As Bruneians, when we talk about Royal Brunei Catering (RBC), we immediately think of the food that we eat when we fly onboard Royal Brunei Airlines; the crispy Roti Pratha at the airport; Seasons and Dynasty restaurants in The Centrepoint Hotel; and the scrumptious RBC Express fried chicken in Kiulap. Some may also recognise RBC as the franchise owner of McDonalds and Fish & Co in Brunei. When we last checked, there were a total of 15 business units under the RBC brand. The company also recently reinvented itself with Anjung Saujana Restaurant and Cilantro’s Gourmet Patisserie at the airport; opened the Horizon Seafood Restaurant at the Waterfront; and most notably, also opened a Magnum outlet in Citis Square in December 2016. In January 2017, it opened the quirky eatery called RBC Lifestyle also known as “Relaks Bro Chill-out” located just below the Horizon Seafood Restaurant at the Waterfront.
As the economy in Brunei takes a dip, there is no sign of slowing down for RBC at all. We spoke at length with Ahmad Husaini bin Hassan, a 30 year veteran in the F&B industry. He’s worked around the world and prior to his appointment 15 months ago as the GM of RBC, he held the position of Sales and Marketing Director at the Brahim Dewina Group of Companies, a public listed Malaysian company. Husaini was hired to turn things around, shake things up and bring in the profit. With a brand new bottom up leadership approach he has been making remarkable strides since his arrival.
Already, Husaini has helped open three new outlets; upgraded Dynasty Restaurant with a new kitchen layout, new menu and products; increased the capacity of Season’s restaurant from 120 to 200 pax; and is on track to making the company very profitable.
In fact, RBC already has their eyes set on expansion to the UK and parts of South East Asia in the next five years. Their plan is to serve up local delicacies and innovative halal food overseas (Think Halal Dim Sum and Ambuyat with chocolate or strawberry dipping!). “All this while, we have spent money outside. It’s high time we go overseas and bring the money back,” remarked Husaini.
RBC seems to be thriving even though there’s been a dip in the country’s economy. Is the growth a reflection of the overall F&B market in Brunei? Is the F&B market saturated or is there room for growth?
When I arrived in Brunei a year and a half ago, I was surprised by the rapid level of growth in the F&B industry compared to what it was 20 years ago when I first came. It seemed like everybody was getting involved in the food industry, when they thought about opening a business.
One of the main reasons why the F&B business is so attractive is because it is arguably a recession proof business. When people are happy, they celebrate with food. When they are sad, they still need to eat. However, what many people fail to realise is the difficulty in running a successful restaurant. It is a proven fact that 50% of the restaurants fail in the first year. In Brunei, I suspect that the number maybe even higher. One reason for this, is because we open a restaurant according to our own likings and taste, and don’t consider what the customers really want or need. As a result, we end up competing with everyone else.
We asked the exact same question before opening any of our restaurants: What would the customers really love?
With the new Horizons Seafood Restaurant at the Waterfront for example, we saw a gap in the market for a good seafood restaurant facing the water. With Horizon’s strategic location overseeing the iconic Kampong Ayer, it not only caters for the locals’ gastronomic pleasure, but also opens up a new avenue for the locals to host their VIP guests from abroad, making it an unforgettable tourist experience. Horizon is a 5 star set up at a 3 star price tag, we call it “fine dining redefined”, which makes it extremely affordable.
So it’s more than just food, it’s a dining experience.
Yes, it is important to tap into people’s emotion with a good view, nice environment and excellent food. Another example is our new Magnum flagship store. The response was so overwhelming that the stock we prepared for three months was cleared in a matter of three weeks.
Why do people go to Magnum?
Because no matter how much you’ve eaten, there is always room for ice cream! Unlike Starbucks, you can bring your entire family to Magnum and no one will feel left out. You’ll walk out of the store feeling just as happy as your five year old. We have seen a lot of grown-ups who don’t mind the process of queuing up simply because they enjoy the excitement of anticipation while waiting in the line, to see how the ice cream is being prepared. There are a total of 18 different flavours to choose from, which make up to 250,000 unique combinations. Hence, you could always come back to sample a refreshing new taste and never get bored of returning to the Magnum store. We often ask our customers what their mood is for the day and prepare the right mix of ice cream to suit their mood.
Lastly, it is also extremely affordable to buy your customised Magnum ice cream in Brunei, compared to buying it in other countries. In Singapore for example, you’d pay SGD 7 and in Australia, AUD 7 for the exact same thing that you’d pay only BND 5 for here!
What did you learn about the local market from opening the Magnum store?
Before we opened, we fought hard to convince the Head Office to allow us to introduce a customised menu that catered to the taste of the Bruneian. The effort paid off, our onion rings and squid rings are amongst our top two selling hot food items. Aside from that, we also have customised Bruneian flavors that are extremely popular, for example, our ice-cream toppings include Goji Berry and Chendol. It goes back to the fundamental premise of what we believe in, it’s not about making what you like but what the customers like.
“You can duplicate almost any recipe in today’s day and age, but it’s the service you can’t do a DNA test on and reproduce.”
RBC has a staff of over 680 people, with 88% being Bruneian. Many would suggest that it is not an easy feat to lead the locals in a labour intensive job, but RBC has obviously proven otherwise. What is the secret behind the company’s success in this area?
Bruneians can work hard if you put in the effort to get to know them and motivate them the right way. To be a good leader, you must not just listen to their feedback, but be hands-on with them. Most of my time is spent on the operation floor instead of being in the office. I’ve been able to establish with my staff a bottom up approach: “if I can do it, you can do it too”. Besides, how can you understand the business if you are high up on the hill?
In a culture where we are so used to the bosses managing from the top down, does this type of approach make your staff uncomfortable?
Most of the time, it doesn’t make the staff uncomfortable. On the contrary, they are motivated by this, because they see me as a part of the team. They want their leaders to be there on the floor, so that they can share with them their ideas, issues and problems. If I don’t go to an outlet, I start getting phone calls from the staff asking why I haven’t been there for the past week. It almost feels like having your son and daughter missing you in action when you are not apart of the everyday operation. They’ll stay back for you and they’ll be loyal to you, if you first give them the trust and respect.
The F&B market space in Brunei has never been more competitive than today. What advice can you give to restaurant / café operators about how to thrive in the current environment?
Cutting the price is the simple approach. But you end up cutting yourself. What we have learnt is that, people don’t mind paying if they see a value to it. They want to have a dining experience. Jing Chew, cheap and fast. We are more expensive but there’s an experience. Always give your customers a compelling reason to come to your restaurant. Never stop asking yourself what is your USP (Unique Selling Proposition).
Research has shown over and over again, that the same item displayed differently tastes better or yields better results. People do not mind paying $5, if a $2 fried rice is nicely presented on a triangular plate with a pleasant ambiance. The first thing about eating, is impulse. You eat what you see, not what you taste. You pay with the impulse first.
And lastly, be friendly. Make your customers feel welcome. Start by treating your own staff well. When you create a happy environment for your staff, it will be passed on to your customers. You can duplicate almost any recipe in today’s day and age, but it’s the service you can’t do a DNA test on and reproduce.