KUALA LUMPUR:The COVID-19 pandemic is the restaurant industry’s greatest challenge to date and industry players must think outside the box if they want to survive from the fallout.

“When they cannot come to you, you have to go to them,” says Vincent Lua, founder and CEO of MyeongDong Topokki (MDT), a homegrown Fast Casual Korean Restaurant Chain.

Speaking to AWANI Review, Lua says customers are cutting back on restaurant visits amid fears of contracting the virus - and he says this behaviour is here to stay. “We have to use digitalisation to understand customers, to cater, target and distribute to them, rather than wait for them to come. It’s a totally different concept.”

When the pandemic hit in March, Lua quickly pivoted by introducing new products and store formats. The restaurant chain, with 50 stores nationwide, quickly ramped up its delivery service during the Movement Control Order. “Delivery still contributes to about half of our revenue. It was up to 90 percent during the MCO.”

The brand also jumped on the ‘home-cooking’ trend during the lockdown by launching a cooking meal kit MDT Apron that provides simple recipes and pre-packed ingredients for customers to enjoy their favourite Korean cuisines from the comfort of their own home.

MDT also launched its first cloud kitchen in March as footfall in restaurants plummeted. A strong online-ordering presence, digital loyalty programme and robust social media engagement had been the lifeline for MDT during this crisis, says Lua, who started the company in 2014. “It really helped cushion the impact from (the fall) in dine-in.”. 

Anticipating a prolonged disruption from the pandemic, Lua says the group is focused on ramping up its network of cloud kitchens in the coming months.

“Outlets are mostly located on busy streets, shop lots and malls. Cloud kitchens will be located in areas with less footfall but covers a five to ten-kilometer radius whereby customers can order from the MDT application or through Grab Food, FoodPanda or other delivery channels,” says Lua.

The support its digital direction, MDT will soon launch is mobile application to ease the food ordering process and streamline its e-commerce services into a fully integrated platform.

“So rather than waiting for customers to come, you are pushing customers to order,” he reiterates.

While business has been impacted, the serial entrepreneur is not deterred by the disruption arising from the pandemic. Lua says he is forging ahead to expand to 100 outlets by the end of 2020. The outlets will consist of restaurants and different format stores such as MDT Express, MDT Kape and food trucks.

Apart from outlet expansion, MDT has also ventured into the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) sector. “We had planned to move into FMCG very early on but the pandemic helped ‘enhanced’ it.

“We always faced shortage of toppoki as they are from Korea and had to wait for suppliers to deliver them. So we went straight to the factories in Korea to make our own toppoki. We will pack the toppoki with our own logo and push them to the supermarkets,” says Lua, adding that the products, not limited to toppoki, will be available on e-commerce and supermarkets next year.

The group is also committed to food safety and quality assurance. Apart from being Halal-certified, in September, MDT obtained the MeSTI (Makanan Selamat Tanggungjawab Industri) certification for its Food Processing Centres to solidify the brand’s commitment to food safety and quality assurance. MesTI is certification under the Ministry of Health’s food safety assurance programme.

The plan is to make MDT an established F&B brand in Southeast Asia within three years, says Lua. But so many plans in the pipeline, is he worried that he might be spreading the business to thin? 

“We had planned all these since a couple of years back and we always have the team ready. For instance, we planned to move into FMCG three years ago. It won’t be a hustle for us,” he says.

Lua admits that while regional expansion plans have been impacted due to travel restrictions, the team is now focused on innovation, to use tech to enhance customers’ experience and to roll out products that caters to what the market wants.

“Having a good team is very important,” says Lua. “As an individual, I can’t do a lot of things. We need a strong team to push ahead as we move into many vertical integrations.”