Retirement as a stepping stone

Feeding people from the heart

SOMETIMES retirement is just the next stage of life. This has proven true for 62-year-old retired banker David Foo and former SMK Assunta teacher Tan Lee Lee, who run a food business from home.

Lee Lee shared: “I was supposed to go into tuition and a friend of mine who runs a tuition centre actually invited me to help out. But because of MCO, the tuition idea did not kick off and there I was, thinking of what to do next. Around the same time, David suggested we do something instead of idling around.”

David explained: “The idea has been in my mind for over 20 years as a retirement plan. As age caught up, I thought of going into a sustainable business and I thought it would be a money making machine, but times have changed.”

Inspired by his friends who seemed to enjoy cooking and sharing pictures of their dishes to their mutual Whatsapp groups, David began to pitch his idea for a business. Lee Lee was the only person who immediately jumped into action and helped set things in motion.

Having no F&B background, the two had to put in some extra work. They started off with location research.

Describing a quiet place for people to sit down and enjoy food, their stall situated in a Chinese food shop along Jalan Dato Mahmud 11/4, Petaling Jaya, ticked all the boxes.

When it came down to marketing, they relied on word of mouth, pamphlet distribution, social media, and the shop owner who helped spread word about their food to passersby.

The duo planned everything in less than a month. David describes it as “not requiring special planning and it felt like a natural flow”.

The business kicked off on July 15, 2020, and the humble menu has grown from tong sui (desserts) and light foods to an upgraded one due to requests from customers. Both of them painstakingly rotate their menu and prepare a rice dish of the day daily. Think yam rice, black pepper chicken rice, sweet sour chicken rice, and Thai basil chicken.

$!David carefully ensuring the tong sui has the right texture - Celestine Foo/TheSun

Malay customers also frequent the place, and it is one of those rare gems in Petaling Jaya where those in the community freely drop by to eat and mingle without any worry about the halal status.

David added: “We decided to stick to five of the more traditional tong suis for our menu and we wanted to include at least one savoury dish and a light meal. We decided to go for something a bit different with our tomyam beehoon and it has proven to be very popular.”

Serving bubur cha cha, red bean, black pulut, gandum, and barley with ginko nut and beancurd, the biggest challenge so far has proven to be sourcing fresh santan (coconut milk).

“Our tong sui depends on fresh santan. We have been to a number of sources and discovered that some santan just cannot last the day and we had to go back to only one source. Even though it costs a little bit more, it is the only place we can trust. To make things even harder, markets are closed on Mondays and our source is from a wet market. We have to really check the santan before serving it,” said David.

“It took a lot of trial and error. We experimented and improved based on suggestions of customers,” Lee Lee chimed in.

Their dense, flavourful yam cake sells like hot cakes here (pun intended). “It’s fifty percent yam and some customers even tell us we should cut down on it to increase our profit! But no, it’s all about the quality”.

The well-loved tomyam beehoon is served with a dash of fragrant chili sambal.

“Making the sambal itself takes us four hours, and that’s excluding the buying process. We handpick every chili to make sure it is fit for consumption,” said David, adding that customers often request for the sambal to be sold by the bottle.

Food quality is not the only selling point here. The low prices are an incredibly appealing aspect as well, given that most full meals now cost upwards of RM10 in the city.

“In the shop where we operate, customers can get chee cheong fun (steamed rice noodles) for only RM1 a piece so in some way, we feel obliged to keep it that way,” said David.

Given that they are located close to the University of Malaya Medical Centre, they also considered that patients and their families would drop by for a quick bite, and felt they should have the option of having a reasonably priced meal. Both admit that their profit margin is low, but explain that running such a low volume business also means that increasing their prices would not be profitable either.

“We put so much effort into preparing our food so it’s really not about making money. We feel satisfied each time a customer compliments us, enjoys the food, and returns again. We have made many new friends from this business,” Lee Lee said, her sense of satisfaction showing through.

$!Lee Lee slicing up fruits for the rojak - Celestine Foo/TheSun

David added on that the focus has evolved into more of a customer relationship-based business instead of a money-making one.

The two of them also explained that they never expected to put in almost 16 hours a day into their business, at the cost of sacrificing family time. Waking up at 7am every morning, they begin food preparation and are ready to load the food into the car by 11am. By noon, the store is ready to operate.

“Everything is done in the house,” David said of the food preparation and the washing up. Upon arriving home at 8pm, they take a break before having dinner. “Then, it’s time to start washing – a big chore,” said David.

“It takes more than two hours,” Lee Lee chipped in.

Immediately after, they began cleaning and preparing ingredients which require marination. The long, hard work goes on until 2am, and then it is time for sleep.

Some of their regular customers also place bulk orders from them to be distributed to underprivileged communities. Although it leaves them little time to rest, the duo aim to please.

“I have to acknowledge the tremendous gratitude we have for the support of our many friends who come from places like Klang, Kajang and even the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Despite not having spoken for many years, they suddenly appear at my stall and it warms my heart very much,” David concluded.