Interview: Lim Yi Perng, Joey Mah & Jane Chuck of Random Food Store

November 24, 2017

By Aiman Azri

When Random Food Store opened in December 2016, its flagship offering - steamed buns stuffed with Chinese roast duck, Korean fried chicken and wagyu beef, looking like gift-wrapped dim sum in bamboo baskets - had no trouble turning into an inescapable social media smash.

This eatery in Damansara Uptown became synonymous with these 21st-century baos, served under the banner of Buncit Bao-Bar, one of three concepts folded into Random Food Store (the other two specialise in gelato and coffee).

Step inside now and you might be surprised to see that Buncit Bao-Bar is no more; with minimal fanfare, Random Food Store made a blink-and-miss-it announcement on Instagram that its final baos would be served at the end of October.

In this in-depth interview, Random Food Store's founders - F&B entrepreneur Lim Yi Perng (who pioneered SS2's Standing Theory cafe), coffee roaster Joey Mah (co-owner of the Three Little Birds brand) and lifestyle influencer Jane Chuck (with over half a million IG followers to her credit) - explain how their experience with Buncit Bao-Bar fits into their master plan, and what's next for Random Food Store.

Note: Random Food Store will participate in Tiffin Food Court, a major celebration of food and drink, from 5pm till late, on December 8-10 (Friday-Sunday), at Lot No. 1, Jalan SS8/6, Sungai Way Free Trade Industrial Zone, Petaling Jaya (adjacent to the Western Digital Building on the LDP).

Random Food Store will serve its latest experimental fare at the event, joining scores of other top Malaysian F&B purveyors, including a special line-up curated by Eat Drink KL consisting of modern European restaurant Copper, burger and pizza maestros Patty & Pie, seafood specialists Eatomo, and creative cafe Polecats. The Eat Drink KL line-up will be for three days only.

Find out more about Tiffin Food Court at tiffin.my and facebook.com/tiffinevent

Please, introduce yourselves!

Perng: My role is in the kitchen. I handle the day-to-day operations of the kitchen, menu creation, S.O.P., things like that.

Jane: I do more on marketing, I handle social media and keep people coming.

Joey: I do everything else that they don't do. Tasting. Making sure the food is good.

Jane: We started out together with Buncit Bao-Bar. Basically I went to New York's BaoHaus and I was thinking, why doesn't KL have something like that? I really wanted to bring it back to KL and do something like that. But I can't cook, I just had the idea. So I contacted Joey and told him about this. He pulled in Perng and we were all good friends, so ...

What did you like about BaoHaus?

Jane: It's a very cool place. They play hip-hop music and they serve really small baos. It's not actual food, it's more like a snack, but people were queuing. Something cool.

Perng: Reimagining something classic, I think it was something we could bring back here - something we could play with, with some room to be creative as well.

How did Random Food Store come into the picture in relation to Buncit Bao-Bar?

Joey: The whole idea is, we want a shop that can house different brands. It's supposed to be very experimental. The kitchen is able to explore different foods, different collaborations. That's the whole idea. That's the whole point of us being random.

The first phase was the bao, but we wanted to change to something new, so we put a stop to it. We want to focus on something else.

Now it's the rice bowl. Coming up is breakfast-y stuff. A bit more of everything. We just came up with something new yesterday, even she (Jane) didn't know about it. It's supposed to be random ideas, stuff that we're passionate about.

The three of us come from different backgrounds. A lot of ideas we bring in are what we see in our daily lives; we try to make it more accessible.

Let's delve more into Buncit. The concept was inspired by New York, but were the recipes reminiscent of BaoHaus?

Jane: Different.

Joey: We had a lot of ideas of what we wanted to do, but we had to consider a lot of other stuff as well. Costs, and what is workable for us in the kitchen. We created a menu that was very versatile. We incorporated a lot of food that we thought about, like starfruit.

Perng: Baos overseas were being introduced to a new audience, people who've never seen baos before. So for them, it was automatically exotic. But if we did that in Malaysia, it would be like, why go here to Random Food Store, as opposed to the corner store that's been there serving baos all this time?

So we adapted it to make it exotic again. We treated the bao as a vessel for whatever you want to put inside. We drew influences from Mexican cuisine, Japanese, anything.

How was the reception?

Perng: It was very good! From what we could see, customers enjoyed it. It was just more of "Hey, when do you eat bao? Is it lunch? Dinner? Breakfast?" That's the tricky part. That's the sticky point.

