so many situations we wished we could have done otherwise. We can’t turn back time so, just make the best out of every situation.
Every business has different key success factors. One can’t apply the same key success factor in one business to another. One has to put in a lot of commitment to ensure the business is on track and expand the right market. When I first joined New Convox, the company was mainly focusing on tableware and buffet-ware. We only had a few chairs at that time but the sales of those few models seemed to be quite encouraging. I saw the potential in the market and there was no turning back since then. From those few chairs, our items have grown to several thousand, and we are currently servicing designers which were our main clientèle at that time, to help us propose our furniture into various kind of projects. That is why, today, our furniture can be found in 5 star hotels.. by the poolside, in the hotel lounge and restaurants. Also in banks, telecommunication service centres, MNC offices canteens, café chains and etc.
8. What was your favorite meal as a child growing up?
I still can recall one of my trips to Hong Kong (HK) when I was very young. Maybe I was 13 then. When I was in HK, the food that our supplier brought us to eat was amazing. At that time, I had not seen Geoduck and was completely fascinated by the taste of it. In HK when someone wants to entertain you, they will entertain you all the way. I had amazing abalone, various kind of seafood which I had never eaten before, and the whole experience made me feel that HK people are really advanced in choosing and eating their food. Even now, the Malaysians level of knowledge of food and eating/dining, especially Chinese food, is no where near, that of the Hong Kong folk. We do not and cannot get enough good quality ingredients here. The whole eating culture in Hong Kong is crazy. Spending thousands of dollars (or Malaysian Ringgit) over one meal can be part of everyday life for some. I had my first Lafite 82 when I was 17 years old, in HK. I would describe it as a waste, since I had not even started drinking alcohol and did not know how to savior such great gem. Personally I do not have a favourite food.
People ask me what I don’t eat and I will reply, “ I don’t eat things which are not fresh and not well prepared”. I could tell you I love eating seafood but if the seafood is over cooked and loses its freshness I will tell you I don’t enjoy eating it. I am a person who enjoys experimenting with food. Even when I was a child I enjoyed eating various kinds of food and learning more about it because there seemed to be so much information behind all these ingredients and the way it was being prepared.
9. What is a typical day in your life?
My typical day is basically working and eating. I eat out everyday. Although I supply a lot of cafes and restaurants, it is still difficult for me to choose a restaurant everyday. You get a lot of simple daily food everywhere.
10. What is your favorite type of food now?
I enjoy eating Japanese, Modern Chinese, and also European food with Japanese influence. As I supply tableware to many restaurants, the presentation of the food is very important to me. I like to see how they infuse creativity in presenting their food and compliment it with the tableware they use. I am very particular about presentation and taste. I always think that good food should go with the right range of tableware, so as to enhance the whole eating experience for a diner. Same thing as a lady. A pretty lady would become more attractive if she knows how to groom herself well and carry herself. What you want to sense something beautiful both externally and internally, the same goes for food. I dislike drinking wine from normal glasses and it should always served in a professional range of crystal glassware.
11. What do you like to do in your spare time other than the business you’re in?
I enjoyed shopping with my family, watch the latest movies, play badminton and also traveling.
12. What can we all look forward to with the opening of My Cookbook here at Sunway Giza?
My Cookbook is a very special project. What we are trying to create here is something very new for Kuala Lumpur diners. Our whole setup is very modern and trendy – no Malaysian elements in it, but you will be eating local food. The most expensive dish at the moment on the menu is priced at only RM26.90 and I think the price point is quite reasonable, taking into consideration the interior and exterior decorations of the restaurant, the tableware we use, the quality of the food and the presentation that we deliver. Periodically we try to come up with some dishes which are familiar to the locals but, in our own interpretation.
We call it My Cookbook because from the menu itself you can see many nice pictures, sort of like the kind you get in cookbooks? We try to keep our dishes as close as possible, presentation wise, to the pictures taken and shown off in the Menu. We also do our best to ensure the food quality and taste delivers.
In terms of the layout, on the top floor we have MY Private room where the whole room is ‘starck’ white, having 4 projectors, and a great sound system which enables the guests to karaoke, all plastic furniture from tables, chairs to bar counters(so it’s child safe).. it caters to 50 people seated and 80 people standing. We target corporate events, launches, anniversary celebrations, baby showers or even kids parties and etc.
13. What is My Cookbook’s Philosophy?
My CookBook’s philosophy is to inspire diners to rethink the relationship with popular Malaysian cuisine, which they have specially reinvented to infuse more flavourful delights as well as a touch of modern dining. The dishes have flavours that are delicately balanced; their food is essentially subtle yet intensely satisfying. Also, every dish is smartly and stylishly prepared so what diners get is what they call, edible art on a plate. An other interesting aspect of the restaurant is that My CookBook also has five different dining environments within one address.
14. What advice can you give to aspiring restaurant owners?
We have only been operating for 2 months now, so I feel that I am not qualified to give advice. However, ask me again in a year’s time!
15. Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
Hopefully still a citizen of Malaysia staying healthy and living happily with my family. I hope by then we would already have quite a few different concepts of F & B outlets locally and also globally.
16. Thank you for your time John, it’s been great talking to you.
Pleasure’s all mine!