A conversation with Arin Aghazarian, who leads Malaysia’s largest cloud kitchen brand, KitchenConnect

Arin Aghazarian, General Manager of KitchenConnect, Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur – Since the pandemic, Malaysia has witnessed a surge of virtual kitchens, or known as ghost kitchens. Launched in 2020, KitchenConnect is the latest player in the industry and is part of the CloudKitchens network. Their mission is to function as an incubator to support and help F&B entrepreneurs grow their business. KitchenConnect opened its first outlet in Mont Kiara in 2020 and has now grown to 4 branches throughout Klang Valley with over 115 licensees under their portfolio. 

KitchenConnect’s strategy is to build a foundation in Kuala Lumpur before turning its attention to the rest of the nation due to the thriving gig economy and demand for meal delivery services in Malaysia. Notable brands include Pasta Ohsem, Purple Monkey, Fowlboys, LiHO Tea, Sugar Bun

‘’KitchenConnect remains extremely bullish about the Malaysian market as the demand for virtual kitchens and food delivery services continues to grow at an incredible rate. We are seeing many F&B companies who seek innovative and cost-efficient ways to maximise profits and we are excited to partner them on their journey through our kitchen spaces.’’ said Ms Arin Aghazarian, General Manager of KitchenConnect, Malaysia.

Set the Tables sits with Arin to learn more about the market and what it takes to be a leader in the industry. She is also managing the brand from Singapore with a team of competent female-led management. An MBA holder from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, she has extensive experience in strategic expansion in the F&B industry, having worked for some of the world’s renowned brands such as Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes. 

Tell us more about your love for food and the industry.

Food is one of the fundamental things that bring people together. For me, food represents the act of coming together and sharing a meal with loved ones. Even though both my husbands are busy professionals, we make it a point to have dinner together every night without any distractions.

The industry is a crucial part of our daily lives, whether it’s ordering delivery, grocery shopping, cooking, or going out with friends to restaurants because you want to celebrate something. Having a meal is always a joyous event meant to be enjoyed.

How did you end up doing what you are doing now?

After my Master’s degree, I got recruited by Burger King, and after three countries and four roles, I decided to take a break and look for my passion. I wanted to work for a startup that was revolutionising the F&B industry. At the end of 2019, CloudKitchens were very nascent and unknown but I got lucky to stumble on the details of CloudKitchens in Singapore, and the rest is history.

How has a failure set you up for later success? Do you have a favourite failure story?

I had a hard time recruiting for an internship during my Master’s. All my classmates were getting offers left and right, and I was still jobless. I had always been a straight A student, and a top performer at work. This was a reality check for me.

I went on a holiday, regrouped my thoughts, and returned determined to make it happen. First, I decided to focus – instead of spreading myself thin on all industries and locations, I focused on tech roles in the US. Second, I took a front seat in the recruiting process, so instead of waiting for recruiters to come to campus, I started to reach out to alumni or recruiters of companies I was interested in. Third, I got a mentor to guide and support me throughout the process.

One month later, I landed a dream role at Google on their main campus in Mountain View. It was a great lesson always to keep my head straight, focus, work for what I want and ask for help when needed.

Image credit: KitchenConnect
Image credit: KitchenConnect

There are already a growing number of cloud kitchen brands in Kuala Lumpur. Can you tell us more about how KitchenConnect is disrupting the cloud kitchen and food industry?

KitchenConnect is the largest CloudKitchen player in Malaysia, with over 100 kitchens across the city. We aim to revolutionise the F&B industry by providing ready kitchens for entrepreneurs to start their businesses and acquire customers online.

Traditionally, if a restaurateur wanted to open a restaurant, they would have to 

  1. Do the research to understand what’s the best place for them to open a location 
  2. Sign a long-term lease without even knowing if the business is going to work 
  3. Invest hundreds of thousands in remodelling and fitting out 
  4. Hire 30 staff and train them and 
  5. Invest heavily in offline marketing without knowing the returns of the investment.

We are changing the whole game by providing a lower risk, lower cost model that is based on data. Data on choosing the location we want to operate in, marketing, customer response to menus, etc.

We provide proprietary technology that helps restaurants understand their sales (number of orders, when you sold what, how long it took you to prep, how many return customers you have, etc.). All this data helps restaurants refine their product, marketing and operations to earn more.

Longevity in the hospitality industry is more desired now than ever before.

What are the guiding principles at KitchenConnect? How did the guiding principles come about, and how did they impact your business?

At Kitchen Connect, our motto is “We Serve Those Who Serve Others” and that’s our primary guiding principle. We work with our restaurant partners to make sure their experience with Kitchen Connect is a positive one, and they can serve their end consumers.

Because of this ethos, we had great success in our Plaza Mont Kiara site in 2020 and have since then opened up three more sites in Bangsar, Damansara Jaya and Ampang with an estimated 110 kitchens and more in Kuala Lumpur.

What is the difference in strategy between an existing brand and a first-timer considering cloud kitchen?

This depends on the restaurant’s strategy. I do think that in some cases, CloudKitchens are a complimentary business to the traditional brick-and-mortar. Now, more than ever, restaurants are choosing to go entirely online before they maybe decide also to go offline.

Regardless if a restaurant is a first-time or an existing brand, they need to have:

  • A strong menu on the delivery platforms with photos, descriptions
  • Competitive pricing
  • Good ratings
  • An online presence (Google Listing, Social media channels)
  • Promo’s on the delivery platforms
  • (Especially for first-time restaurants) There is no opportunity for in-person interactions,
Image credit: KitchenConnect
What is your advice for potential merchants in compensating in this area regarding customer experience? How does KitchenConnect support?

