Welcome to Episode 16!
Our guest for STIMY Episode 16 is Renyi Chin.
Renyi is the co-founder of MyBurgerLab, MyPizzaLab, and MyBobaLab alongside his friends and partners, Chang Ming and Wee Kiat.
If you live in KL, you will probably have heard of MyBurgerLab: the burger joint that went completely viral several years ago with their charcoal buns & continue to hit the headlines due to their innovative flavours. Quirky options that include the nasi lemak burger, the salted egg yolk burger and the upcoming flavour, The World’s Smelliest Burger!
Who is Renyi Chin?
Renyi grew up in Kuala Lumpur and when he was young, he wanted to be a clown and a roller coaster designer due to his love of making people happy.
But when the time came to choose a degree, he ended up picking engineering! But rather than completing his degree, Renyi ended up dropping out and for the next few years, did all kinds of odd jobs while trying to find out what he wanted to do with his life.
The path towards founding MyBurgerLab was hardly an easy one, but there were many significant incidents that happened that resulted in Renyi entering the F&B industry.
Some of the things we talked about include:
- Why he chose to work at Yellowstone park for three 3-month summers straight & the impact this left on him;
- His prior businesses leading up to founding MyBurgerLab;
- How he got Wee Kiat and Chang Ming involved in his idea of starting a cafe and why that later turned into a burger joint;
- The 10 R&D sessions that they conducted to perfect their products – p/s: they almost burned the kitchen down!!
- How Renyi came up with their signature charcoal burgers;
- The 2 critical incidents that happened which made MyBurgerLab go viral, resulting in people queuing for 2 hours every day for their charcoal burgers!
Renyi & his team succeeded in maintaining the virality around MyBurgerLab for 2 years but MyBurgerLab is a business, so we talked about:
- The scary drop that hit MyBurgerLab when their virality tapered out;
- How Renyi came out with unicorn products to boost sales;
- How they created MyBurgerLab’s signature level-up company culture;
- Why MyBurgerlab’s staff consists mainly of university students;
- The secret to MyBurgerLab’s patty;
- How Renyi came up with some of their most innovative flavours including the Nasi Lemak Burger & Jammin’ with Elvis Burger (aka peanut butter and jelly fillings!);
- How MyBurgerLab responded to COVID with kindness; and
- So much more.
If you love burgers or want to know how MyBurgerLab creates the culture they’re so known for, then this is definitely the episode for you!
If you’re looking for more inspirational stories on STIMY, check out:
- Austen Allred: Co-Founder & CEO of Lambda School – a coding school that lets you attend for FREE using the Income Sharing Agreement (ISA) scheme, where you have to pay back only after earning above $50k/year. Graduates of this Y Combinator backed startup have gone on to work in Fortune 500 companies like Facebook, Google & IBM
- Kendrick Nguyen: Co-Founder of Republic – one of the top 3 equity crowdfunding platforms in the US
- Yi Jun Loh: Food blogger, podcaster & writer
- Darren Teoh: Owner & Head Chef of Dewakan, which was the first Malaysia restaurant to rank in the Asia Top 50 Best Restaurant
- Maurizio Leo: Engineer, blogger & founder of The Perfect Loaf – one of the top sourdough blogs in the world
- Guy Kawasaki: Chief Evangelist of Canva & Apple
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Some of the things we talked about in this STIMY Episode can be found below:
- MyBurgerLab: Website, Instagram, Facebook
- Renyi: [email protected]
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Ep 16: Ren Yi Chin (Co-Founder of MyBurgerLab)
Renyi Chin: I was there alone, I could to some extent, reinvent myself because I was the 26-year-old loser who was starting uni again.
As much as people don't say that to my face, or it could be in my head, but that's what I felt during my time then. So I could, to some extent, reinvent myself. I made a bunch of new friends. I saw the world differently when I went out hiking or camping in the backcountry as they call it, I felt like I was one with nature again.
When you go backcountry camping or hiking, there is a chance that you might die. There are grizzly bears, black bears, er wolves, and a host of bison. Bison can mow you to death.
Ling Yah: Hey, everyone.
Welcome to episode 16 of the So This Is My Why podcast. I'm your host and producer, Ling Yah. And today's guest is Renyi, co-founder of MyBurgerlab, MyPizzaLab, and MyBobaLab.
If you live in KL, you've probably heard of MyBurgerLab. It is one of the most popular burger joints in town known for its charcoal buns and highly innovative flavors, including the recent, nasi lemak burger, salted egg yolk burger, and PB&J burger.
But how did it all start?
Well, for starters Renyi was a uni dropout, but several significant incidents molded him - his time working at Starbucks and also three summers spent working at Yellowstone in the States.
In this interview, we deep dive into Renyi's story. Of how he went from being a uni dropout to forming a burger joint with two of his good friends and partners, Chang Ming and Wee Kiat, the challenges they faced in the early days.
Big hint: they almost burned the kitchen down! To what it was like being a part of a viral trend with people queuing up to two hours before opening just for their burgers, which ran out within two hours. And how once that viral trend tapered off, how they solidified their business while creating a vibrant company culture among the employees, most of whom are university students!
And if you're a burger lover, Renyi also shares the behind the scenes secrets on how they make their Patty, how he conceptualized as some of their most popular flavors: the nasi lemak burger, the PB&J burger, and next season's flavor. The world's smelliest burger.
So are you ready?
Welcome Renyi to this podcast. I normally like to start this interview by going back into a person's life and what they were like as a child. And during my research, I found that when you're growing up, you wanted to be a clown and a roller coaster designer?
Renyi Chin: That's correct. You have done your research.
Ling Yah: Yes. How did that come about? What were you thinking of at the time?
Renyi Chin: So I've always grown up wanting to be a crowd-pleaser.
I like making people happy. I think as a child, the first thing that you would associate happiness with, at least for me, was to be a clown, because clowns are at parties, so that was my first association of what making people happy was.
And as a child, when I make people laugh, there was a sense of joy that I derived from that. So it was something that a lot of people find odd, I mean, I've never told anyone about it until I get interviewed about it.
So obviously as I grew older, and you're trying to figure out what you want to do in life after high school...
Just like a typical, Malaysian family I've always been brainwashed to be on the science-cy side of things. So even in high school, I've always done math. I've always done science. So, I knew that I had to be an engineer.
Ling Yah: What do you mean by had? That's an interesting word to use.
Renyi Chin: Again, my dad, over the years, it's like you gotta do this, you gotta do that.
And to me given the circumstances of what was provided, in terms of, Hey, you got to be a scientist, you've got to be a lawyer, a doctor, based on the grades that I had, based on what subjects I was interested in, engineering seemed to be the most likely choice. So to me, that was the path that I had to take.
Chinese guy. Good at math. Good at physics. you're going into engineering. Even the counselors at that time would suggest. So then, there is still a part of me that asks, what kind of engineer do I want to be and mechanical to me at that time. Sounds like the most logical choice.
Don't ask me why, but at the time I didn't think I was cut out to be an electrical engineer. I mean, when you were choosing to go into college, you really don't think too much about, what is the difference between an electrical or mechanical engineer?
So civil engineers, all those didn't really jive with what I wanted to do. And I thought, okay, a mechanical engineer. I get to play around for machines. I used to like cars back then. and I like robots.
So it made sense. Over the course of me going through college and uni, I developed a small interest in roller coasters and I thought, hey, coasters are a theme park, is where the clowns live, right? It's kind of a full circle.
I like being on roller coasters.
At that time, I think it was still the, Hey I could be an engineer. Didn't need to be boring.
I didn't need to be working in factories. I could be making something that made people happy through the physical experience.
I think in the two examples that I gave, which is either wanting to be a clown or wanting to be a roller coaster designer, it was still the same thing, which is to provide some form of experience that derives joy to the people around me.
How I ended up being the F&B was simply because as I was studying, I worked part-time just to get a little bit more experienced and also a little bit of side pocket money.
I was able to derive that joy by serving people and the people that I serve.
I was able to make them happy almost instantaneously just by giving them good food and good service.
Ling Yah: Yeah. So what you're referring to was your time at Starbucks from 2007 to 2009.
Renyi Chin: That's correct.
Going to the workplace, I didn't really do too much research. Cause I took the KTM home, frequently back in the day.
So when I was studying in, at that time it was INTI college, and I would walk past the Starbucks at Carrefour in Subang, it's long since closed down. And I saw that there was a hiring banner, so I was like, okay, it's convenient.
Starbucks is kind of cool. Why not work there?
So going in there with zero expectations, I just wanted a job. But the first thing that really impressed me was on the first day of me getting in touch with them for an interview, they say, oh, okay, congratulations.
You're hired. You're one of us now. You are a Starbucks partner. I'm like a partner, what does that mean?
The story then she gave me a very quick introduction to the concept of partners in Starbucks, where in the States at one point in time, everyone that works at Starbucks has a share in the business, that is far from the truth I found out later on.
