After 1.5 years of service, Ili Sulaiman, Basira Yeusuff, and Nizam Rosli closed their passion project Agak-Agak. Launched in 2016, Agak-Agak served contemporary Malaysian cuisine and aimed to help marginalized youth by launching apprenticeship programs to train and equip them for gainful employment. The platform also strived to improve the negative perceptions surrounding the Malaysian service and hospitality industry. Here, Ili (Ambassador for Asian Food Network) reveals in raw detail the journey from start to finish, and what it’s like to call time on business.
Being open and honest with your partners
If you’re going into f&b, no joke, it is bloody hard work. I had it good with Basira and Nizam. We gave ourselves time to get to know each of our values. When we worked together, it was like magic, even though our personalities are very different. Our values turned out to be very aligned – in a way, it was like a relationship. If you want to go into this business, make sure you know whether you are able to work with partners or whether you should do it alone. If you can’t work with other partners, just hire. Don’t go there, it is not worth the pain.
Likewise, with your staff
You can hide or choose not to disclose as much you want, but your team knows because they are the ones that are facing it every day. We’ve always been very honest. We’ll have weekly meetings and staff lunches together. They knew the grounds better than we did! We involved them in our decision making. We were open about how much we were making or losing, even tips were divided equally. There is no point in hiding it, and that was our saving grace!
It made it a lot easier to let go of people. When we found out about the parking issue in March 2017, six months before we shuttered, we got them involved, and it gave them enough time, assurance, and, to be honest, with our network, people wanted them. Everyone wanted our kids, not only our apprentices but the full- and part-timers as well. It was because of the process of getting them all involved in the decision-making process.
Know your numbers
What saved us was that we were on top of our numbers. We weren’t waiting until our account reached zero. We calculated that we had X amount to sustain and based our decision on those numbers. Our cost of goods was below 35%.Everything else you can fix, but not these three (No. 1, 2 and 3)
The restaurant business is really tough work
We didn’t hire a dishwasher. I would go in and wash it myself. It was my restaurant! And when the kids saw it, that the boss was doing it, then they have to do it too. It is that mentality. You have to show them how things are done, and you lead by example.
When you take pride in your space, however menial the job is, it helps build a culture of helping each other.
It was a personal and emotional journey
It started with Basira Yeusuff and me. It made sense because we were very fond of each other’s work. Her food was amazing, and she also admired what I was doing for Dish by Ili.
My business, Dish by Ili, a food tiffin service (back then), was growing and I couldn’t seem to find the right team. I felt there was a lack of training, and I couldn’t find the right people to work with me. It was tough.
Hospitality schools in Malaysia are costly, and opportunities to enter such programs are limited, especially with the marginalised communities. I studied in the UK and worked in f&b there while Basira did her training in Switzerland. Apprentice programs are such a norm in Europe, especially in the service industry, but not in Malaysia.
When this opportunity came up for us, we decided to start a social enterprise which incorporated a restaurant business model with an apprenticeship program. That is how Agak-Agak started. The reason we picked this name is because of the nuance of Malaysian food cooking. Agak-agak has a negative connotation. It’s like calling someone in training out for being imprecise by saying, “Oh! You’re so agak-agak.” We want to change that perception, that there’s beauty in imperfections. So drama, I know! But it’s true!
We set about making this dream a reality the best we could
We secured funding from the MaGIC accelerator program for social enterprises. I was on Marketing training, Basira was the Head of Operations, and we got a third business partner, Nizam, that handled the business side. We were located at APW – a then upcoming community space where Soon Wei, the founder, had plans on building something big. We received immense support from everyone. Soon Wei helped immensely in our positioning and making connections within our communities. By word of mouth, everything was coming together. We had positive momentum with our recruitment, selection of apprentices, designing training modules, construction, etc.
We launched in July 2016, and we were at the forefront of Malaysian cuisine with a modern twist. Our restaurant was small, with a seating capacity of 20, and we started with two apprentices in our first cohort.
The critical component to our journey was a very supportive landlord
APW was so supportive. Our contract with them was as a pop-up – a six-month renewable contract with a two-month advanced notice. We are grateful.
Even at the steepest of learning curves, you ride the wave
We saw an increment in our revenue in the first eight months, and we made plans for expansion. Our highest sale was RM56,000 a month: a huge success for a barely six-month-old 20-seater restaurant without a dinner service. We were appointed as caterer for magazines, galleries, and events. We ended 2016 on a high note.
Just one and a half years later, we closed our doors for good in December 2017.