When did you imagine people would come in to eat your baos?

Jane: We were thinking dinner, but surprisingly ...

Perng: It was quiet at night. So we had to do lunch. How do we do lunch? How do we target the lunch crowd?

In our small bites menu, we had a rice bowl, and that was doing better than the baos, sending a very clear signal that hey, people want rice! So we thought about it, it's lunchtime, you want to be full before you go back to work. Especially for the office crowd.

It was obvious we had to go with rice.

Is it fair then to say you shelved Buncit Bao-Bar because you don't want people to think of Random Food Store as just a bao place?

Perng: I think you could say that. It's not a negative association, but it does limit the choice in terms of when they can have it ...

When they think they can have it.

Perng: Yeah! It's a link that's not there in their heads. That's about it.

What do you wish you knew back when you first started planning Random Food Store?

Perng: More insight into the community could've been great, but there's no way to get that. You can't even ask the neighbours, because they sell a different thing; their insights are different.

It would be great if someone gave me a handbook, but you know it's just not feasible. It's something you have to go through. Every location you go through, you have to learn. You can make generalisations, but that's about it.

How did your past business experiences influence your decisions with Random Food Store?

Joey: This is completely different in terms of the food choices, in terms of how it all looks like. It's quite different from how I imagined doing it. It's quite interesting.

Perng: The previous place I ran (Standing Theory), I was fresh. I didn't know anything about this business. As you would expect, you make a million mistakes. So this was a perfect time to start fresh. Let's do it right. Of course, there are still mistakes, but a lot less.

Jane: Same. I used to run a cafe in Subang. Project Space Coffee, and it had to close down.

Why did you choose to open in Damansara Uptown?

Perng: We were friends with Every Sundae (a gelato shop operating in this shop-lot), and this space became available. That's the most practical reason.

Everyday, there's a certain amount of people in Uptown. A diverse kind of demographic. We have the family crowd, the working crowd - basically everything except tourists. At the same time, we're next to Village Park (Nasi Lemak), a mainstay in Uptown. Since we're not competing directly, this makes sense. At least we're guaranteed visitors.

But Uptown is notorious for no parking. How many people can come if it's so difficult? Given that was the case, there was no other way but to tackle the more local market, the captive market. I've heard many complaints from people who drive by a few times and go, "You know what? Another day."

You realise that every neighbourhood is completely different. SS2 is completely different from here. You realise that wherever you go, you have to spend the first couple of months just reading the area. What exactly do they want? It would be easier if there was a formula for it.

Still, it's fun because you expect something from the customers, and they give you something completely different.

Joey: Like, you would never expect the rice bowl to be popular, then it became the most popular item on the menu.

Perng: You open a bao shop and the most popular item is the rice.

Jane: We also had this Spicy Noodle Challenge that went viral.

Joey: We didn't expect that.

Is that still on the menu now that the challenge is over?

Jane: We have it.

Perng: But not the crazy spicy. It's 'just' spicy now. Not crazy spicy.

Joey: We can still do it. We just wouldn't want a big bowl of crazy spicy noodles.

Perng: A gigantic bowl of that ... no chance. You'll have problems the next day. In a few hours.

Joey: Straight away!

How did you try to push Buncit Bao-Bar as an attraction for customers?

Perng: I think the perception thing was something I didn't worry about at first. It was going to appeal to specific people, they were going to come.

You were going for the adventurous crowd. Early adopters.

Perng: Yeah. I think we were banking on them.

Subsequently, you had to serve the captive market in Uptown. What was the challenge in that? 

Joey: We tried very hard to make sure the baos were affordable. That's one thing we always want to try to do. But when people came in, they felt it was expensive, because they felt that there was only one little small bao.

We wanted to tell them that even if you order two baos, it's not expensive. We wanted you to have different varieties. But when people came in, they thought, "Oh, I'll only have one, that's it."

To be honest, if we had done two baos together, it'd have been much easier. It's OK - less than twenty ringgit and you get full. It's a different mentality.

Perng: In terms of the price point, we were focusing on value per customer. In terms of how much meat you get per bao, it's huge!

Would they know how much meat was inside before ordering?

Perng: They would have no idea! Maybe after eating, they'll be like, whoa, a lot more food than we expected. That's an error on our side. Association is everything. Unless we have a massive campaign to reeducate the public, they will just use what they're used to. We didn't account for that as our problem.

It doesn't look like much, but each bao will have more meat than what you have in nasi campur.