But it made me appreciate a company that wants their ground crew to have a sort of buy-in to how well the business was doing.
After that, I was introduced to, hey, this is our five or four culture. This is what we believe in working here. And I thought, wow, these are things that I find myself associating with, how to be welcoming, how to be sincere, how to take care of one another.
I didn't expect work to be that way. I thought F&B is just come in, you make some coffee and then serve it and that's done.
But what they built behind the scene was a very strong ecosystem where it relied on hey, to be a part of this, you need to believe in these values, but they didn't tell you that directly.
So to me, that's what I fell in love with
Ling Yah: And I think apart from being at Starbucks, you also did the work and travel USA, which also had a huge impact on the way that you decided to enter into myBurgerLab.
Renyi Chin: Yes.
Ling Yah: Could you share a little about that whole experience?
Renyi Chin: I love that you have done your research very thoroughly.
So when I was studying in Nottingham, Malaysian campus, I was out of place because a lot of people don't know this, but I'm a uni dropout. I dropped out once. I went to the University of New South Wales in Australia when I was, I think 19 or 20.
But I dropped off the one and a half year and I came back, I worked odd jobs. I worked in the marketing office as an office boy, I worked in, you know, a mechanic workshop.
When I was closer to 25, 26 years old, that's when I figured, I wanted to continue to studingy because I didn't know what I was doing.
I didn't have a degree. All my friends we're moving forward in life. And, so I went to the University of Nottingham and I was finishing up my degree in mechanical engineering. Then. I found it hard to fit in because everyone else was around that 18, 19 years old,
Ling Yah: The mentality is different.
Renyi Chin: Yes. And there's this guy who is 27 years old and now in uni again. So I started from scratch. I couldn't transfer any of the credits that I had from University of New South Wales. So during the first year of the summer holidays, I didn't know what I wanted to do.
Everyone else was doing an internship, everyone else was, hey, , we got to secure an internship and whatnot, and I couldn't care less. I didn't want to trap myself for three months. And I heard of this program called Work and travel USA. And, I said, yeah, I have a little bit of money saved up. I could afford it.
Let's try it. So I think it was one of the best decisions I've made at that point in time, in my life, just by all the bad decisions. I went there and I just wanted to not be at home because I knew if I stayed at home, I would get a lot nagging from my dad, from my parents. And I say, Hey, I just want to get out.
So this was a fun way to get out of home for 3 months.
I remember I had to choose different locations to work in the States. And for those that don't know what work in travel is, it's very simple. You work in the States for three months and before you head there, there'll be a job fair that is hosted in Malaysia. So American employers will come over and then you're employed by Chavez. And then we'll go over. Work for three months. And then when you finish, you take the money that you've earned. You go traveling around the states.
You have to be a student or you just graduated within the year and you have to be under 30. So that was few of the requirements. So I thought, okay. Most of the places that were offered were restaurants, cafes, chains.
Like, so you got Applebees, you got Starbucks and a lot of them were also theme parks or you can work at six flags. But none of them really struck me as something interesting. I was thinking, okay, at worst, I'll go back to work in Starbucks.
Ling Yah: Theme parks. Wasn't that what you wanted to do at the time?
Renyi Chin: Here's the thing. I was thinking that I will probably spend the rest of my life there. And I heard from seniors that had worked in theme parks that is not what it's cooped up to be. So I was quite hesitant to go.
One place stood out for me, it was Yellowstone and it was the only national park that was up for selection and at that point in time. And to me Yellowstone was like, wait a minute, this place sounds so familiar. Where have I heard it before? And, I did a bit of research and I realized that, hey, it is where Yogi bear is from.
So if we all grew up with Yogi bear and Yogi bear lives in a park called Jellystone and Jellystone is a parody of Yellowstone. And I thought, wow. I'll be out in the wilderness, I'll be away from people. And I found that to be very inviting.
So I took on the offer, and I went to Yellowstone, not knowing what to expect other than the fact that it's the back country.
There will be wolves, they'll be bears around in the park, and that is a super volcano. That's all I knew, heading over there.
Ling Yah: So you have never been to the States at the time ?
Renyi Chin: I have not been. I just knew that I needed time alone. I needed somewhere where it's different and it's not in a city.
Everyone else, even some of my friends who joined the Work & Travel, they're like, why did you choose a park? Because it had the worst reputation in terms of making money.
And he had the worst reputation in terms of people going there in groups. So I wanted to go alone. So I went alone. But, the best time of my life. Absolutely. In terms of making friends, because I was there alone, I could to some extent, reinvent myself because I was the 26 year old loser who was starting uni again.
As much as people don't say that to my face, or it could be in my head, but that's what I felt during my time then. So I could, to some extent, reinvent myself. I made a bunch of new friends. I saw the world differently when I went out hiking or camping in the back country as they call it, I felt like I was one with nature again.
When you go back country camping or hiking, there is a chance that you might die. There are grizzly bears, black bears, er wolves, and a host of bisons. Bisons can mow you to death.
I mean, of course, if you take precautions, you learn how to navigate around these animals, but there's a chance. And when you go hiking alone in the wilderness and you are miles away from people. So this is one thing that I'd never experienced until I was there at that time.
When you live in a city, when you live in KL or PJ, you're always around people, even though you're in your own room, you're isolated, but you're just that 10 meters out the door, or you know, five minutes out the door. There's someone around you. However, when you go out there in Yellowstone, you know that you hike 1 mile in, most likely within the one mile radius there's no one but you and nature.
And that gave me a sense of solitude, a sense of peace that I never experienced before. And it was then that I decided that, hey, it is my life. I live by my rules. I do what I want. Because prior to that, I was still trying to fall back in line. Also trying to fall back to be a part of what is normal in society.
I was trying to play catch up. My friends are 26 years old, 27 years. I think just like a lot of youngsters nowadays, who are lost, who are very frustrated with where they are, especially within a post COVID world. I was going through that. So, it gave me a little clarity there.
it didn't matter what anyone else thought about me. It was just between me and for lack of a better reference and the creator.
I'm an atheist, but at the time the creator was nature. .
And to me, if I died there. You know, getting mauled by a bear or bison, I was fine with it. Because when you look up in the sky, in the wilderness at night, where there is no city light pollution, you see the stars, you see the Milky way, and it's an experience that you will never get here in the city.
You got to go drive very very far out and have the light switch off to see space and it's a very holistic experience. And that was when I knew I was just a speck floating in space. None of this matters, none of everything that people expect you to matter.
So as long as I was alive, I was going to live life by my way. Of course, without having to hurt anyone else. With a certain guidance of morals. And I think that was when a shift of who I was started happening.
And I went back again to Yellowstone into my second year. And then in my third year of uni. Everyone was like, are you crazy? Why are you not doing your internship? When you graduate, you have no job. I was like, no, man. That's where the answer is. That's where I want to be. And I mean, my first year I didn't have the answer yet, but I knew there was a draw there.
So I kept going back every year. So by the time I finished my third year in uni, I also finished my last year in the States and Yellowstone, but I walked out of it or I graduated with a sense of secureness. I'm only answerable to myself. That nothing can stop me from doing what I want or do.
I didn't know what I wanted to do that, that was very heavy stuff. I might not be portraying it or eloquently as I felt at that time but it was definitely a turning point in my life . It was a soul searching experience that I'd never known I needed that I never knew was something that people should do.
I walked out of uni, not having a burden of, Hey, I need to find a job right now. I need to do this. I need to do that. But that was what I was carrying. When I went into uni, it was a very heavy burden that I needed to figure my life out. I need to sort this out. I need to be normal again.
Then I realized I didn't need to be normal.
Ling Yah: So you left and you didn't feel that pressure of being like everyone else. But at the same time, I understand you were entering into some business ventures prior to myBurgerLab? I think it was like a Groupon concept.
Renyi Chin: Yup. So that's two businesses that I was involved in.
The first one was a tee shirt business. So one, part of my uni life in Nottingham that I really, really appreciated was playing ultimate Frisbee. So I met a bunch of great friends there. They are still within my circle of friends and Ultimate Frisbee is a game that is not very popular.
And when you talk to people about, and they're like, what is that? You play with the dog. But I liked the fact that it was not popular. I liked the fact that it was very intensive, it was a game that required a lot of skill, but a lot of people make fun of it. A lot of people belittle, but I found joy in that game, because one thing about the ultimate Frisbee community is they don't feel like they are tied to what is expected of them.
Because when you play badminton, play basketball, I do enjoy those games as well.
But that's the sense of normalcy. Like everyone plays it. Ultimate Frisbee, there's just a sense of freedom. There's that sense of comradery.
Now one thing about ultimate Frisbee is that there is just no referee. So even if there's a competition, there's no referee, a lot of it is suffering.
So one of the things that I learned, playing ultimate Frisbee is how do you practice. That sense of sportsmanship. People don't talk about sportsmanship all the time, but in Frisbee, you see it in action. When someone accidentally whacks your hand when you're trying to throw the disc, someone whacks your hand, it's a foul. And, the two of those people need to talk it out to say, Hey, what happened?
