Enterprise
Catering to the appetite of the masses
Behonce Beh 
Foo Kuan (left) and Foo Khun started Big Onion Caterers in 2010
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An event or gathering is not complete without food so caterers are the go-to person for most event planners or organisers.

Though cooking for a restaurant and catering for off-site events may share similarities, they have different standard operating procedures and requirements.

“Catering is the polar opposite of running a cafe. Running a cafe is somewhat easier as you wait for your customers to walk in and all you need are there on your premises.

“Whereas for catering, food handling is important from the kitchen to the venue. The decision to cook in the kitchen or at the venue needs to be considered beforehand, along with how the food will be served and presented on-site,” explains Big Onion Food Caterer Sdn Bhd director and executive chef Liang Foo Khun.

The company was founded by Foo Khun and his brother Foo Kuan, who is the CEO, in 2010 as they outgrew their cafe business.

Prior to Big Onion, the brothers managed a cafe in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, in 2003. They had their first-hand experience as caterers when their regular customers approached them with orders for off-site catering.

“These catering orders grew from 20 to 100 persons and then I realised there is a market for catering,” Foo Khun recalls.

Today, Foo Kuan manages Big Onion’s general operations and business direction while Foo Khun focuses his efforts in the kitchen.

Foo Khun tells FocusM that they were exposed to the food and beverage (F&B) industry from young as the Liang family businesses ranged from operating Chinese restaurants to coffee shops.

Big Onion’s set-up is fairly huge. It has over 80 staff with about 50 based in the kitchen. This large pool of talent allows it to cater for up to 15 functions a day, with an average of 100 persons per function.

Foo Khun says the company’s largest catering order came from a corporate client which required three meals (breakfast, lunch and tea) for 4,500 guests for an event last year.

To date, orders from corporate clients remain the biggest contributor to the company’s revenue. Private events such as birthday parties and weddings represent only 10% of its business.

“Private events often happen once a year compared to corporate clients which have events all through the year. This enables us to grow a steady pool of repeat clients over the years,” he adds.

Corporate clients, adds Foo Khun, are more demanding when it comes to food presentation and prefer to serve local cuisine.

“Though there have been requests for Italian or French menu, many stick to the local menu as a safe option,” he says.

Foo Khun also says the influx of cooking shows and competition has inspired Malaysians to try the different cuisine they see on these programmes.

The demand for catering services is generally stable throughout the year with a low season in April. Foo Khun adds it is true that corporate spending has been slashed and his customers are tightening their purse strings.

“What we do to ensure that our offerings meet their expectations in terms of pricing and quality is to work closely with our suppliers to manage costs from our end.

“We also have to work efficiently to reduce food wastage by working closely with the client to gauge the number of persons to cater for.”

Typically, a caterer would prepare an extra 5% food for an order to ensure there is enough to go round.

The catering business is tough and competitive, says Foo Khun, as new businesses pop up every month. Newcomers generally operate on a smaller scale and cater for orders for up to 100 persons.

“Even cafes, restaurants and hotels are providing catering services and customers are willing to try something new,” he laments.

Customers are now opting for table service from caterers as opposed to buffet-style dining

Challenges

One of the challenges of catering is the shelf life of food. A typical function or event would last three to four hours and the food not only has to be made as fresh as possible, it must also be able to withstand our hot weather.

“We always tell customers to consume the food at the venue and not take it away as the food could have been on the buffet line for a while and could lead to food poisoning,” he says.

Investing in industrial kitchen appliances such as combi-ovens and blast chillers, while typically expensive, is necessary to ensure the freshness of the food prepared.

When asked whether customers are receptive towards a healthier menu, Foo Khun explains there is a demand for such meals, but many still prefer the traditional option.

“Our corporate clients do request for a healthier menu with more vegetables and fresh produce. From their feedback, we noticed they would usually switch back to our Malaysian menu after giving the healthier menu a try,” he says.

Table service which was previously limited to hotels and restaurants is also gaining popularity among customers as they increasingly host events off-site.

Foo Khun explains table service takes a lot more work as compared to buffet style as it needs not only more wait staff to serve guests but also more kitchen helpers to plate each dish.

“We recently organised a four-course dinner for 680 guests. That means we had to move a lot of our equipment to the event venue to ensure food quality and presentation,” he says.

For that dinner last November, Big Onion deployed over 100 staff; inclusive of part-time wait staff and also 40 of its own in-house kitchen staff to prepare the dinner.

“Not only did we have to ensure food quality, we had to look at other details such as ensuring that the plate used to serve each dish was hot and of the quality that you’ll find in a restaurant,” he recalls.

Despite such challenges, Foo Khun is confident that such services, investment in which does not come cheap, will differentiate his set-up from that of competitors.

Food presentation, quality and taste are important when it comes to catering for events

Beyond catering

Catering represents only one part of Big Onion Food Caterer Sdn Bhd’s business. The company is also involved in other food and beverage (F&B) services such as providing on-site food, including managing the cafeteria and kitchen for corporate offices and serviced suites.

Its executive chef Liang Foo Khun says it has been providing on-site services since 2015.

“F&B is not their (corporate offices) core business and they may lack the experience in this area, hence they would outsource this to a third-party operator,” he says.

Big Onion currently operates Big Kitchen at Parkroyal Serviced Suites in Kuala Lumpur, the cafeteria for Hong Leong Bank Bhd headquarters in Bukit Damansara and another one for Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in Bangi.

“While we may have only three locations so far, the demand has been growing as we onboarded to locations last year,” he explains.

Big Onion is in the midst of securing a few more locations for cafeterias in the Klang Valley; a move which could boost the company’s foothold in the on-site food service sector.



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 271.