Interview: Zaki and Kuan Ling - From Cartoon Art to Latte Art at The Prep Room

October 15, 2017

By Aiman Azri


For most cafe owners, Instagram is a cornerstone of their efforts to publicise their latest products and promotions. But the IG account of The Prep Room in Sri Hartamas (instagram.com/thepreproommalaysia) is often a different story, showcasing the very distinctive cartoon art of its co-founder Akmal Zaki.

Zaki's four-panel comic strips - hashtagged #ceritasetiaphari - furnish a rare, unvarnished glimpse into the life of a restaurant operator. He's honest and hard-hitting, shining a light on his flaws and frustrations. Erring employees and crude customers aren't spared. But there's a sense of joy too, especially in Zaki's illustrations about his toddler son, who motivates him to keep pushing forward through the highs and lows of the cafe business.

Eat Drink KL is proud to be partnering with The Prep Room to feature Zaki's work on a regular basis on our website. But first, we'd like to introduce you to Zaki and his wife (and cafe co-founder) Toh Kuan Ling.  Now in their mid-thirties and married for two years, they've been in the F&B business since opening Coffee Elements in Penang in 2013 before setting up The Prep Room two years ago.


How did you both get started together and in the restaurant business?

Kuan Ling: We began dating ten years ago. We saved money for several years while working in the banking line in Bangkok before opening Coffee Elements with my elder brother in Penang, since my family is originally from Penang. My brother runs Coffee Elements full-time now, but originally, Zaki left his job to run it too.

Zaki: In F&B, there's no way you can handle things remotely and tell people to take care of your cafe.

Kuan Ling: We refused to take a bank loan to open Coffee Elements. We were very clear that this business would be debt-free, based on our savings, based on our level of affordability.


Two years later, you opened The Prep Room. Why?

Zaki: There were two reasons. First, the Penang cafe was running smoothly. We had a growing customer base, the team was strong, and the process of hiring was easier as well. And secondly, I'm Ampang boy. I needed to come back.

Kuan Ling: The name Prep Room actually stands for Preparatory. Because we make our ingredients fresh – each and every source, each and every product. The fundamental reason of the business is to serve good, affordable, honest food.

Zaki: It's a challenging business. But this is something that I enjoy. It's not like I enjoy it everyday, but most of the time I do.


What do you enjoy about it?

Zaki: Moulding the café to be successful. For example, at Coffee Elements, we are on the first floor instead of the ground floor, because rental is cheaper. But that means there's a lot less of a crowd. So during the first six months, it was really, really tough. There were certain days when there were very few customers. So we put a lot of effort into everything. For customer service, I had to be there almost every day until we closed at midnight.

Kuan Ling: I was still working in KL, so I'd take the bus back to Penang every Friday after work. Then on Monday, I'd fly back to KL. Every single week.

Zaki: The process is very slow, and sometimes it can be damn painful. We can't invest on large-scale marketing or spend a lot of money on Instagram or Facebook. So for me, we had to focus on customer service. There's no other way up.

I was at Coffee Elements every day, either on the floor or in the kitchen. Mostly on the floor because I can pour coffee and talk to customers – it has to be personalised service; then only you can see the customers keep coming back.

The other challenge is building the team. I enjoy it when the team members are successful. We have a staff member, Victor, who's been with us at Coffee Elements since day one. He's grown with us and he's our supervisor now. He recently purchased a condo with his own saved money at the age of 23 years old. So we're happy that we can actually provide for his basic needs, to buy property, buy a car.



Are the keys to success similar in KL?

Zaki: I believe we need to have success with the customer. If the customers are happy, sooner or later, the café will be successful. Talk to the customers, be sincerely friendly with them. It worked in Penang, so I don't see why it can't work in KL as well.

In KL, our café underwent the same phases. It was difficult to start, very difficult to build up the customer base. Part of the reason is because here, you don't really have a walk-in crowd. So it really depends on word of mouth. And with so many choices in KL, what makes you stand out from the rest? How do you get people to relay the message, to talk about The Prep Room?


Zaki, your artwork is all over The Prep Room - on the entrance, the walls, even the ceiling and the menu. Talk about that.

Zaki: I've been drawing since I was a kid. I still have the comic books that I drew when I was 12 years old. Sometimes I read back and think, “Really? I drew this?� But it's part of my childhood memory. You can see a lot of Gila-Gila moments.

Kuan Ling: Zaki expresses himself through drawing. Sometimes when you're home after a long day at the cafe, you're too tired to even tell your spouse what you've gone through. So there are times when I actually find out how he feels through #ceritasetiaphari.



As an artist, who are you influenced by?

Z: Calvin and Hobbes.

Really? The humour is very different.
Zaki: It's different because Calvin and Hobbes' English is so powerful! I don't have that sort of English, man. *laughs*

It's more about the tone. You seem more inclined toward a darker tone.
Zaki: But I love Calvin and Hobbes, I love Doraemon, Slam Dunk. For the dark tone, I blame movies. For example, Memento, or The Three Colours trilogy.

Zaki: My wife will keep reminding me, “Eh, make sure you post something cheerful, not too much gloom and doom.� So I suppose you can see a bit of balance on our Instagram account.

Kuan Ling: I don't think he listen to me that much. *laughs*



What feedback have you received about the cartoons on your cafe's Instagram page?

Zaki: I don't really ask. But some people voluntarily tell me. They might say the strip where my baby fell was funny.

Frankly, the cartoons are more for myself. Food photos would probably be more beneficial to the café, because people prefer to look at food. So that's why there's a bit of compromise in the account; there's some food photos as well.

But since I can draw, why not share the strips with customers? And hopefully they'll like it.

It's not sunshine everyday as a cafe owner. You have bad days, and I wanted somewhere to express that. I can't say sad things to my wife every day. She's still working in her banking career, she's working very hard.


How has having a child influenced how you run the café?

Zaki: I'm now less fierce. * laughs* Maybe I don't scold my staff so much, because I wouldn't want someone treating my baby that way. So my behaviour has actually improved. When I was in Penang, I was very strict with my staff. Many staff members didn't like me at all there. So I think I've changed for the better with the baby.


What keeps you going in the cafe business? What makes you happy?

Kuan Ling: If you enjoy what you're doing, it becomes a part of your life. You'll somehow continue doing it. My mom sold assam laksa for 20 over years. The same exact laksa for over 20 years until I started working.

Zaki: My own mom used to sell carpets and Tupperware; when she was pregnant, she'd need to ride the bus. Both our moms had their hard times. If they went through it, why can't I? We are so privileged. So tak payah complain lah. Balik rumah, got roof over our heads and all that. No need to keep dwelling on the problems.


Now that you can look back at four years of being in F&B, what are you most thankful for?

Kuan Ling: We have a set of very loyal customers. When I was pregnant, we invited a few close customers to a party with my family friends. I can think of a few like Uncle Kong, who's become very, very close to us.

Zaki: On certain days, I might not feel like talking to customers, so I run into the kitchen. But most of the time, I'll chit chat with customers. We don't want to drag our feet to the café. We want to work happily and all that. Most customers are nice. We've had some crazy customers, but that's a very small percentage.



This interview appeared first on Eat Drink KL

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