I tried to do this and you did this. I haven't released the disc yet. So I've never seen that in any other sport. So to me, I love the sport. I love the people that came with the sport because it attracted a very unique group of people. I don't know how to explain it. It's a bunch of rebels. It's a bunch of people who were just different.
So I love Frisbee so much. I realized that, Hey, everyone's wearing like basketball jerseys. They're wearing soccer jerseys. No one is very apparent for Frisbee . So I say, Hey, why not design for frisbee jersey so that I can feel proud of the sport that they love?''
So that was my first foray into running a business. It was just printing t-shirts and then trying to get the customer has to buy it. but because it was quite unique, no one else was doing it, business was fairly decent. I was able to sell shares all the way to UK and in the States as well at that point in time.
So I was having a decent income, even when I was in uni.
It was also in the ultimate Frisbee club circle that I met Wee Keat, one of my partners in the business. Wee Keat was studying finance and accounting in Nottingham at a time.
And he played Frisbee and we got along really well. And I was like, Hey, do you want to sell tshirts with me? And we kind of in a bit of a small joint venture thing unofficially. So that was how we got into business.
And then when we graduated, I was like, okay, I know that I didn't want to be an engineer anymore. The moment I graduated, I knew I didn't want to be an engineer,
Ling Yah: But your dad didn't know this. He was like pushing you to apply.
Renyi Chin: Oh yeah he was err pushing me to apply for jobs. And I was like, yeah, I sent out a bunch of resumes, but I sent out zero.
I'm sorry. I sent out zero. I knew that if I started doing that, I will be forced down a path that I didn't want to. So I did lie to my parents that I was looking for a job outside to be an engineer but I was to some extent also desperately trying to find a way to find it, something meaningful for myself that I can do for the rest of my life.
One of the things that I brought home with me from my US trip was actually Groupon. So in my last three days before departing Seattle on my final year, I learned of this app called Groupon and again, I'm very attracted to things that are about community.
Wow you can group buy. A bunch of people come together telling the restaurant, Hey, we're going to buy a thousand of that voucher. You're going to give us five bucks off or 10 bucks off, and I was like, Oh man, this is such a cool idea. Of course, at the time, I didn't know how bad it was on business.
That model sucks for businesses. But the point is I was attracted to that model and I came back. And I spoke to Wee Keat and said, hey, there's this thing going on in the States, this is called Groupon. It's a big deal, we should do something like that, but we go, so we started researching what we had to do.
Then we realized that you didn't develop things from the start and this is like 2000, I don't know, 2010, 2011. There was no such thing as a startup scene. No one really knows what to do, except for Joel Ngeaw, he did really well after that.
At a time, all we knew was, okay, we want to develop an app. And we were doing our research and we realized, hey, you can actually buy a ready made Groupon app and all you need to do is plug in your brand name. It sounded really good as a solution, but in hindsight it was the worst decision ever because you were tied down to whatever that software was.
There was no way to change it. So that was our little foray into the app business , because three months in, we ran out of money. We were outplayed, we were out pivoted. So we were one of the first, I daresay, one of the first 4 Groupon clones, including Joel's Groupsmall, I believe that was called that then.
But everyone else that bought into that model in the beginning, they had firepower, they had money. Just like how, , grab is now and Foodpanda, when they have money, they have investors, they could pump a lot of money into -
It's a chicken and egg thing.
You need merchants to be onboard. You need your user base to purchase the coupons. You need a lot of marketing and back in the days, if you sign up and if you refer to your friends, you have a chance to win I-phones and whatnot. But for us, we had like a 6,000 ringgit budget. You couldn't do anything with it.
It was a humbling lesson, but I think each of us at a time had a different takeaway on the business failed. But to me it was, Oh, wow. , the big boys play differently. And if you are just going to skim the surface of that industry or skim the surface off of that vistas model,
It's very hard to make the cut. So it was very humbling, but I was like, okay, fine. Immediately the moment we saw them throwing deals and, doing things the way they were doing and growing at the scale that they were growing, we knew we were outplayed. There was no way we could catch up. But again, the lesson was learned.
And then after that, we quit the business and then we went about searching for what we personally wanted to do. He went to the States for six months, or was it a year for an internship program? I was just working at red bean bag trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Actually, Red Bean Bag was closer to the end of my journey.
Ling Yah: So at the time, you did not feel like you wanted to join a company? It's not like you were in the illusion of, oh, I can do a startup. It's going to be glamorous and fun. You knew the reality of it.
Renyi Chin: I knew the reality of it. But I was too stupid to know that, that it was that difficult.
At that time it was just, okay. Yeah, this just wasn't my thing. I'm just going to move on. I mean, thankfully the money that I saved from working in the States, I actually saved up the majority of my money from the three years of being there. So I was able to tahan lah.
I was able to sustain myself while trying to find out what is there to do. So I was working at this place called Caffinis in KL, who was a friend of a friend because they knew that I had like a Starbucks background and I was doing latte art. Back in the days, it wasn't really popular, so they hired me.
So I was just like spending my time there, trying to figure out what to do and Hai Lin and Kheong came along. And they said, Hey, we're opening up this cafe called Red Bean Bag, and would you like to be the first barista? And I was like, Oh wow.
And Hai Lin is my friend from the University of New South Wales days, the one that I dropped out of, but we remained friends throughout the years and she saw me doing coffee and one night she said, Hey, , why don't you come help us set up the bar.
And I was like, okay. Yeah, sure. Why not? I was getting tired of working at Caffinis as well. So I was their first barista and when I was at that stage, me and my other partner, Chan Ming, who I have been talking with while I was in caffinis said, Hey, , let's do something together because I knew he was working as an engineer.
He was working as a draftsman, but he wasn't too happy with where he was. So I was like, hey, you want to start something together? I'm working in the cafe business , I seem to like it. I seem to have a hang of it. Would you like to start a cafe? He said, yeah, let me think about it.
So I went into Red Bean Bag and this was in 2011, somewhere in November. That's when they started the business. And I told them, I want to open a cafe myself too. And I felt that I have to be honest with them rather than making them feel that I'm just there to just steal ideas from them.
I say, hey, I'm gonna help you guys out but at the same time, this is something that I want to do down the line. And they were understanding and they were like, yeah, no, no, no worries. We're friends anyway. So in between all that me working part time in Red Bean Bag and trying to figure out how to convince Chan Ming to hop on to this idea I have about starting our own cafe.
Ling Yah: Yeah. He joined you at the kitchen as well eventually.
Renyi Chin: Yes. Eventually. We said hey, why don't you work in a kitchen and learn a thing or two on how to run the kitchen. And he did that. So we were basically for lack of a better word, using Red Bean Bag as an internship, I guess, to learn, because prior to that, when you are working for a place and you only see it as a passing stage, you aren't there to learn.
All you're there is hey, I'm going to do my job. I'm going to have money. I'm going to get out. But that period of time when we were in there, it was, Hey, We're going to see ourselves as bosses of our own cafe and one of the things that we have to face ?
Because when you're working as an employee, the problems that you can think of or the problems that you envision are very different from running the business.
And sometimes you need to pull yourself out and go like, wait a minute. And you have a staff here who is while working with you, plotting to start his own business.
It was a very interesting phase. Again, Kheong and Lin have been very generous with their time. They were just supportive.
They were like, what I understand, this is just a stage for you. As long as you help us, we're happy to help you back. So I'm very, very grateful for that. So, how did it evolve into a burger? How did the cafe evolve into a burger?
So me and Chan Ming, we were out talking to the suppliers distributors, and we realized that, and I'm sure in your research, you would have found this, we realized that a lot of people were in the midst of planning to open cafes. Either we bumped into them or suppliers or distributors were giving hints to say, hey, I've got a few clients buying this and that.
So we got hints that in the next 12 months, a lot of cafes are going to pop up.
Ling Yah: That surprised me when I did my research. And I thought why though? Why is everyone at the time wanting to open a cafe do you think?
Renyi Chin: It was the third wave. So that was the time when going to a cafe was cool I don't know if you know, but 2013, there was a wave of cafes blooming everywhere.
A lot of them stayed. That's the good news. A lot of them stayed. Thankfully it wasn't a time like the boba phase. Bubble tea.
The cafe business blew because it was the right time as well. I think people, at the time, were mature enough and there was a group of people that were coming back from Australia, UK, and other foreign countries where coffee drinking was a culture.
So people wanted that coffee, drinking culture and Starbucks was long enough to have developed that habit as well. And people are going like, yeah, Starbucks is this shit right? I want something a bit more artisanal. And there were a few pioneers in this market that really led at the forefront of third wave, artisanal coffee, but within the lingo is called the wake up coffee.
First wave is your kopitiam. Second wave is to Starbucks. They make coffee glorify as much as people complain. Why are people paying RM16 for a frappuccino? This just was booming for Starbucks.
