SINGAPORE: Just six months into his cabin crew training in Dubai, Mr Hazmi Zin received an urgent call from his mother – return home and save the family’s nasi Padang restaurant.
His father was having trouble running Rumah Makan Minang, and the Sars outbreak in 2003 had affected their business badly.
As the eldest of five siblings, Mr Hazmi could not say no, even though his dream was to “see the world”.
Today, after turning around their restaurant, he finds himself squaring off against younger brother Ariff, who joined the family business two years ago after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America.
“We had a lot of problems with each other, arguing about things,” said Mr Hazmi, 36. “He’s book-smart and I’m street-smart … I’m very aggressive. Whenever I want to do things, I want to make it happen.”
Mr Ariff did not take well to his brother’s bossy and blunt personality. “I respect him as a leader in the company … but we must follow (only) his plan and he won’t listen to us,” said the 29-year-old.
“The results are good, but the thing is, we feel that we also have a say in the business.”
The siblings are part of a generation of young successors in local F&B businesses, such as Samy’s Curry and kueh business HarriAnns, who are striving to overcome the challenges taking over their family business, as the programme On The Red Dot discovers. (Watch the series here.)
While Rumah Makan Minang is a second-generation business, its heritage goes back another generation some 80 years ago – when the siblings’ grandfather Haji Marlian, an immigrant from Sumatra, started serving nasi Padang dishes using recipes from the Sumatran Minangkabau people.
It started out as a wooden food stall in a kampung along Kandahar Street, said his daughter Zulbaidah Marlian, 59.
“We had a lot of orders, and we sold about 30 to 60 packets of rice a day. From there, people knew us as Sabar Menanti (wait patiently) Nasi Padang,” recalled Mdm Zulbaidah, who learned how to cook from her parents.
Their business expanded and moved in the 1970s to a coffee shop. After their father died, the children set up their own brands, with Mdm Zulbaidah opening Rumah Makan Minang in the 1980s on the same street as before.
It is now famous and well-loved for its dishes, such as beef rendang and fish with green belado.
Owing to family dynamics, however, the restaurant’s second generation of leaders are struggling to agree on how to grow the business. In particular, Mr Hazmi and Mr Ariff have a volatile and sometimes combative working relationship.
Mr Hazmi, who is used to doing things his way, has an impressive track record to show for it.
He not only transformed the once loss-making restaurant into a profitable one, but also set up its catering arm to expand the business and increased its staff strength from eight to 30 today.
“Makan Minang means a lot to me because when I first stepped into the company, there were a lot of problems,” he said. “As time went by, the problems were settled bit by bit.”
When Mr Ariff joined the business, however, he found his elder brother a difficult person to talk to because Mr Hazmi was set in his ways and always busy.
Conversely, Mr Hazmi found his brother, who was put in charge of the kitchen, too stubborn and strong-willed. He said:
I can’t just tell him to do something; he needs proof. I need to show him that it can work, then he’d be convinced,
“But there are certain things (for which) you can’t take shortcuts.”
Mr Hazmi felt the pressure, however, after three of his four siblings had joined the family business by last year.
He realised he needed to increase revenue, and one of the first things they did was to open a branch in Tampines. The move had everyone’s support.
STICKY ABOUT RICE
However, another idea – about offering red and brown rice on the menu to target health-conscious consumers – did not sit so well with the family.
Mr Ariff was concerned about the taste and higher price that customers would have to pay for the healthier option. And he thought it was not authentic.
“I tried (red and brown rice) before, and I don’t think it’s nice. In Malay culture, we don’t eat this kind of rice,” he argued. “Red rice isn’t suitable for our dishes.”
Determined to win round his brother and the rest of his family, Mr Hazmi invited them to his home for a taste test with some of their nasi Padang dishes. “Things are changing these days,” he said.
If you guys want to be the market leader for nasi Padang, let’s be the first to step out.
Still, his mother felt that their sambal belado tasted different with brown rice.
“I prefer white rice, as it’s our traditional Asian food,” commented Mdm Zulbaidah, who also baulked at the estimated S$2 price tag on a plate of red or brown rice, double the price of white rice.
Nonetheless, the family decided to go along with the suggestion, provided Mr Hazmi got customer feedback about the heathier alternative. To his delight, most of the customers did not notice any significant difference in taste.
One even said: “I can now eat without guilt. I know that too much white rice is bad for me because I’m very worried about getting diabetes.”
CLASHING OVER RENDANG
Another suggestion again tested Mr Hazmi’s relationship with his brother, this time on how to create awareness about their business.
Mr Hazmi was hoping to get their beef rendang onto Shangri-La Hotel Singapore’s menu, to take Rumah Makan Minang one step closer to becoming an international brand.
He said: “Branding, to me, is very important because apart from good food, good location and good service … if your brand is reputable and known, people will come back.”
But he faced opposition from his brother, who was concerned about revealing their family recipe to the hotel’s chefs. Mr Ariff said: “I’d say let’s make it authentic, let’s keep it to ourselves because this is a family dish.”
His brother assured him that it would not happen: “They have professional chefs around the world, why would they need our (recipe)?”
Their different opinions reflect their different focuses: For Mr Ariff, it is the food quality, instead of just growth. And he feels that while his brother may possess the experience, he has the knowledge gained from school.
“I told my mum I’m not happy working with him. And he’d complain to my younger brother Nazri, ‘I don’t like him, so you talk to him.’ So it kind of made me feel that I wasn’t appreciated,” he said.
Mr Hazmi, on the other hand, felt that it was a challenge communicating with his brother, whose expectations he thought were too high after Mr Ariff wanted to apply the same standards he had learnt in America to their restaurant.
“He has some working experience in New York, but the Westerners work differently from us. For example, our working pace is different – we work faster,” said Mr Hazmi.
WATCH: Can the Minang brothers settle their differences? (Dur 4:07)
BEING LESS STERN
Despite clashing in recent weeks, the brothers were united for the presentation to the Shangri-La Hotel chefs, who were impressed with the food and voted to include it in their heritage menu.
And the experience became one that improved the siblings’ relationship, drawing them closer.
“Maybe it’s also because he just got married. He has mellowed down and won’t argue so much. He has recognised my hard work, especially during the Shangri-La episode,” said Mr Hazmi, who notices his brother approaching him for advice now.
He’s even telling me not to work so hard and to spend time with my family.
He conceded that working with his younger brother has its benefits, as Mr Ariff challenges his thinking, and that New York experience has come in useful too.
He has also decided to be less stern with his siblings going forward, knowing that they must work together or else “nothing will work”.
“We have to be professional. I have to listen to them … to their ideas because I was once like that. When I came to the company, my dad didn’t want to listen,” he said.
Meanwhile, his younger brother has learnt to trust him more. Said Mr Ariff: “He’s my brother, so whatever it is, we’ll push each other to make the business better.”
There had been times Mr Ariff thought of quitting; the hours were long, and he felt that he could possibly get paid better elsewhere. But then he would talk to Mr Hazmi first.
“He’d say, ‘Then, how about me? I’ve had (close to) 15 years in the company. I felt like quitting too, but did I quit?’” recounted Mr Ariff, who does hope to help grow the business in future.
More importantly, it is family first for him, which is what has kept him going. “As long as my family communicate and work together, I’m very happy,” he said. “No matter what, you can’t lose touch with your family.”
Watch On The Red Dot here for its Step Up To The Plate series on local F&B businesses.