Tuesday, October 23, 2007

HUSH, Bangsar

From The Star

A recipe of success

CULINARY comradeship – that's what drew Tengku Zafrul Aziz, former investment banker and now CEO of no-frills financial portal Tune Money, into the business of eatery.

“I opened up the restaurant because of my friends. We usually go out for dinner or supper and so we thought it'd be nice to have a regular place of our own to hang out. Really, there is great intangible value in having our own restaurant.”

That “regular place to hang out” however comes with a hefty price tag. HUSH, a chic bistro perched in one of most happening spots in the city – the elite suburbs of Bangsar – cost a cool RM1.8mil to put up, which as far as fine-dining restaurants go, is actually quite the average seed capital and quite simply “lunch money” for some of these high-flying corporate personalities.

But then again, Zafrul's “culinary mates” are not exactly shallow pockets; they are Air Asia’s Datuk Tony Fernandes, Datuk Lim Chee Meng of Taliworks Bhd and Wesports Malaysia's executive director Ruben Gnanalingam. Providing a refreshing break from the corporate-tinted partnership however is another chum, musician and deejay Jason Lo.

So, does Zafrul agree with the notion that these days, corporate personalities owning a vogue joint is somewhat a mark of success and a growing trend? He doesn't seem to think so: “No. Not for me, at least. To begin with, this is not my first restaurant. But it's a convenient and great way of having friends over to chat. It's also suitable for business discussions over lunch or dinner as we have private rooms...”

Zafrul's other restaurant, his maiden endeavour into the restaurant business is Sari Indah – an eatery that serves authentic Indonesian cuisine, largely for the local palette (or adventurous foreigner), located in Alamanda Putrajaya. Co-owned with friends and after two years of lethargic business, mainly owing to the location, the curtains have come down on the outlet and with that, on an investment to the tune of RM1mil.

The experience is proof that while it may be a corporate-inked fashionable statement to get into the bistro business to entertain friends and business contacts, it is crucial that due attention be paid to factors that make or break the business, like any other.

Zafrul echoes the sentiments of most others interviewed for this series. He says that while the overriding motive is not solely profit oriented, no one would want to get into something that saps their financial resources either.

“We don't want to lose money ? of course we want to recoup the investment. As long as we do that and don't lose money we are happy,” he adds. That has happened faster than anticipated. Only into its fifth month of operations, HUSH has already broken even, he says.

In this case, it may be that what has begun as an endeavour based on a whim among pals, could turn out to be the start of something big. “Well, there is a long-term plan to have another branch by early next year. But only if all goes well and this outlet in Bangsar gets its act together and proves to be a success. We are giving it about a year to decide if we should expand but before that, we need to create a recognisable and reputable identity before we plough more investments.”

So, why call it “HUSH”?

“A friend of mine who helped with the branding came up with the idea. We wanted a cigar room, private rooms, and a stage for a live band. He came up with HUSH and we thought, well, it’s easy to remember and catchy and the logo was very attractive,” enthuses Zafrul.

“I enjoy having a restaurant. Although I don’t run it on a day to day basis, I do get involved from the beginning from the interior designing right to the menu to the early stages of the restaurant itself such as getting the people, team, branding and concept,” says Zafrul.

The restaurant serves an equitable and widely varied spread of Asian and Western fare. Patrons, he says, come for the warm, chic ambience which HUSH clearly embodies and the food, of course. Interestingly, Zafrul points out that the wealthy in Malaysia are not food snobs. “You’ll be surprised that when we serve those with deep pockets and ask them what they want to eat, they will say mamak mee. So it's important to have a good local spread as well.”

“It would seem that people like to dine in an environment where they know the owner. But there are pros and cons. One of the cons is that friends who come here expect you to be around when they do. But that’s not possible all the time. The good thing is because there are a few of us who are partners in this business, we try to ensure that at any one point of time, one of us is here.”

But if you think that the partners, most of whom have unimaginably chaotic schedules, have the privilege of choosing just when they ought to show up at the restaurant, think again. Zafrul needs to be at the restaurant at least once a week and among the partners like Chee Meng or Ruben, they take turns to do the same.

Would he be a teeny bit offended if his chums ate elsewhere? “No, of course not. I eat elsewhere too.”

For the more discerning, Zafrul and Tony's HUSH may smack of a tad high end quality when set against their “dressed down” business mantra of no frills. But that's exactly what their new baby – Tune Money – set to launch its first product in a couple of weeks, is trying to convince people of – “no-frills doesn't mean you get less. It means we cut out all the fat, so you pay less. You're getting the same thing. In some cases, more,” says Zafrul in a recent posting in his own blog.

Zafrul, who boldly stepped out of his comfort zone of investment banking not too long ago to embark on a business of untested territory of no-frills financial products, appears to have perfected his sales pitch. But will the “untapped”, “underserved” segment of society craving for low cost financial products be eating out of the palm of his hand? – By Anita Gabriel

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