First published in The Business Times on 29 October 2021.
Istimewa Nasi Padang is a local family-run business that puts so much innovative thought into food that its success can be a recipe for other food establishments.
The eatery’s story began like many other small food stall operations — a single stall at a coffee shop in Bukit Merah run by a couple.
Fast forward and it has strengthened its digital presence to reach customers islandwide, introduced automation, and embraced digitalisation. Next step: Plans to market its pastes and products overseas.
It is a far cry from 1989, when Mr Abdul Hadi Kamarolzaman’s parents left their respective jobs as a store helper and policeman to open their nasi padang stall.
Then, his mother handled the cooking — rendang, mee rebus and other Malay dishes — while his father took care of everything else. The young Mr Hadi watched as the stall attracted a faithful following.
“Even when people move away, they come back for meals because they miss my mother’s cooking,” he says.
When Mr Hadi, 44, and his wife Noor Afiza Mohamed Ali, 43, took over the eatery in 2015 after building their own successful careers in the healthcare industry, they spiced up the operations.
In 2017, when few food stalls even thought of going online, they created a website with an online ordering system and signed onto food delivery. In 2019, they offered islandwide delivery.
They opened a second outlet in Clementi in December, hired more staff, and invested in combi ovens with the support of enterprise development agency Enterprise Singapore (ESG). The multi-functional ovens enabled them to cook multiple dishes more efficiently.
Since June, they have also been working with Singapore Polytechnic’s Food Innovation and Resource Centre (FIRC) to explore manufacturing the family’s sauces and pastes for sale locally and overseas.
The SME Centre@SMCCI, set up by ESG and the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI) to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), brought FIRC and Istimewa Nasi Padang together.
“I’ve always had a passion for the food and beverage (F&B) industry, but my parents knew it was a tough business and wanted me to make my mark somewhere else first,” says Mr Hadi, who has two young children.
“Now, I get to make sure that their legacy lives on by continuing their business and expanding it.”
A recipe for growth
Istimewa Nasi Padang has flourished by embracing innovation and digitalisation. Its online ordering system and food delivery platform, initially slow to take off, became a lifeline when the Covid-19 pandemic struck last year.
The couple capitalised on the sudden shift towards online food orders by creating social media pages, buying online advertisements and offering discounts on food delivery.
“We also encourage people who come to our stall to order online, even if they want to pick up the food themselves, so we can prepare the orders ahead of time and they don’t have to wait around the stall. This also enables us to adjust our cooking volume and reduce wastage.”
In August, they hired a photographer suggested by the SME Centre@SMCCI to take better images of the eatery’s dishes for its online listings. The previous photographs were taken by Mr Hadi years ago.
The change was dramatic. “Just on the first weekend alone, our online orders soared by about 20 per cent, and they have continued to remain as high,” he says.
The initiatives paid off. Revenue grew by 10 per cent last year amid the pandemic, even with a drop in walk-in customers. It is on track to do even better this year, with its revenue expected to be 15 to 20 per cent more.
However, the growth has not come without challenges. Faced with the surge in demand amid a manpower crunch, the couple made the decision to shutter their second outlet so they could consolidate their workforce in one location.
A taste of things to come
Two months ago, they installed accounting and human resources software to better track and analyse sales, and manage their 15 employees’ time.
Earlier this month, they also launched a six-month digital marketing campaign to raise awareness of their brand and food.
Next up is a brand audit to understand customers’ perceptions, identify gaps in their marketing strategies, and devise ways to improve.
Mr Hadi is looking into machines such as vegetable cutters and vacuum sealers to automate some of the more laborious processes. With such machines, the business can hire staff of all skill levels and attract more workers.
While the collaboration with FIRC is at an early stage, he and his wife are working towards small-scale exports of their family’s sauces and pastes to retailers within the next few years.
“We want to expand beyond the Singapore market. We know there is demand for Asian food products overseas, in countries such as the US, the UK and Australia, where there are many Asian students and workers,” he says.
Mr Hadi’s parents, who are now in their 70s, still oversee the cooking at the stall. “They’re happy with how the business has improved, both in terms of operations and sales,” he says.
He urges other SMEs, particularly those in the F&B industry, to adopt automation, digitalisation and other innovations.
“With digitalisation and other advances, we can make life easier, and sustain and grow our food traditions.”
Partnerships for growth
For Istimewa Nasi Padang, partnerships have been key to growth. Over the years, it has relied on ESG and the SME Centre@SMCCI for crucial support in installing technologies such as combi ovens to boost productivity, and connecting it to others in the F&B sector, such as the FIRC, for collaborations.
In August last year, the SME Centre@SMCCI taught Mr Hadi how to conduct food menu analyses to determine the costs of existing and proposed dishes, both in ingredients and man-hours, and adjust and price them correctly.
Mr Hadi says: “There are so many different kinds of expertise and help available to SMEs in Singapore. Make use of them.”