2017: A Timeline Breakdown
January & February Slow months in general but we could manage
March We received an announcement via WhatsApp that in two weeks’ time, Telekom Malaysia was taking back the massive parking lot opposite from APW. When that took effect, our sales plunged by 40%.
End March to April The three of us had to have an honest conversation. If this does not work out, what is going to happen? Deep down, three of us were in denial as we were driven by passion and there was so much at stake – our apprentices, our growing team. It was sad. Everyone was flourishing in their abilities. Apprentices who barely spoke English when they started were now having full conversations with customers confidently.
We also knew that we could not sustain it, and that was a bitter pill to swallow. We weren’t sitting around being wishful about it. Our timeline for Agak-Agak’s closure was based on our second cohort of apprentices who would graduate in August.
We knew our numbers and calculated how much longer we could sustain ourselves before the business started bleeding. We had to make a decision based on numbers.
April to August It was our final push to keep this going for the next three months. We started grasping at a lot of things, doing pop-ups, collaborations. We pulled at every single string we could, and we even opened for dinners.
May Malaysia’s General Election took place. Uncertainties surrounded the change of government or lack thereof, and people were not spending.
We called a meeting with Soon Wei to notify him that Agak-Agak will be officially close in August 2017. He was devastated but understanding.
July Ramadhan (fasting month for Muslims) = slow month. We only booked three catering events.
August The second cohort graduated.
It took us three months to wind down everything – we were accountable to our crowd funders, suppliers, and our communities who supported us.
September to December We were closed as a restaurant. Once we graduated our apprentices, we could then focus on what we wanted to do with the business, which was the training program. We designed a program, tweaked and Malaysian-ised it. Using AA+ as the brand voice, we had this fantastic product, and we talked to everyone from Air Asia, Ben’s, Boat Noodles. Nobody wanted to invest in training because the turnover was too high, and it was not worth the investment.
We only got one breakthrough – a trial with Boat Noodles. They were growing exponentially from 20 stores to 70! They brought us in to do trial runs with three of their flagship stores which we took over to handle internally. That sustained us for three months.
After that we just could not sustain ourselves – one of us had to manage the training, we had two staff, another part-time trainee. We could not sustain that and had to let them go.
We really saw the potential, we were passionate, we were hustling like crazy, you have no idea, crazy hustle. It is like we used all our luck when we opened the restaurant. And then it ran out.
November to December Between the three of us, we began to get tired of each other. It is only natural. We were questioning each other, but we were doing the best we could. It started with Basira wanting to take a break and take up a stage opportunity in a two Michelin starred restaurant in Seoul, Korea for six months. She left at the end of 2017. In January, I turned to Nizam to call it quits.
We officially called it quit in January 2018
February to March 2018 Basira called from Korea and said investors in Korea wanted to open a restaurant with her and to call it Agak-Agak. Coincidentally, Agak-Agak means ‘to snack’ in Korean.
I flew over to Korea a couple of months later to see the location and cook for the investors.
The concept was very similar to APW, whereby this architecture firm picks up old buildings in Korea, refurbishing them and turning them into cafes and co-working spaces. I told Basira, “Between you and me, you can take the brand as I do not want any part of it” – she is such a talent.
When Basira called about this opportunity to open Agak-Agak in Korea, that was like the opportune moment for me to say, “This is done”. I had already decided that I wanted to exit. We were hanging on to it for so long that when it all came together, it was Basira’s move to say, “Hey, I need to do this for myself.” It was the first penny to drop.
It was really sad, and we really had something magical there
Nizam went off to do other things. I focused on my show with the Asian Food Network and Dish by Ili. AA+ was done. I am happy to say that maybe we needed to have Agak-Agak then because, perhaps, we did create momentum with the modernisation of Malaysian food. Since then, there have been so many nooks popping up – REX, Joloko, Lucky Tora, Super Boring Club. We were already using Langit, Milky Way Cheese, and Grub Cycle. Picha Eats had used our training models to train their chefs.
Although we might not have made it, I would like to think that at least we had some impact in the way we conducted ourselves, and with our collaborations.
We still hang out together now. If there’s one thing I am most proud of, it’s these kids that came through our doors – interns, full-timers, part-timers, apprentices. They were amazing and are still very close to us. We might not have been around for a long time, but we definitely impacted a lot of children’s lives. These kids are young – below 21 – and I treat them like my children.
By Ili Sulaiman, Chef, Asian Food Network Malaysian Ambassador, TV Host, Foodpreneur.
Interview and words by Theresa Burhan. Edited by Lim Ai Leen