So again, I now share a little bit about how we went into the third wave of burgers accidentally as well. It was the right time.
We figured out, hey, cafe might not be the business we want to go into, because we see a lot of competition popping up. We say, how can we pivot? So, there's a lot of stories in between, we went to Taiwan, because we went to Taiwan to source for coffee actually, but we ended up eating a lot of burgers there as well.
And it came to a point where we were just saying, Hey, why don't we do burgers? Because I kept sharing about my experiences when I was in the States and eating In N Out burger in Taiwan. We loved the burger scene there so much. We're like, why don't we just do burgers? In fact, I didn't want to give up the coffee dream yet and say, why don't we do coffee and burgers?
We just build a brand that is just coffee and burgers. Although for the longest time, we couldn't put our head into it to say, yeah, coffee burgers are a weird combination. And in the end, thankfully we abandoned the coffee part, because we keep saying it's a waste that I let go of that talent I had at a time, which is making great coffee, but we were like, you know what?
Let's focus on just one product. And we decided and hunkered down on just burgers. So when we decided that we were going to do burgers, and this is at this point in time, it was just me & Chang Ming only.
We were doing research and we dumped out things that I admired about In N Out.
And then we realized that oh, In N Out is only on the West coast, right. On the East coast, there's another brand called Shake Shack, which is like a huge deal. And people on the East coast and West coast are always fighting, who has the best burger. I've never tried shake shack. All I knew was there was a legendary queue and then I was thinking, wait a minute, isn't Wee Keat in New York?
Ling Yah: And you sent him there.
Renyi Chin: Well, yeah, I said Wee Keat, have you got a shake shack? He's like, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a long queue every other day. But I haven't been.
I'm like, what's wrong with you? So Wee Keat is not a food person. He eats to live. I live to eat Okay. So that's the difference between me and Wee Keat.
Anyway, so we call Wee Keat and say hey Wee Keat, check out this burger joint in New York , Shake shack. And let us know what you think of it. It's really popular. I told him, Hey, me and Chan Ming want to open up a burger joint in Malaysia that is similar to In N Out and Shake Shack.
Since he has not tried in and out, I figured Shake Shack will be a reference point. So I say, okay, wait, wait, wait, let me go, try and then see what the fuss is all about.
So he went there, he tried. I asked how's the burger, is it? Oh, well good. I eat the hot dogs. I'm like, what? So, I was like, okay, don't worry about the burgers, whether it's tasty or not, but do you think that this model is something that we can replicate here in Malaysia?
He gave it a thought that he said, okay. And he cut short his internship, I believe to come back. At least that was a story told to date. So he came back - it's a lot of gray area. I mean, yeah. When you had started studying something, there's a lot of legends or myths that build as the years go by, but in our memory, he's trashed out his internship to come back to help start off our Shake Shack in Malaysia.
Ling Yah: That one visit to try something that wasn't a burger convinced him that there was something he wanted to tag on.
Renyi Chin: Yeah. He didn't even try the burgers.
Ling Yah: But he never went back.
Renyi Chin: Yeah. But the- business model was what he was looking at. Again he's the business guy. So he came back and then, it was his first time meeting Chang Ming. Chang Ming's first time meeting Wee Keat. The two of them were not sure of each other. And I had convince them that no guys , trust me, this guy is good.
Hey, trust me, this guy is good. I mean, I knew both of them for at least four years at a point in time. So I felt that I could trust them and I was trying to convince them of each other. So the first thing that we did when he came back, was that okay, so what have you guys done so far?
We're like yeah, we've done a few burger testing at home, serving ourselves. He's like, yeah, that's just nonsense . And this is like again, where Wee Keat is at his strongest, he's a very business minded person. So he immediately got hunkered down because me and Chang Ming, while we are engineers we have no business in running a business.
And we were food guys as well. I mean, we love cooking. So Wee Keat said, alright, you guys are working - at the time Red Bean Bag wasn't open for dinner. They were only a brunch place. He said why don't you just ask him if he could borrow the kitchen?
Because if you cook at home, Yeah, it tastes great and all, but it's not a commercial kitchen. We spoke to Hai Lin and Kheong and said, Hey, we want to do a burger joint. Can we rent your restaurant?
And the answer was almost immediate. Yeah, no problem. And I said, okay, so what's the fee ? We kind of have a tight budget. He said ah fair price, one night RM 100.
I'm like, what?
And that also shaped us into who we were. We try to help out as many smaller brands or startups as we can back in the day. So right now, a little bit more difficult because the business is like a machine .
It's hard to dismantle it but we try to like nowadays, if anyone wants to pop up their startup bakery in front of a shop, we do allow them. Like right now we have two small bakers that popped up today at OUG and Sunway, just to sell their wares just so that they can get a bit of exposure because we have that line.
So anyway, that was where I learned about compassion towards each other in the industry. Supporting one another. And that's what Hai Lin and Kheong really did for us there.
Ling Yah: Was that uncommon?
Renyi Chin: So what we learned was that it was in the F & B industry a lot of times. And this is 2012 right now. It's a lot better. Back in the days when you tried to get close to them, they'd be like, what do you want? Like, what are they trying to steal my secret? Are you trying to... it's a very backstabbing feel kind of a industry.
But I think with the third wave coffee coming in with communication being so much more easy on the internet, I think the community started growing and the support started being there.
And I think also people who experienced kindness, like how we experienced it from Hai Lin and Kheong, we started doing it to other people and in hopes that pays it forward as well. And I like to think that we were part of a small gear in a bigger machinery where kindness is constantly being, push forward too.
So anyway, we decided, okay, let's try out the burger concept, and get some friends in and try our products.
So in, I think February or January of 2012, we did our first R&D session with real life audiences.
Oh, it was chaos, really chaos. We burned stuff. We almost burn the kitchen down, in fact. Yeah. However, it really gave us an insight into what we were getting ourselves into. So we get, and I'm sure you've heard of this, introduce us to the idea of the lean startup .
He said, okay guys, we're going to. chip in X amount of dollars and then we're going to spend how much per R&D and with the money that we'll have at the end of it, we need to say, what do we want to do this business? Run it and forking out a huge sum of money and opening up the business. And then wish for the best.
. Which is what happened in our previous business. At the time we had less money. So we were putting quite a fair bit. And then we fought. Coming back to burger lab, the initial stages. So we did a lot of R&D, 10 sessions, but every session we improved very quickly. thanks to the fact that we had Ryan, who is the chef of Red Bean Bag to guide us and laugh at us on the side.
Ling Yah: So what were the things that you were not doing ?
Renyi Chin: I mean, we didn't know. So for example, our Patty. Our patty is fairly unique to this day. It doesn't taste like anyone else's Patty, because of this technique that Ryan taught us, which is a pain in the ass. He warned us, he said this technique I teach you, you can make small batch burgers, but it's going to taste really good, but it's impossible to make in a large batch. But to this day we still do it.
Ling Yah: It's like a secret than.
Renyi Chin: No. It's not a secret. So if anyone here makes a burger, it will be by meat, by fat, and then you buy your herbs and whatever seasoning you want and then you mix it in.
Anyone can do that. So what he taught us to do was how do you create flavors in the fats that you're going to put into the burger?
So we bought fat and we cooked the fat. It's a process it's called rendering the fat. And in the process of rendering, the fat, you add on a lot of aromatics and the fat will absorb because a lot of times people don't know the juiciness that you would like from a burger.
It's the fat. The flavors that you love from meat? It's fat. And the meat generally doesn't have too much taste. The fat is what gives it tastes. And what he taught us was how to amplify the flavor of the fat.
Now I'm quite sure you have seen Rosemary oil or lemon oil that is sold in supermarket shelves. Lemon does not have oil. Rosemary does not have oil. Maybe there's a little bit, but it's not enough for a whole jar. So what they do is they infuse. So oil is a very good medium to carry flavor. So if you put a stick of Rosemary in oil, like after one week, your oil is very fragrant. That's how you make garlic oil as well.
So in that same ideology, we changed the flavor of our fat by putting in the aromatics that we want, whether it's garlic, whether it's onion, whether its star anise, whether it's black pepper or salt, so on. So that when people bite into our burgers, that flavor comes true, that beef fat is amplified, right, with layers of flavor.
So that's our secret. but for anyone that has rendered fat before you will know that it's a very painstaking process and that's why scaling it will be-
Ling Yah: so you can't do it with machines to
Renyi Chin: I mean you do do it with machines. It's just a very long smelly process.
Ling Yah: Over that process of 10 pop ups as I understand you slowly began to find that thing that makes you stand out. I really liked how you did to get feedback from people. You were doing a survey and also asking people to pay.
Renyi Chin: So with that, I think Wee Keat was the one who suggested it, because when you put out a survey, Hey, if I charge this at 15 ringgit, would you pay for it?
Most people there'll be nice enough to say yes, but there's a difference when it comes to actually forking out the money. So we had to do the test where okay. They fill out the form. But what they didn't know is when they leave, we're going to put a little cashier there that says, Hey, you said you were going to pay.