I think that there is one advantage to the online interaction with customers vs the traditional in-person way, which is that in online interactions. You know the customers, their names, previous orders, frequency and spending habits. And this is extremely powerful, allowing restaurants to customise their service.

A simple example is sending out a note in the bag addressing the customer by name and thanking them for coming back or adding a complimentary item that they had previously ordered, or even extending a specific discount to a customer, knowing they are a return client.

Also, these days, with the rise of social media and online usage, even brick and mortar stores are relying more and more on their social media channels to engage with their customers. This is also what we advise our restaurant parents; they need to have social media pages on Facebook, Instagram and most recently Tik Tok. 

We recommend them to be active, to post a lot and show the story behind the food, and interact with their customers by responding to comments and reactions.

At Kitchen Connect, first and foremost, we share our best practices with our partners. Each new restaurant that starts with us will get a consultation on how to grow its business. Moreover, we have recently hired a Marketing Manager to help boost the social media presence of our partners.

Malaysia’s favourite brand, FowlBoys is one of KitchenConnect’s client.
Competition for attention can be intense, especially for cloud kitchens completely reliant on apps. What are the strategies to stay ahead?

Indeed, there is competition in the apps, just like in brick and mortar. In my opinion, the apps tend to give the underdog a chance. 

What do I mean by this? In a traditional restaurant, to be visible, you need good real estate, i.e. a high traffic location with excellent visibility and signage – those are ideal, but they are also costly, and not everyone can afford them.

On the apps, everyone starts equal because every new restaurant is featured under the “new” tab, and then a few things need to happen for a restaurant to be visible. 

  1. They need to have their menu and photos all updated 
  2. They need to provide good service to get 5-star ratings 
  3. They need to promote their food by giving some promotional discounts (20% off desserts, etc) which also happens in a traditional setting.

If a restaurant plays its cards right when they launch, it will have visibility and good returns. Unfortunately, some people underestimate those tactics and get buried at the bottom of the list. There is also hope for those restaurants as they can buy their premium real estate on the app (but unlike B&M, they need to spend less and can stop their “lease” at any time).

Image credit: KitchenConnect

Women in the F&B industry

How do you manage your team, and what is your leadership style?

I believe that isn’t one leadership style that fits all – each team member needs me to adapt my style to them. Some people need me to be nurturing and guiding to be the best versions of themselves. Some just want to know the goal and be left alone. I have a big team from all different backgrounds, so I must adapt.

Overall I would say that I try to balance two personalities: The goal-oriented and driven:

Arin who pushes people to meet their targets and the empathetic, supportive leader who listens to her team’s needs and supports them to be their best selves.

How do you keep your team inspired and motivated to love what they do?

There are company-led initiatives that I believe drive results: 

1) Bonus 

2) Salary Adjustment 

3) Promotions.

But on top of that, I believe in showing people the appreciation they deserved. It’s important that people who do good work know that they are doing good work, so I will take them to the side and give them a quick pat on the back – I don’t think it is necessary to wait for a formal review process to make views clear. 

There is also more public appreciation and recognition amongst the team, so we have implemented a monthly town hall where the Employee of the Month is announced.

What would it be if you could make one change to help women at work?

The first thing I do is make sure I, personally, don’t have biases when recruiting women and promoting them. Many times women are passed on on opportunities because they are seen as soft or not aggressive enough, but I have come to realise that under the “not aggressiveness” comes a lot of expertise and substance. 

When I am rating someone, I always question myself – am I rating this person because of how I feel or is it based on facts? Facts should always win.

Image credit: KitchenConnect

My entire leadership team is now women-led – Sales, Ops and Customer Success. Each have a female leader (it wasn’t planned but I am happy to see it happen).

For other readers, I would say we should also keep ourselves accountable and if you see someone being biased, call them out. Many times people don’t even realise they are being biased.

What learnings and advice can you share with younger female peers?

Speak Up: Make your voice heard and this applies to two things 

1) Overall silent people get forgotten and you want to be top of mind when people are discussing new roles or promotions

2) Let people know what you are thinking and what you want. Many times we think people know what we want, e.g. “I’ve worked in this role for 2 years, of course my manager knows I want a promotion” – actually there is a high chance, they don’t know – they might think you are happy with the current role. Speaking up is the only way to ensure that people know what you want. Ask for what you want.

Perception is reality (unfortunately): Confident people with good communication skills are more credible. The opposite is also true. Even if someone is 100% sure of what they are saying, but they are conveying the message in an unsure way, they get doubted more.

Practice your communication or presentation skills in front of the mirror and work on becoming more confident (but not arrogant).

And one last question…how do you find work-life balance?

Work-life balance is very subjective. Some people like to work 9-5, and that’s it. Some people like to work every day until 10 pm but have the flexibility to take more days off or cut their hair sometime during the week…

As long as I do not feel like work is ‘burden’, I am okay. I tend to start work at 8-8:30am, go to the gym around 6pm or 7pm and do 1 or 2 more hours of emails after. 

On the weekend, I also respond to messages that seem urgent. If something is not urgent, I just reply that I will get back to them on Monday.

This is what works for me. I personally like the flexibility that if one day I am not feeling my most productive, I get less done and compensate on the weekend. 

Everyone should do a bit of soul-searching and see what works best for them. Be true to yourself, speak to your manager about when you’re most productive (morning person/night person/weekend person, etc) and make sure to set expectations with yourself, your manager/colleagues and your family. If you overcommit yourself, you will get stressed and feel like you don’t have work-life balance.


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