Friday June 22, 2012
Staying lean and mean
POWER LUNCH By MARINA SUWENDY
For Michele Kwok, executive director of Cafelink (M) Sdn Bhd, there is no shortcut to success and hard work is the only way to keep growing
At Power Lunch this week, we welcomed Michele Kwok, executive director of Cafelink (M) Sdn Bhd, to the table at Menara Star. She was a gracious guest and, interestingly enough, Kwok had the distinction of being the first woman to make the list of predominantly male business personalities hosted at these lunch sessions.
Kwok glided through our dining room with vibrant grace, dressed to impress in a flowing golden silk ensemble and armed with a warm personality. With her exuberant energy and charisma, it was no surprise that her business concerns and restaurants have done as well as they have.
Cafelink is the holding company for Klang Valley F&B establishments SOULed OUT (Hartamas and Ampang), 7atenine Kuala Lumpur, W.I.P. @ BSC and Skylounge @ Ascott.
But we’ll get to that part later on.
Upon meeting our chef Salmiah Isa and casting her eyes on the lovingly prepared lunch, Kwok gushed with appreciation.
To those unfamiliar with Salmiah, she was Tunku Abdul Rahman’s former cook. She is now the person responsible for the food served at the Power Lunch sessions.
“I’ve heard so much about you! This is very authentic kampung style (food),” said Kwok, when she met Salmiah.
While settling down to feast, the conversation soon revolved around the delicious dishes before us — nasi tomato, ayam masak merah and kurma kambing.
Kwok savoured her meal and admitted that her home kitchen was mostly dominated by her husband.
Kwok’s husband, Fred Choo, jointly owns Cafelink.
“My husband always claims that he’s the better cook. So, he ends up doing our Sunday meals. That’s his man thing — he has to cook on Sundays for the family,” revealed Kwok with much amusement.
However, she’s more than happy to let him take the reigns when it comes to their meals.
When it comes to the business side of Cafelink, Kwok remains hands-on and she likes to keep busy with the company’s daily demands.
Juggling career and family life, according to Kwok, is usually quite a task in itself.
With extended hours and sales figures during this Euro 2012 tournament tabulated at 5.30am daily, one can’t help but wonder how Kwok manages it all.
For this husband and wife team, the long hours of the F&B business, not surprisingly, can be tough on family life.
“It is a big price to pay. Missing time off with family and also health — the late nights can take their toll on you. However, I have no regrets. But, now, I try to reduce my (work) week so that I only work four nights and I take three nights away,” said Kwok.
Even by scaling down her workload and schedule, business has still been good for Kwok.
When comments are made about the pulling power of W.I.P. @ BSC and how it has maintained a steady clientele, Kwok remarked, “I know! It’s crazy! I really don’t know what it is. It’s just another drinking place — it’s that stroke of luck. The right time and the right place.”
Under the Cafelink umbrella is also the famed SOULed OUT — an establishment that has been flourishing for the past 15 years.
On a more sobering note, Kwok said that luck hasn’t always been on their side. She pointed out their short-lived venture into the Singapore market.
SOULed OUT had a presence at the Esplanade in Singapore for a brief period. However, Kwok revealed that the problem with that (Singapore venture) was actually their assessment of the location rather than the brand. She remains highly optimistic of the SOULed OUT brand.
When asked about the future plans in store for the Cafelink group, Kwok spoke with great enthusiasm.
“This year, we were saying ‘lay low and just take it as an easy year.’ That’s not happening! Instead, we’re developing a franchise model for the SOULed OUT brand.”
Of all the problems in this business, Kwok stressed that when it comes to F&B outlets, the pilferage issue is often one of the main concerns. The management has taken added measures to eliminate this problem at the SOULed OUT franchises.
Kwok shared that, though, they have had the odd box of sparklers going missing, SOULed OUT hasn’t been a victim of significant losses.
Kwok credited this to the honest attitude of her employees. She added that once a year she has made it a policy to take the employees on an all-expenses paid trip (or more accurately, a team-bonding vacation). On a daily basis, she also encourages them to bring their personalities forward to their jobs. SOULed OUT has been known to have servers who not only serve, but also entertain their guests — they have within their ranks singers, dancers and fire-eaters!
As the conversation moved back to business expansion, I asked her why it has taken the group 15 years to move into the franchise business?
Kwok explained that there had been previous franchise offers made. But the company did not feel ready to make that move.
She admitted that since SOULed OUT has been pretty much her baby, she intends to be selective with the franchisees.
“We’re not looking at investors. We’re only looking at people who are looking to give up what they’re doing now and who really want to start this. We want hands-on people.”
She also recalled the early SOULed OUT days when the cafe had only six staff on hand.
“It’s been a long journey. We were very lucky. When we went in, we had RM80,000, we mortgaged our apartment. And, that’s really how we started. If we’d failed in the first year, then that was it. We were very prudent in how we managed the funds. I had to wait on the tables, Fred had to clean the place.”
When pressed for a current turnover figure, Kwok was hesitant at first.
With modesty, she revealed Cafelink has come a long way from its humble beginnings to boasting an annual turnover of RM50mil.
Before our afternoon came to an end, Kwok shared what experience has taught her and what has kept her driven.
“I’ve learnt that there’s really no shortcut to success and every extra effort will take me to the next level. It’s about a desire to make it.
“To make something out of an opportunity that we stumbled across.”