She has to. You know, tip jar, you can put your money. That's when we realized that when people say they're willing to pay and whether they are really willing to pay, it's two different things. So we knew that we had to up our product, to a level where people felt that they were getting something of value.
And over that 10 R&D session, thankfully, , we hit some jackpots. we were very lucky for sure. And we came up with a few recipes that people felt were different, unique and something that they haven't seen before.
The charcoal burger or the charcoal buns were actually invented closer to the seven or eight sessions because in the beginning it was letting your regular Brown, white buns. And I knew that I wanted to do a differentiation because we knew that with the money we had.
Because we tried to talk to different restaurateurs and those that were willing to talk was saying, you need a runway, you need a capital that allows you to give you that six months to one year runway, because your business is not going to take off from day one.
Ling Yah: Do you mind sharing how much that was?
Renyi Chin: It depends. It depends on your business. So we were told, if you're going to take 250,000 to start your business , make sure you have another 250,000 in your bank to run the business for the first one year, without having to raise more capital or without having to run our money?
Well we didn't have that. We basically said we gotta make this work again. It was a very naive ideology. Honestly, if burgerlab didn't take off the way it did, we wouldn't be probably out of business within like six months. So we raised RM250,000 among ourselves and some friends and we opened up in BurgerLab Seapark and thankfully for whatever reason, it was all the X factors that came to be, put us in a spotlight and we never looked back from there. I mean, we were gaining so much traction because of the black buns to the point where The Star wanted to talk to us before we even opened.
I got a call and she's like, Oh, I'm Nadhirah from the star. I would like to ask about your shop, how long you've been open because a lot of people were sharing.
And I think that was like a rare instance of trending back in the days. And we were like, Oh, we aren't even open yet. The last few sessions of our R and D in February. We were able to build up the hype up until July when we opened. Because in that few months in between people were still like, Hey, where can I get this?
Ling Yah: How were you building the hype though? Because I think when you launched, you had 500 followers already on Instagram at a time.
Renyi Chin: Yeah. And back in the days I was, that was tough. It was a lot of good luck. It was a lot of dumb luck. We just did the right things without knowing it. But again, we understood what happened and we definitely, consciously replicate that over the years. But at that time it was just. The shock factor of the buns, the creativity of the recipes that we were putting out, how we interacted with our friends or fans on social media was different because in years back there was no guideline to how to use social media. What was the norm then?
A lot of businesses sounded like businesses. Everyone wanted to sound corporate. Everyone wanted the sound. Yes, but we didn't do that. We didn't know we used Facebook as if we were using our own Facebook.
And I think that stood out, people were like, Oh wow , who's this bunch of young kids, that's trying to start this like burger revolution. And I think that spoke to people to some degree where they felt that, we were like some kind of rebel. We were just a bunch of good guys.
I'm trying to make it out of there and the support came pouring in and thankfully the burgers tasted decent. People were happy to pay for that price and with how hype dis nowadays, it's still a thing that we see now, not in our brand, but in other people's brands as well, that once the hype train as they call it, gets going, there's just no explanation to it.
People will queue up. Just because other people are queuing. Someone made a joke about this before, where Asians, they would see a line and they would say, it's probably something good. Let's go queue up and figure out what it is later.
Ling Yah: I'm guilty of that too.
And I think one of the things that was going for you is that the black buns were so Instagrammable at a time where Instagrammable things were just starting to take off.
And you were the one who discovered the hole. Charcoal powder thing that makes us distinctive.
Renyi Chin: Well, here's the thing. I think a couple months back before we experimented with charcoal we were on a trip with our friends and someone ordered a charcoal sandwich, so it was already out there, but charcoal bread were more of loaf rather than bun, but it was rare.
One or two cafes carried it and then Japanese bakeries did sell it, but it wasn't hype. We were definitely not in the world - in Malaysia - we were definitely the first to do charcoal buns and presented as a staple on our menu.
We got inspiration to do the burger in charcoal style from a French burger joint that I don't think exists anymore. but it was a star Wars, theme burger, naturally the dark side. They made that, I thought it looked pretty good at the time and I said , we should try making ours. but also coincidentally, I was at a bakery and then I saw the powder.
And I just asked what it was and it was like, Oh, okay. This is what I saw online. cause I didn't know they were using charcoal and we tried to write to the French guy, but there was no reply. It was just a lot of happy accidents. I think my life can be described as a lot of happy accidents.
I don't want to jinx it, but a lot of times when I desire something, the universe gives. Not directly, but in some form and you gotta be smart enough to derive some form of connection and go for it. . So I know I saw the black burger. In fact, I didn't think that it was going to work.
at the time it was still like, is that what we want to do when people accept it? In France, it wasn't a big deal. No one really cared about it, but it was in the back of my head. And then I think a couple of weeks after that, that was when I started the charcoal powder and that was when I started realizing there's a pattern in my life and then maybe exists in my people's life.
I've been quite lucky where if I want to go towards a certain direction, certain doors start opening up.
Ling Yah: I think it's also an awareness.
You're open to trying different things and being different.
Renyi Chin: And being aware of those opportunities.
Ling Yah: And I think one of the things that unexpected opportunities that really help you with Sean from Eat Drink KL. He also came and tried out. And that also contributed to the whole boom?
Renyi Chin: I didn't know who Eat Drink KL was before this. So he came in as our third customer, I believe. And our first day was a mess. Our first day was an absolute mess. We were knackered. We were tired, our first day we had friends and whatnot came, but we were a lot more tired than we expected to be.
We went to one of the mamak nearby la. And I remember 11, 11.30pm, people started sending links to Eat Drink KL and I was like, what's Eat Drink KL.
It's like, oh, , he's one of the biggest blogger in the food scene. And I was like, shit, because I was afraid that it was going to be a bad review. Number one. And I'm like, it's our first day , we hardly got our groove going.
It's not going to be a fair review. I kept seeing that. but while the page was loading and this is 2012 and it took a while before the page loaded, we started reading. And I think I still remember, he called one of our burgers, the Mona Lisa of burgers, and I was like, wow. . Absolutely flattered.
Absolutely. Just humbled. But at the time I knew that our burgers were shit. Because that day we made a lot of mistakes. Oh no, the burgers would not stick.
And this is an analogy I make a lot of time . When you cook rice for 4 people versus you cook rice for a hundred people, you're not going to get the same quality of rice because scaling up is just not that easy.
of course I'm talking as a layman.
If you get the Aunty nasi lemak that mixes for thousands of people , it's not a problem for them. So that was what we faced on the first day of opening, we were serving almost a hundred plus burgers, where else the maximum of burgers we've ever served before that was 25 to 30. So it was a huge leap. And when I was cooking the patty on a day, I was like, man, it's just not the texture that I want it to be.
And he was a third customer. So that means he was still getting my trial patty, where I was trying to figure out what's the temperature, cook it at and whatnot. But again, he gave us a very glowing review, which I will forever be grateful for. Because again, it's because of him. Well, that we started getting the attraction of people coming. And of course the star came, one week after our opening did a review, gave us a three page color ad and that just went crazy.
So these were things that we were very thankful for him. And I'm sure there are cafes and restaurants that have experienced this, but maybe not to the same medium as I did.
Now you have all those food Instagram or Facebook pages by K L Foodie and eat, pray, love, the likes of them where one post can really shoot you to stardom, right.
But that's a pros and cons to this kind of fame. A lot of restaurants can't live up to their standard when they get swamped. And we didn't.
Ling Yah: Because they scale too fast beyond...?
Renyi Chin: They scaled too fast. Yes. Their service is not going to be on point. You won't get to talk to everyone.
Expectations will be out of the world, but thankfully in this day and age, people have learned how to manage their expectations, a little bit of it. But back in the days, when a blog or a newspaper said, you're good. I don't know, they expect orgasm when they bite into your food.
So we had to manage that. So a lot of our social media in the early days was just being thankful and apology for any mistakes made that day. So it was just a lot of that. but thankfully , we have a good set of heads among us. And we were able to not rush things as well.
Would you imagine this? We open at five o'clock?
And the reason why we opened at five is because in the morning we will be preparing our ingredients to open at five. You sell out at seven. Customers were pissed, although our official time was five to 10, but at seven o'clock, sold out guys. Because there was a queue outside the door at 4:00 PM and people were waiting up to an hour and a half just to pay.
And then another hour to wait for their burgers. It was insane. Well, we were definitely happy about that, but at the back of my head, it was an unsustainable business. And at one point we rushed it. We were like, okay, right now we are making 200 burgers. Let's push it to 300, because that's so many people, we can't do your business and close at 7:00 PM.
Customers are going to not come off after 7pm, it becomes a habit. So we pushed to make 300 burgers, at one point, and this is not an exact number, but the quality went off like crazy. I won't go into details, but definitely it wasn't where we wanted to be.
