KUALA LUMPUR, July 27 — To say the bowl is gargantuan might be an understatement. The omu curry rice is quite straightforward with a wobbly omelette and a more-savoury-than-sweet curry. But it’s the five large pieces of chicken karaage that announce this isn’t your usual curry rice.
This generous bowl is the signature dish at PapaSan Canteen, a no-frills, honest-to-goodness eatery launched by friends Zac Kwek and Jimmy Yap.
Since opening at Kuchai Lama in 2017, the shop has proven so popular that they opened a second outlet in Cheras in June earlier this year.
Other customer favourites include their comforting Lala Omelette Rice and Tomato & Egg Udon Soup. Fancy some durian to go with your pasta? Try PapaSan’s Durian Carbonara!
Their Japanese style sashimi (with Norway salmon and trout) appeals to most; the more adventurous might enjoy their Thai Miso Sashimi. Their inari mentai sushi (sushi rice stuffed inside seasoned deep-fried tofu with cod roe) come topped with Hokkaido scallops, unagi or salmon.
At a time when many food and beverage (F&B) businesses are struggling, PapaSan’s success is an encouraging sign though the two co-founders have had their fair share of challenges to overcome.
Kwek shares, “During the first lockdown last year, we decided to close for the first month to give ourselves time to figure out what we should do for our crew and our customers. I was quite vigilant: I began simple sanitisation measures at my canteen since December 2019.”
The affable entrepreneur credits his friends in Singapore and Taiwan for advising him early on about the pandemic and protective steps to take. This in turn might explain why PapaSan has been at the forefront of safeguarding their employees and clientele long before the pandemic became so widespread worldwide.
But even the most cautious of small businesses have to face the day-to-day realities of an ongoing lockdown. Kwek observes, “We just didn’t expect it to get worse that soon and so far until now.”
However insurmountable the obstacles, the dream has always been to build a food business. Kwek, who is originally from Johor Baru and went to university in Melbourne, grew up in a family of fishermen. He recalls, “I was always excited to watch my Mom and my aunties cooking in the kitchen.”
The double major in International trade and business management would always find time despite his busy class schedules to cook for his university housemates and help his club raise funds for the community. Food is in his blood.
Which is surprising, then, that Kwek’s food journey took a longer, more circuitous route. He explains, “I worked in an events company for more than a decade. It was only in 2016, when my Dad told me that I should accomplish something of my own, that I started visiting cafés and thought perhaps it’s time to step out of my comfort zone and give it a try.”
Serendipitously, that’s when his now business partner Yap approached him to discuss starting a food business together, after observing the check-ins at various cafés. (Social media works in mysterious ways.)
Kwek shares, “My partner Jimmy is from a Japanese kitchen background while I love a variety of Asian cuisines. So we decided to go for an Asian and Japanese menu. For instance, our signature omu curry rice with chicken karaage. It’s served with a Japanese curry that is not sweet like a traditional Japanese curry. I personally do not like food that is too sweet, so we spiced it up a little.”
Another Asian-Japanese pairing is PapaSan’s Kalai-Kalai Fried Udon, which marries the stir-fried Japanese wheat noodles with sambal for a Malaysian twist. The aromatic and pungent sambal has clear notes of bunga kantan (torch ginger flower), and when you add a squeeze of lime, it tastes not unlike asam laksa.
Being a novice to the industry when they first started, Kwek is quick to acknowledge how much he learned from his co-founder: “I remember listening to all of Jimmy’s 14 years of experience in the kitchen. I then understood that F&B is a service industry and our role is like that of a mama-san. We are both guys so we came up with a Japanese fusion name, PapaSan.”
Given limited capital to start their business, the duo eschewed making too many alterations to their first outlet, formerly a café. Kwek says, “Instead, with the limited space, we decided to use long tables like how it was at my university canteen — five long tables — which is how we came up with the name PapaSan Canteen.”
Operations-wise, PapaSan was initially designed to be dine-in only as the pair believed that food ought to be served fresh and hot. Kwek explains, “Takeaway food was originally not our first priority. Therefore we never considered any takeaway or delivery operation cost in our business.”
Naturally given the lockdown restrictions over the past year and a half, that modus operandi has had to change.
Kwek shares, “We have been depending on the Aliments app for customers to order online for drive-thru pickup and delivery orders. With the recent lockdown, two months of no dine-in is a huge blow to us. Our whole business module is based on dine-in; with just takeaway/delivery, our operation costs have increased a lot. “
Desperate times call for desperate (and, for survival, reasonable) measures. Kwek says, “We spoke to our landlord, requesting for half monthly rental for the first three months and to repay them the balance after. We also asked our service crew for help: arranging shifts with shorter working hours to reduce monthly payments.”
Ultimately the business owners are simply trying to improve cash flow for operation cost pay out, to ride out the storm. Which makes their second, recent outlet a curiosity.
“Honestly, we didn’t expect the pandemic to get so bad,” Kwek explains. “We had enough confidence that it would be well controlled so we let one of our crew members, Yap, set up our first PapaSan Canteen branch outlet with his family.”
This new shop is in Cheras, where food businesses have long been thriving but a saturated market has kept it very competitive, especially in the current economic climate.
Kwek says, “We were so excited until the announcement of the Phase One full lockdown. Our new outlet still has some unfinished work to be completed, but we had to run on the first day of the Phase One lockdown.”
Despite all the difficulties, Kwek and his team are undeterred. His passion has always been to share the type of food he loves — flavourful, filling and satisfying without being too precious.
“We have always wanted to serve a hearty portion. To serve you a meal where you won’t forget after you dine in with us. With that, we incur a higher food cost — ours is like almost 50 per cent when it shouldn’t be more than 30-40 per cent — leaving us a very slim profit margin.”
To counter this, PapaSan has come up with new menu items such as their Teriyaki Beef Don and Scallop Spicy Mapo Tofu Rice to keep their customers excited about their food. Their Hot Sizzling Oysters features succulent oysters from Hiroshima with spicy mayonnaise cooked on a hot plate.
Aware of tightening budgets, they are also offering combo sets with free drinks. These, such as their Gai Ci Pong combos — half a dozen of fried chicken wings (available in Spicy Hot, Lime Pepper and Sweet Pepper flavours), a kimchi side and a free iced Mango Passion Sparkling drink — have proven a hit.
These new menus have their packing costs factored in, whereas previously these were not taken into consideration given their pre-pandemic dine-in approach.
Through it all, Kwek manages to remain grateful for being able to follow his dream. He says, “We are fortunate that since we started PapaSan, we have built our own community of customers and supporters — who understand us, appreciate how we manage our business, and even now with movement control, are willing to order our food for delivery.”
Dreams are fine things, but even finer (and rarer) are the hard work and determination invested to make them a reality. PapaSan Canteen, like many other F&B businesses, is striving to stay afloat and to serve simple, honest food along the way.
PapaSan Kuchai: 18-G, Jalan 2/114, Off Jalan Kuchai Lama, Kuchai Business Centre, KL (Tel: 012-580 0883).
PapaSan Cheras: 181-G, Jalan Lancang, Taman Sri Bahtera, Cheras, KL (Tel: 012-580 2587).
Open daily (except Wed closed) 11:30am-3pm; 5pm-8pm).