Two childhood friends with a nation changing goal: to educate Malaysians on healthy eating through a new concept called Chai Bar. You’re probably already familiar with this name being one of the few salad bars in the country, but there is a strong determination behind it’s doors that many do not know about.
Dennis Lee (DL) and Edward Wong (EW) were professionals in very different careers. The idea of starting up a healthy eating joint was always on their minds, but after Edward experienced a rude awakening, it was then that they kicked things into gear. With the influx of startup cafes and restaurants sprouting like mushrooms after the rain, it’s a big risk to take especially since most people believe that a salad dish isn’t a complete meal. So how do they persist with the challenges at hand? We sat down with the duo as they share with us how.
Looking at Malaysian eating habits, what made you decide to open a salad bar?
EW: We are the perfect example of the Malaysian eating habits. We eat a lot of oily food, mostly carbs, mamak food - everything that’s considered unhealthy is what we actually enjoy. It is because of these habits that made us realise there is a market for a salad bar. We’ve gone on diets ourselves, but it’s so hard to stick to it; and then it dawned on us that there are people out there who are also experiencing this difficulty, so we thought instead of doing it for ourselves we should help others do the same.
What’s it like opening a restaurant that focuses on healthy eating especially in a country where salad and low carb foods aren’t the preferred choice?
DL: Honestly, it’s been an uphill climb since day one. With Malaysians, it’s always taste first. We are driven by our craving for banana leaf rice or char kuey teow. We don’t usually think about the consequences of eating foods like these. It’ll probably make you feel like crap later on, but you’re going to eat it anyway because it’s tasty. It’s been a process educating people on how they can choose not to think with their stomachs - sometimes it can be about functional eating where it’s getting the food to help you achieve certain things you want.
EW: People have this mindset that a bowl of salad is not a proper meal. They need to know that our salads are different - we serve hot meats. Our customers also need to know that we calculate the amount of protein and carbs that we prepare in our salads. Unfortunately, not all Malaysians are informed on what carbs and protein are and how they affect your body. They don’t know that what you eat plays a huge role in achieving that body you want. It’s something we need to continually educate Malaysians about but it’s even harder to do so when most of them don’t really care [laughs].
"Unfortunately, not all Malaysians are informed on what carbs and protein are and how they affect your body."
How did you come from eating anything you want to being so cautious of your food intake?
EW: Back in 2010, I had headaches all the time and I was feeling very lethargic. I went to the doctor and found out I had high blood pressure - I was in my early twenties, just about to graduate from college. Your friends become your worst enemies because you’ll be sitting there with your pre-packed salad, and they’ll be tempting you to eat chow mien instead. Not that I didn’t want to, I just couldn’t because my health was at risk. On top of that, I had to exercise; I used to run on a treadmill until I puked, then get back on the treadmill after that. For someone who isn’t used to getting healthy and exercising, it takes a lot of getting used to.
What else do you notice about the Malaysian eating habits and the issue arising from it?
DL: People aren’t really informed on the number of calories in their food that they consume every day. While coming up with our nasi lemak salad, we discovered that a single nasi lemak serving contains 934 calories - that’s crazy! Add a teh tarik and that’s another 180 calories. A healthy calorie intake per person per day is around 1800 to 2000 calories but that does depend on the individual and their activity. Eating too little calories won’t help either - it’s about finding a balance. Another issue is that our meals are very carb-based. In western countries, their meals are mainly protein with side dishes to complement - which is a healthier option.
I think some of the common problems people face in not being able to take the next step is because they’re lacking something, whether it’s equipment or time - but on the other hand you guys dive right into things. The posters we see in your shop are taken with your iPhone!
DL: It comes from our DIY approach, born by the need of conserving as much money as possible. From very early on, we knew we were going to be doing a lot of things on our own. I don’t really have much skills when it comes to designing websites - I had to learn from scratch everything that is required to make a website. There are times where I’m just staring at a bunch of codes on the computer screen and feeling very confused. We had to make do with what we have at that point in time.
EW: It’s not fair for us to get people to do things for us if we don’t even know how it’s done. We have to make sure we know what we’re talking about. We are still learning and in a way, we’re not really willing to let people do some things for us. There’s the question of ‘what if they screw up?’, but maybe that’s something we should look to change.
What advice would you give to someone who is an aspiring F&B entrepreneur?
DL: We have a lot of younger people coming up to us with their idea of opening a cafe or imitating something that’s being done in other countries to bring back to Malaysia. It’s sad because it’s unoriginal. We have so much heritage and inspiration that we can draw from and infuse to make something new. First you need to really think about what you want to do. In F&B, the product is the most important thing while ambience and everything else should be secondary. You should understand what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it differently from everyone else. Unfortunately, not many people know what goes on in running a restaurant. You’d probably think you’ll be entertaining friends while everyone else is doing stuff for you - but it doesn’t work like that. Chefs quit, workers will run out on you in a moment’s notice and problems will be thrown at you every other day.
EW: You have to ask yourself what do you actually want from this. Many would just go into this for the easy money. It’s true that you can make money from this business, but you can also make money elsewhere. So why this? If you can’t answer that question then don’t do it. There are times where you’ll want to give up and your friends are not going to be there to get you out of debt - it’s your life and your decision.
"It’s not fair for us to get people to do things for us if we don’t even know how it’s done."
Chai Bar may be the few of its kind here in Malaysia, but the intention and objective carried by these two friends are evident in their efforts. Each bowl of salad is carefully calculated to ensure the right nutritional balance for their customers. This country may still be a long way from changing our eating habits, but Dennis and Edward have already started running the cause. It’s not the new concept that they want you to know about - it’s creating an awareness for your health.
"In F&B, the product is the most important thing while ambience and everything else should be secondary."