And before opening up burger lab, I was a big fan of kitchen nightmares, Gordon Ramsey, and I'm always watching Gordon Ramsey a lot before you opened and it basically taught me about what to do and what not to do in a restaurant. So we set a high value, despite not being culinarily trained.
And I pulled a Gordon Ramsey in a sense where we threw all 300 patties away at five 15 or five 20, I realized that it was off. The Patty was just off. I said, guys, shut that down. We've been shutting down today. We cannot serve this. Not at this stage. This was like one month, , since our opening.
And we sat down and we talked about it . Who do we want to be? Because we didn't ask for this. And we are definitely thankful for the crowd that is coming in. But we realized when we sat down, because in all honesty, excitement, one would go like, Hey, let's milk this. .
And let's make as much money as possible, but we agreed as a team to say that we're gonna just do what we can. We're not going to sell more than we can produce.
So production can be scaled up with the right equipment, the right storage. But when your storage is meant to store, let's say a hundred kg of meat, when we store 150 kg of meat, the air circulation is not proper. Your meat starts going bad. Those are the issues that pop up. And a lot of people don't see, don't understand that. In fact, we got scolded a lot, how do you run a business? You closed so early.
But thankfully we had that discipline back then and, it kind of, set the tone for who we are when it came to our food.
We will never serve subpar food that we're not happy with, but of course those were the days when we, the co-founders, were there now . We do set a very strict SOP for the team to follow, but there are days where the team do fall off the grid and might not be adhering to the best of standards.
But there's no discussion when it comes to expired products. If it's gone bad, , it's out the window, then we'll talk about, their ordering, behavior or they're ordering a SOP and that's where we need to work on because sometimes the younger managers, a little bit overeager and the way they think is, Oh, why do I need to order so many times in a week?
I just ordered one time.
But coming back to where we started, thankfully the team was able to not be too greedy and say, we want to be a business where we only serve food that we are happy to eat ourselves. . And not just do it for the money sake.
And speaking of money, we were also offered a lot of, franchising or licensing opportunities when we first started. One guy came up to us and said, Hey, I got 2 million. We can get you guys to invest, but I want to open four stores, in a year and a half or two years at a time, I found it really hard to say no to RM 2 million, but we did.
We talked it out and said, look, there's just no way that we can open four stores. Without diluting our culture because I knew what I got from Starbucks and I wanted to transfer everything that was good into burger lab. And we were also exposed to a lot of good books at a time around building value for your team building culture. And culture.
One of the biggest takeaways I had at a time was that culture is not built in a short period of time. Culture is not having a pool table in your office, is not having a pantry filled with food. Culture is something that everyone is aligned with. It's a set of values that everyone says, Hey, this is who we are. And, this is how we're going to behave. And this is what dictates how we would do business.
Ling Yah: So culture was something that you were very, you were focused on right from the start. so the term Greeks was that -it started from day one?
Renyi Chin: No, I think the word geek came after a couple of months when we were able to take a breather and just kind of realign everything, and start slowly penning down our thoughts and what our values are, what our mission is.
And that's how things shaped up much later on. But again, it's not like we had an experience running an F&B business before that. So from day one, it was just trying to figure things on. Every day was just trying to figure things out.
Let's say, if you asked me to open a restaurant right now, it will be more stable.
I would have the mission, the values, at least all stated, branding, it's all there. It evolves over time. ? Yeah, back in the days, it was just a lot of self discovery. It was a lot of aligning our values because there were times where our values did not align.
For example, the day I wanted to close, there was a bit of a tiff on whether that was the right strategy because the team was like, you don't want to sell.
T en close tomorrow lah. Now it's already produced. The food wasn't bad. It was just slightly off. I wasn't happy to serve it. So I said look I'll take responsibility for it. I'll deduct my pay if you need to. Looking back, we definitely came a long way and the startup journey is definitely one where no amount of advice would be comparable to the real life experience that you get running the business underground.
Ling Yah: Well, I mean, one of the things, when I was asking people, , I'm going to interview the one that found this of my burger labs and what other things do you want us? And the things that people always picked up were always the culture.
They will always say, Oh, every time I go to any of these shops, they seem to be like the same people, the same kind of values. They're always smiling and they always find that so curious and it's clear that it's something that's so integral. As I was doing my research. You deliberately look for people who align with your values.
And I wonder if you could share how you found it, because I understand you have 10 values and you don't really care so much about the CV, but more the person.
Renyi Chin: So I think that we're able to be pickier in terms of hiring people. Because you talk to the restaurant, that's the biggest challenge is hiring people.
And that's why a lot of people go down the road of just hiring foreigners, and there's nothing wrong with. But from day one, we made a conscious effort to hire as locally as possible. So because of the brand being what it is, when we first started, it was us three. Then we said, we put a word out there and these are friends who are either still in uni, our frisbee friends who are still in uni or going through summer holiday at the time, I said hey guys we're opening up a burger joint. We need help. Who wants to come and work for fun. ? I mean, we'll pay you guys. And that's how we accidentally got a bunch of very young, energetic people in the kitchen and serving people.
And at the time we didn't think that it was going to be long term. At the time we were thinking, Oh, most likely 50% foreigners, 50% locals. And we say, once the three months has passed that we figured out how things would be, but for the first three months, because it was holiday, and there was university holiday, so we knew we had our friends working with us for the first three months.
Now in that three months, what we learned was that, that energy that came from this group of. 20 plus minus zero was something that people were attracted to. It was just a sense of raw energy that people were responding to.
and because we were friends , we were having fun, we were laughing, we were just dicking around. And I think that became a part of who we were as well. , we don't just work hard. We play hard as well. And because of us building the environment and the customers that came in happened to be college students as well, they were like, well, this place looks cool.
Popular for the burgers, , this trending is hip. And the people who work here are actually having fun. And that's when the applicants started coming and we went like, wow, we have more applicants than we need. So that's where the transition from, 50 50 became, Hey, we can make this into a, almost a hundred percent student base, a workforce.
We started thinking, are students looking for? Now why I decided to work with students is very simple. At that point in time, I realized a lot of people. Either the bosses or the full time staff that is working in the restaurant after the first year, the standards of service starts dropping because in F&B Malaysia, it is a thankless job.
People expect to be served. You say, thank you they might not even acknowledge you. And this is again, back in the days, that's how bad things were. I tried to find a hack to resolve that issue, I don't want my staff where after a year they feel like this is a dread. That they don't want to come to work, that they treat customers as if they are a nuisance, because I've been on the other side of the table where I've liked a certain restaurant. I go there every week, every month. And then over time I can see the same people they start not to care.
So that's when I found the hack, because thinking back to my Yellowstone days, where there is some of the time I'm working there for a short period of time, there were a lot of students from all around the world and even American students during summertime .
Everyone's energetic. Everyone hates their job, but because it's a group of young, like minded people, when they're in the zone, they bounce their energy off each other. It comes off as being lively. And that was my, my little hack. I say, okay, if we can get students to work here as our main core base, we will always have this level of energy.
And over the years it evolved into, okay, we've got this downpat. People who work with us, will tell their younger cousins or their younger brothers or sisters to work with us because they had such a good time here. they had a good time discovering themselves, learning about themselves, growing into a young adult.
And we realized we could formulate this and turned this into a program. And that's what our hiring program became. It became a marketing campaign to show, Hey, if you graduate from five and you're going to college and you want to have an edge over your peers, work retail, if you work with us, these are the things that you will learn.
And this is how you will go when you're working with. We have testimonials of people who have worked with us before now. I don't dare say everyone that worked with us was a hundred percent happy. But for the majority part of it, I dare say that a lot of people found value in their time with us.
We have parents coming to thank us for whipping their child into shape. Oh, he doesn't clean his room. Now he comes back, he'll help out in the kitchen. He'll clean his room. I mean, there are little adult growths like that. And we put in the structure of working in Burgerlab.
Ling Yah: So what were the things you were incorporating.
Renyi Chin: Number one, we realized that if you get part-timers to work in a cafe or any other restaurant, they are only hired for one thing and that can be the server, the waiter, or working in a kitchen, but they only do one thing. A lot of times they aren't entrusted with more tasks.
So the burger lab system is that you will start in one assembly line. As you go, you are expected to work at every different station. There is a skill set that comes along with it. For example, a assembly line is all about being precise. It's about following orders. It's about understanding what a customer wants, and giving them what they want.
Then the fryer is about timing. So you learn about multitasking So say for example, beef and chicken cooks at different times. If there's an order of beef and chicken in the same table on the same ticket, you gotta fry the chicken first, it takes longer to cook and then you find the beef.
So it's a lot of time management. And then maybe let's say, you go. work as a cashier, Cashier is about, selling you practice your selling skill, . Ability to convince people to buy things. and maybe as a front of house, as a server, you work on your communication skills. In fact, we get them to do the MBTI test before they join us . We basically seek out whether they are introverts or extroverts. And then introverts, generally we don't put them in front of customers, but we will encourage them and say, Hey, you want enough time with us? You are mostly in the kitchen.
