We are living in interesting times. The impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality business is unprecedented. In light of the unique circumstances we find ourselves in, we thought it would be helpful to gather learnings and insights from industry veterans in hopes that we can help each other out. Have stories and insights to share? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copper is built on a simple ethos – that food is a conduit for social experiences, and that exceptional cuisine should be convivially shared and enjoyed. Run by husband and wife team Chef Chai and Zeehan Zahari, Copper serves contemporary European cuisine with Mediterranean influences in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Upon the announcement of MCO, the couple immediately shifted from fine-dine to lunch box offerings to serve the nation’s medical frontliners through crowdfunding support from family and friends. They have not only served thousands of meals to healthcare workers but also played a part in support of local farmers, producers, and suppliers.
An Open Letter
By Zeehan Zahari, co-founder and CEO of Copper
Prior to the MCO, companies within our building (Menara Shell) started directing their staff to work from home until further notice. In less than 24 hours, we saw a sudden drop of more than 80% of our business as most companies here are MNCs which can work remotely. We were acutely aware of the possibility of a lockdown and, taking cues from what happened in China, we started to make short- to medium-term transitional plans just before the announcement of MCO.
Steps We Are Taking
- Social-distancing measures and strict sanitation focused type of in house services
- We’ve always been quite rigorous in our SOPs. The additional procedures we had to do were taking temperature during intervals of our production, enforcing more stringent sanitizing measures – even phones were sanitized and placed at a designated spot in the restaurant, and always wearing masks and gloves at all levels of production. We also took additional steps to ensure the workplace, particularly the packing areas, were sanitized and cleaned thoroughly. Things like washing hands and sanitizing measures have always been part of the system.
- Shift the business to dinner time and takeaways
- In the longer-term, we will shift revenue streams to put in more effort into our private catering services
- Caring for our staff’s well-being. Prior to the MCO, we planned a two weeks’ “emergency box” filled with essentials, like rice, for all of our staff should we be forced to go on a permanent closure. In fact, we started having meetings with our team every few days, 1-2 weeks prior to the MCO to keep everyone abreast on the current situation of the pandemic, as well as to discuss the different possibilities of what might happen to the operations and the implications to our job.
Although it would seem that we were prepared, we didn’t expect the sudden announcement of MCO. Most of the plans were only meant to be implemented the week that MCO was being announced. In terms of business, the cash flow planning was also to cushion gradual changes and not an abrupt closure. A shortsighted contingency, in hindsight and a bitter lesson to swallow – SMEs should always be prepared for worst case scenarios!
Copper successfully switched gears almost immediately
In any case, my partner and I had to go on survival mindset almost immediately. My first thought was for my team and survivability. On the 18th, a day after the MCO announcement, I started searching for possible solutions that have been adopted by similar outfits and restaurants and how businesses pivoted worldwide. Majority at that time did delivery, but we knew that it was not a sustainable model for us. What struck me instead was a post on fundraising to serve frontliners. That was a huge lightbulb moment as it inspired the idea of feeding the frontliners with the support from donors. In this manner, the team and operations could stay afloat, and we can even support our f&b ecosystem. At the same time, we can serve the frontliners and nation in a way that we knew we could excel and do well.
With that in mind, I immediately contacted 3 of my doctor friends to seek their opinion and it was positively received. In fact, two of them directed me to people who could get things rolling. Everyone around us was supportive of what we intended to do.
At 10 pm on the first day of MCO, I called my aunt Nora and mom and spent about 20 minutes discussing the idea of pulling funds and literally by 6 am the next morning, we sent out WhatsApp messages to our closest family and friends. The amazing thing was that by 2:30 pm we had enough funds to last us for two weeks. By then, Chai, Co-Founder of Copper, and my partner, had made arrangements with the team and suppliers while I got things sorted with IMARET and a few reps from PDKs, KKs and hospitals. We just went with it.
Supportive communities coming together in times of need
One of the things that I simply did not anticipate was how the WhatsApp messages that were only meant for family and friends went viral. I started getting calls from random strangers to verify my identity and to make sure I wasn’t a scam – this lasted a few days. Luckily for us, we stopped taking donations as we were set to serve for two weeks first to understand the SOPs and needs before committing any further. Whilst the conversation may have started awkwardly, it quickly turned into a warm one where most of the time, I’d get voluntary offers to help with delivery or manpower or just about anything. Malaysians are sweet and thoughtful. However, as the nature of these packed meals needed to be kept under strict sanitation and SOPs, I declined everyone’s offer and told them to pray for the success of this project instead and to keep tabs via my Instagram account if they so wished to. I also mentioned to them about our partner IMARET, who would need a lot of funding to distribute medical supplies to the frontliners and, to some, I redirected them to IPTAs to assist in supporting university students instead.