Jane: It's like a burger, but in bao form.

At what point did you transition to rice bowls? 

Perng: We've been wanting to do this for awhile. We were trying to figure out, bao for dinner and rice for lunch, but ultimately, we decided, let's put bao aside for the moment. Decision made, new menu.

And why not attach a brand to your rice bowls? Instead, you've placed it under an umbrella called Random Food Experiments.

Perng: We're putting it as an experiment first, but a brand is forthcoming.

Joey: This is more like, I'm collecting data.

Perng: We don't talk about it too much. Want a bao? Oh, try these instead. If customers come for a bao and they leave happy anyway, we know we've got something right.

Joey: We already have a brand ready. We just need more information from the customer side on what we can improve, so we can put it on the menu.

And the brand has a name ready?

Joey: Yes. Sek Fan.

Jane: Eat Rice.

At this point, what do you wish customers knew about Random Food Store?

Joey: It's not a place for Instagram pictures. It's a place for you to eat. We wish you would eat, and then take pictures.

Jane: Don't just come, take pictures and leave.

Joey: Some people just walk in, take pictures and leave.

Jane: And you can't do anything about it. It's just weird.

Joey: I know we created this mood for people to take pictures, but we wish they knew we spend a lot of time R&D-ing our food. We like to eat. We travel a lot. We eat a lot of different types of food. We try to incorporate it back into Malaysia. We try to make good food, accessible good food. We wish that people just come in and be more curious. When you come in, be open. Be open-minded.

Perng: It's random. Random ideas.

Jane: Maybe we should put one more item on the menu, Anything. Then we can do anything.

Perng: Omakase!

So basically, you wish customers would be more curious, more inquisitive.

Perng: Once that is achieved, everything else falls in place.

Joey: Curiosity is something that we want a lot of customers to have. They're too conservative. Sometimes they are very safe. They only consume things that they know. Or things that they feel is hype. "Oh everyone's eating this, let's try this!"

We like to serve communities. We're not chains, but I've always liked communities. We wanted to create something the community would accept. People come in, they enjoy themselves, come back the next day, bring their family and friends. We have different menus to make them excited.

Perng: I think we have a better grasp now of what the community wants in terms of taste. Something that makes them feel very comfortable, very satisfied. Rather than just trying to push and only do creative stuff. We really satisfy them first. Then we add the twists.

Tell us more about the rice bowls on your current menu.

Joey: There's a lot of things there that are actually the things we like to eat. You see the Monkey Head bowl, that's something that's quite interesting.

Jane: I actually didn't know it was vegetarian. I ate it and then I thought I tasted chicken.

Joey: Mushrooms that taste like chicken. Then we have our Supersized Bao-Bao rice bowl, which is quite famous. In all the meals, we try to find balance. Balance in flavour, sweetness, acidity.

Perng: Balance in an overall meal as well. The comfort of it, the size.

What tips do you have for anyone starting out in the restaurant business?

Joey: DON'T START. *laughter* Don't start ... until you know what you want to do.

Jane: I think you should listen to the customer as well.

Perng: Listen, and adapt. We learned to adapt rather than always being too stuck in our ways. Trying to get the customers to come along with your idea is a lot harder than trying to listen to the customer.

Joey: Let them get used to it. Let them grow with you.

Perng: Baby steps.

Joey: Not to shock them. When you shock them with new stuff, it's like, what's this? I'm not used to this.

Perng: Coffee's a good parallel. It was really bitter before, then suddenly, everything's sour! It's too much. It should have had more progression.

Before we end, let's talk about Tiffin Food Court. How will Random Food Store be participating in the event?

Perng: We're still working on the menu right now. We'll take a lot of elements from our current menu, the rice bowls, and branch it out into finger food.

The Tiffin Food Court is more about easy-to-carry type of food. We haven't settled exactly what we want to do there yet, but very much the same stuff here. Familiar, yet different.

Most likely we'll use Tiffin to test, and then adopt it back into the rice bowls here. We could potentially bring a bao there, but we're not sure.

What message do you try to send out about your food?

Perng: Wholesome!

Joey: Satisfying!

Perng: Generally, with fine food, you want to articulate why it's good, but we want, "It's damn good, but I don't know why!"

You're trying to capture the emotion.

Perng: Yeah. The feeling!

Joey: I want you to come back and eat it. After you eat the Monkey Head, you go, "What's that? I don't understand why but I want to eat it again."