Do you want to work on your skill to communicate with people? So instead of saying, Hey, you go work in the front of the house right now. Talk to customers, learn how to talk to customers. The first thing that most young people would feel is fear and resentment. Why are you forcing me to do something I don't want?
If everything is about, Hey, would you like to learn this? Very rarely do they say no because it becomes a challenge. It becomes a, I can be better. And of course we do have a lot of things in place. Like before the shift we have a pledge, we promise to take care of each other.
So there's a lot of things that while they might hate it or they might think. Oh, this is like really boring old man stuff, but it becomes ingrained in them. So learning to grow from day one is something that they hear a lot, but when it comes to pushing yourself and they are pushed into a position to try something new.
They will usually do it. So when everyone else around you is getting acknowledged, and we gamify the system whereby if they become good at a certain task or a station, they get a card.
Ling Yah: The level up culture.
Renyi Chin: The level up culture. So when everyone around you is seeking to level up and again, young people, they are very impressionable and they're like, Hey, I want that too. and that's how we are able to get them, to have that keen, eager sense of wanting to learn new things. so structure wise, we allow the store manager just to decide how it's done, but we provide the tools and the communication and the language so that learning is that daily communication.
And at the end of a shift, they will have a debrief where they will pat each other on the back. Good job and apologize in general for the mistakes made. Even if they didn't make a mistake. They have a pledge that they have to say together. And then after that, they will have a debriefing , everyone from every station will get to vent their frustration.
Hey, I asked them this, you didn't give me this. So whatever that happens, that day stays there and they come back again and repeat that process. In that environment. It's all about, Hey, if you make a mistake, that's okay.
How you can learn from me. How are you going to do better from it? So that's what the burger lab ecosystem is.
Ling Yah: And let's jump back a bit to that whole virality moment, as I understand it, that whole thing lasted for two years before you started seeing that impact on your sales when people started to be less drawn to it, I suppose.
So did you anticipate that drop after two years seeing that sales dropped from I think five figures onto four figures getting lower and lower. Was it something you knew was coming?
Renyi Chin: We knew it was coming. we didn't know when it was going to stop.
So what used to be a RM 12,000 sales and it became 11,000. And then over a few months, we 10,000 and it became 9,000. we were told that it will plateau. The question is what's it gonna plateau at two thousand five thousand six thousand?
That's where that big question mark. But now in hindsight, I would have easily calculated that because all you need to do is, you have five to 10 o'clock, , people come between seven to nine for the most part. And how many burgers do you serve at a time? You will know what way your sales are.
When we were trending, it just didn't make sense because people were coming from four to 10, four to just to queue up. That second year that you mentioned, yes, it was a bit scary. and we didn't know how to calculate it because to us people coming in at five o'clock was normal.
And over the years, I've seen friends who open restaurants that have gone through the cycle . Where they open up. Like, for example, Red Bean Bag. Red Bean Bag wasn't busy when they first started, they had to put the effort to letting people recognize them as a go to place. . Right now, every weekend they're packed.
I think that that kind of growth is more sustainable. That's why you see a lot of brands that go in there to a trending cycle, fail to have that sustainability. We got lucky. We really got lucky and we were able to figure things out over the years we've made a lot of mistakes because, when in two hours of sales, you were making like 10 K off sales.
You didn't know what was normal. In fact, we started splurging a little bit. Not on buying equipment, but we were taking a break every Monday and we were actually spending on the team. Not that that was a bad thing, but in hindsight, we could have splurged less.
Maybe just Steamboat in the store rather than going out to the nice dinner every other weekend. What I'm trying to say is that you really don't know how these are supposed to be normal, especially when you're trending. And a lot of people don't know how to handle that instantaneous fame.
Sometimes it's just like winning the lottery. You hear a lot of these stories where people who win lotteries don't know what to do with their money and they squander it all. We had a bit of that in fact, and you don't know what was normal until normal came.
Ling Yah: I think after that, once you've found that normal, you also found ways to peak yourselves with Unicorn products, the things that make you really popular nowadays.
Could you share a little bit about that? Because that is pretty much the thing that everyone knows you for, right. Like really quirky flavors that really work, and you're always coming out with it over time. So how does that process actually work?
Renyi Chin: So I think when we started, we wanted to be really good at making a simple cheeseburger, which I think we still do, but because the word lab is in our name, there's a lot of expectation to say that we have to come up with new flavors.
That sense of expectation was there . It was good because it pressured us to really get creative. But thankfully, I have a weird taste, meaning that ever since I was a kid, I like combining stuff together just for the sake of it.
I was able to just take my own personal taste profile and project it onto our burgers, but little did I know that it was a concept called anchor and pivot that was used by some restaurateurs, that allows them to derive a fair bit of success for them.
So you take something that's familiar and you put a small twist to it, and that's what people usually go for. You don't need to come up with a whole new recipe unless you are a Michelin star chef and whatnot but we're just selling burgers .
So you can take it. Let's say a mushroom burger and adding an egg to it at one point was unheard of. And that was anchored into his spot. Of course, when that became normal, then you got to find out what else can you add onto that flavor profile?
Our thought process has always been, we take something that is quite common and we add a little bit of a twist to it. And a lot of times it's very easy. You take something as Western and you combine it with something that's Asian.
So let's say for example, you wanna talk about pickles? The Western called the pickles.
We have something called acar-acar. And if you take a burger and you put the marination of acar-acar into a burger, right or a local cucumber, you will get that twist.
For example, our current promotional product, which is the nasi lemak burger. A lot of people say, hey, your nasi lemak burger is not nasi lemak burger because there's no nasi.
And I'm like, if you want to nasi in your burger, then you eat nasi lemak la, right. The idea here is how do we take inspiration from the flavors of an nasi lemak and put it in between two buns. So, I'm quite proud of our creation because it addresses a few hurdles that a lot of people didn't do.
And we addressed it and we created a quite formidable product. So what is expected in a nasi lemak? You're going to have your coconut rice with lemak right? You gotta have your kacang and if you want a little bit indulgent, you need your fried chicken.
And this one I hate, but you always find it in some nasi lemak, a slice of cucumber or too fresh cucumber. I absolutely hate it. So, okay. So we have all these ingredients. How do we turn it into a burger?
So the chicken is a no brainer. We already have fried chicken. All right. The ikan bilis. So we were able to source ikan bilis but you will realize that our ikan bilis is on the sweet side and also is smashed.
Cause we realized when you put a whole ikan bilis in there when people bite into it, it stabbed their roof. The roof of their mouth. So we had to blend that.
And then kacang. So kacang obviously, if you put little bits of nuts in there, it's just all gonna fall out. So we use peanut butter and then for the taste of the Nasi, the coconut rice is actually the taste of santan.
And all you need to do is just recreate that flavor in another form. And to me, it was rendang. So we put written down in replacement of that. And there was an egg in there as well.
And when you bite into the whole thing, you can see where the resemblance is, or where the idea came home. I still think we still have one of the best lessons of my burgers, since the craze, like two, three years ago, where everyone decided to do a single burger, just for the sake of it and just chucking stuff together.
But there wasn't much thought
And I believe that yesterday you tried the Elvis burger, and you probably want to ask some more about that. The Elvis burger is a combination of IKEA meatballs and a PB&J sandwich.
So the idea is, we all grew up eating PB&J at some point, and then IKEA meatballs you have your meatballs with some lindon berry, I think they're called.
So putting jam on your meat is not unheard of. I was really fascinated with this burger that already existed because Elvis didn't love eating it.
He likes his cheeseburger with the banana, bacon and peanut butter. But we didn't do that because number one, we want it to be a halal establishment so we didn't serve bacon. And I try not to touch beef bacon unless it's necessary because it's just a different taste profile. I didn't want to do bananas because it was very hard to get consistent bananas.
So we thought, okay. How do we twist from there? That's where combining PB and J and meatballs came together, and we called it jamming with Elvis, like you jam and anyway we put blueberry jam. So the version that you had is actually the latest version where we made our own blueberry jam.
Because prior to this, we actually buy from a distributor. However, due to MCO, they couldn't bring in any more of it. And, we were like, okay, screw it. We'll just make our own very jam. And in fact, we will be selling our own blueberry jam soon.
so that's how we came to be. that creaminess of peanut butter, in a cheeseburger. It just makes sense. In fact, if you think about right, in the Chinese cuisine, it's quite common to put peanut, I mean, satay in peanut sauce.
So meat and peanut does go well together. I think it's a jam part that throws people off a little bit.
Ling Yah: And I think maybe like, when you explain it, it makes so much sense to put it on a burger. But I suppose, because no one has done it before, it's like two worlds colliding and you don't see it until you have any and go, actually that could work.
Renyi Chin: Yeah. Well, wait till you try our next month's feature burger. It's combining East and West together and we call it The World's Smelliest burger. Guess what's in it.
Ling Yah: Is it durian?