As for the f&b ecosystem, we received sponsorships from our suppliers, producers, artisans, farmers, and industry friends to facilitate the project – from ingredients to ready-made desserts to even beverages. We have been running for almost four full weeks, and the help never ceased. Some even loaned chillers and freezers for us to keep our stock because many suppliers made deliveries only a few times a week due to the MCO.
This is truly an amazing show of solidarity from everyone even though most people are also going through a lot themselves. It’s humbling, it’s grounding and it really makes you appreciate fellow Malaysians from all walks of life.
A message to industry peers
Being in business, you need to be pragmatic and fluid enough to ride each wave that hits you. Of course, you can’t have full-proof contingencies, but you’d have to be flexible enough to adapt to the hardest situations. Business models are not set in stone and government aids, while welcomed, are not entirely at our disposal – it’s not our right either as entrepreneurs. So, be open to change, be open to listening to new ideas whether it comes from staff, from partners or just about anyone. And be open to the possibility of working together with others.
Thus far, we have not laid off anyone or cut anyone’s salary. However, we have had staff who were not comfortable to travel during the first week fearing for their health and safety. They voluntarily chose to clear off their annual leaves and take unpaid leave – which was understandable. We do not force anyone who is not comfortable to come to work. Their mental and physical health is much more critical. Of course, with less staff, we struggled a little but whoever remained jumped right in, which was wonderful to see. As the demand for meals increased; however, we had to offer jobs to part-timers to fill in the gaps.
At the same time, I have to strategize to stretch our survivability and runway. So I was actively also participating with other f&b operators to discuss and appeal to the government for additional help for SMEs. The wonderful thing about our new government is that they listen. We had a Zoom meeting with MOF’s Tengku Zafrul and team, and just a few days after we tabled our plights, an additional stimulus was proposed and implemented. We couldn’t be more grateful.
Copper’s revenue-generating strategies
I think it’s vital for any business always to have a few revenue streams to fall back to. I’d like to call this layering. Whilst the aim of our Meals4Frontliners Project was to feed the frontliners, support the f&b ecosystem as well as keep our staff and business afloat, we cannot solely depend on it – it’s a nonprofit venture, and business needs to have a substantial cushion and cash reserves especially during unpredictable times. Once the team got into a steady routine to switch from a semi fine-dining outfit to a production-based one which served up to 500 pax a day, we also started to introduce our family takeaway sets. Additionally, we are R&D-ing for new product lines, so we could potentially have retail items to sell in the nearest possible future. The new normal would be one that requires a lot of pivoting and exploring new opportunities, so we are looking into new ideas and strategies.
Apart from being extremely careful with the things that we are ordering for the meals and keeping a tight range on our food costs, we are limiting work hours to only the necessary. Additionally, we are also in talks with our landlords to see if they could give us a bit of concession for staff housing and the restaurant.
Marketing and Communications
At this point, we have only fully utilized our social media platforms. There’s just so much firefighting going on that I have yet to explore more than what is directly accessible to us. Whatever coverage we’ve received thus far is a plus point but not from our initiative. As I am about to deliver my second child at any given moment now and am constantly trying to tighten loose ends before I go on maternity leave, it has been challenging to do much more than I could for the team on regular days.
Downtimes are not necessarily harmful. It is a good time to take stock and re-evaluate business strategies.
It’s also the time to cut losses, keep to a leaner operation or downsize, figure out how to create cash reserves and to layer the business with a few new ideas for post MCO times. With a pandemic, it also forces us to seek opportunities in places where we wouldn’t have even thought to have otherwise to adjust to a new normal and explore new models. It’s not going to be easy, but if you can stretch your cash flows to increase your runway, delve into a few new ideas and keep ahead of your competitors who are at this point struggling to stay afloat, you can probably be ahead and reap a lot of benefits as the economy starts to heal and ramp-up.
Know your numbers, what your limits are and know when to say enough. Learn fast to adapt, learn fast to pivot.
By Zeehan Zahari, co-founder and CEO of Copper