No, no, I know you've asked this question before and someone said durian, when you said it wasn't
Renyi Chin: So Malaysian, we would consider petai as a very smelly dish.
And then the Western ingredient that is smelly; what do you think it is?
Ling Yah: Blue cheese.
Renyi Chin: There you go. So, those two products actually don't go well together. However, I discovered that when you're pairing with flavors, if A and C don't go well together. But if A and B go out together and then B and C go out together, you can put ABC together and it will bind that harm.
So what makes these two products go well together? You wanna take a guess. it's a fruit. So sambal there's one version of sambal that has a fruit, a local food.
Ling Yah: Pineapple.
Renyi Chin: Yes. Pineapple. And then, blue cheese, you eat with fruits. And if you implement your plan, it's actually not a bad combination. I don't know if a lot of people try that.
So when you have those 3 together, it just works. Don't ask me why it just works.
Ling Yah: So how long does it normally take to come up with this? Surely you must have gone through many variations and gone. Okay. What works, what doesn't work.
Renyi Chin: So most of the time it just works because. Well, I've had experiences. I combine personal experiences and I go like, Hey, , I've tried this, I know this works.
And we put it together. Generally that's work. Well, of course we do have a lot of failures, but usually it's not because of the flavor combination, just because it's difficult to execute, I mean speaking of that, do we make the best burger in KL? The answer is no. there's a lot more, smaller, independent burger joints.
That doesn't matter. Why is that the case? The reason is because when we are at a scale that we are, and we serve as many burgers as we are, there are certain things that we can't do, for example, cheese . I would like to use more cheese on certain products so that I can call it like a triple cheese or quadruple cheeseburger. But on the logistics side it is very different for the team to execute.
So I can't do it just based on that. A lot of things that we want to do that we can't simply because of how big we've grown and how fast we need to serve.
For example, and I'm going to give a plug. There's this restaurant called, Mimince, which is near the Ikea area. So they have this really popular, deep fried burger concept.
So it's basically burger ingredients that's wrapped in the dough and then they divide the whole thing. I don't think they were the first to invent it as I've seen it in the States before I wanted to do it. I saw it. I tasted it. I was like, man, that's really good. How come I didn't copy this idea from the States before.
And we tried to do it and we had a really good product. But we couldn't roll it out because it needs to be made fresh. It's not something that I can have my centralised kitchen premake ahead of time. Wrap everything nicely. Freeze it and then go to the store and just try it because when it's such a thick product and you deep fry it inside, it's not going to get warm.
If you order, it is one of those products that says. Please give us at least 20 minutes to make this product for you. So in our facility, it's just not possible. These products were great products, but it doesn't make it to the menu simply because it's not logistically possible.
And that pains me.
Who knows somewhere down the road, we might have a BurgerLab signature where we dedicate a little bit more time and expertise towards all this more gourmet burgers. I don't even call the current burgers that we serve, gourmet burgers. cause I believe that's the highest standards above that
Ling Yah: And let's move on to how COVID has impacted you and I read that when you were approaching this uncertain period, you adopted a mantra of your mentors, which is when you're lost and you don't know what to do. The first thing that you can try is to be kind
Renyi Chin: Yeah.
Ling Yah: And I would love to hear how you thought of implementing that through MyBurgerLab, I mean, like right now you are in survival mode, right? You can't even expand. So how can you be kind while ensuring that you don't go under and can still pay yourself.
Renyi Chin: I mean, we've always been in the better position because the branding is so strong and we did have a bit of money saved up.
So we knew we had a bit of a runway if MCO was going to go into two, three months. So we knew we had reserves to help people out. So the first thing that we did was. Okay. We're not going to go into a business mode where we're going to sell, sell, sell, sell, sell. We're going to turn our platform into a bit of an information center.
We teach people about how bad COVID is, why you should wash your hands. And I inject a little bit of that BurgerLab humor into it . Start using e-wallets and don't use cash. So those were a start. It's not about selling anymore. ? Because obviously all our social media platforms are about sharing.
And, but at the end of the day, you are trying to sell a product. Let's not disguise that. And then after that, it was reaching out to fellow restaurateurs.
So I created a group. through the encouragement of a friend, where there are like, a thousand plus user base where most people that are within the F&B industry, to just have a sounding board to update each other of the latest news.
And then after that, we started reaching out to other venues to say hey, we can provide food. What can we do? And we just help out where we can. So we have had connections over the years with hospitals and whatnot. So just behind the scene, we support where we can.
And then of course, our staff, because we use a lot of part timers, we had to cut down the hours. but at the same time, we also knew that a few of them needed the money to just survive. so we had an initiative where we say, Hey, if there are tasks that you want us to do, we can put our deeds to good use and we pay them for the hours.
So this was just a few things that we could cook up in the first two weeks. So that's how we responded because we were just waiting for information. For things to just pan out to see how we should react. So instead of just sitting idly there, we just did what we could within our means.
Ling Yah: So at this point in time, where do you see the future of MyBurgerLab?
Renyi Chin: As a business or as a restaurant?
I think it's two different answers. So as a business, I want to continue expanding, I want to grow the business to something that will be recognizable, hopefully on something international standard.
On the restaurant side, I think we're still discovering what we can do. Burger lab for what it is right now will continue. We'll be the main brand. We have developed a few new verticals during MCO, selling our frozen products.
Ling Yah: Your home kit.
Renyi Chin: Yeah, our home kit, which has developed into a whole range of products instead of a one kit where you get selected, you can buy anything that's within our menu for the most part.
And that is slowly going into a burger solution business. So we have a few restaurants that we are working with, that are asking us, Hey, I run a restaurant, I run a cafe, but I serve a lot of things. Can I serve your burgers? Can I buy a home kit? And we're like, Okay. Don't buy the home kit.
Let me create a burger with you. And then you can put my brand there. .
My thought is if Ramlee can do it, what they do on a street foot level. I think we might be able to get it. That's the solution. So every single restaurant or cafe that is out there that wants a burger solution.
And because we are recognized for the quality that we have and the creativity we have, I think it would be a win win. So if people come to a cafe that sells MyburgerLab collaborated burgers, hopefully it brings in a little bit of customers. I think we've tested that with Strangers at 47 and yellow brick road.
They sell, , quite a substantial amount, per week because, people just coming in here and they don't want to just eat crabs or just eat pasta, they have options. And having that name behind them gives that assurance that that burger is of quality. So that's a new business venture.
Ling Yah: Given all your experiences do you feel that you have found your why?
Renyi Chin: I found my ikigai. I think I've found my ikigai. So if you do what you do love, you get paid for what you love and what you do is needed by the community. you find that happiness. I do like what I do, I do get paid.
Well, I think people do need what we serve them. I am happy. I am happy. I mean, I'm tired because the business was actually fairly stable just before MCO. And I was like just having the time of my life traveling and then, just getting fit again. And then MCO happened. I mean, again, this is just me bitching, but everyone has gone through the same problem, but I enjoy it.
I thoroughly enjoy what I do although this couple of months has been a little bit strenuous, but again, we are all experiencing that together.
Ling Yah: What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
Renyi Chin: I haven't really thought too much about that. I mean, the legacy is what people perceive it to be.
Some people say, Oh, we shipped the burger industry in Malaysia. Great. Some people might say, Oh, he helped a lot of young adults discover who they are. I mean, that's great too. To me, I do what I find purposeful. And at this point in time, it's giving people opportunities that either I wish I was given, or I was given, because I think in this world, people don't help each other enough.
And if we can help one another, the world would just be a better place. I think.
A lot of people say, you're an atheist, what's your goal in life? Simple. I always take the two golden rules, the golden rule, and the silver rule to do unto others, as you would like to be done upon and then to not do unto others, as you will, not like others to do a form here.
And I think that in itself would make me happy. As long as I do those two things, I think I will leave different legacies for other people to talk about.
Ling Yah: And what do you think are the most important qualities a person has, should have to succeed as you?
Renyi Chin: I'm not some kind of guru, huh?
Personally, like I said, just do good. I mean, we're all in this world together. We are often too divided. I think just help out whenever you can, if you've got nothing good to say, don't say it, don't spread lies. Just do as much good as you can in your lifetime.
Ling Yah: And where can people go to connect with you and find out more about MyBurgerLab?
Renyi Chin: Usually you can find me on social media. I don't have a personal one. but yeah, or my email [email protected], but I don't guarantee that I can reply to it. I don't want to sound as if I'm not approachable, but it is quite difficult. I don't know how celebrities and whatnot do it but-
Ling Yah: they have assistance.
Renyi Chin: Probably, yeah, but I have a business to run. I have a life to live. But if someone has helped, if they tell their story and , if I can help in some way I will do so.
Ling Yah: And that was the end of episode 16.
The show notes can be found at www.sothisismywhy.com/16.
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And stay tuned for episode 17, which drops next Sunday, because we will be meeting a two time British Olympian. On how she got started on her athletic journey and how upon retirement, she pivoted and found a place for herself!