KUALA LUMPUR: As night falls, an open-air carpark right in the heart of downtown Kuala Lumpur transforms into a food truck park.
While the iconic Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers glisten in the background, dozens of food trucks come to life on Jalan Ampang, their generators whirring and lights brightening up the dim site.
Operated by Tapak, which currently runs three food truck parks in the Klang Valley, such gatherings of food trucks have become a common sight in Malaysia’s bigger cities.
More than 1,000 licenses have reportedly been issued for food trucks in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya alone, a testament to Malaysians’ immense love for street food.
Last month, the Petaling Jaya City Council allowed food trucks to operate in front of its headquarters during the fasting month of Ramadan for the first time, while the Shah Alam City Council also reserved one of its Ramadan bazaars for food trucks.
Low startup costs and Malaysians’ long-standing penchant for street food are some of the factors that have made it conducive for the industry.
That being said, food truckers also have to grapple with operational challenges including limited space to store food, difficulty in hiring and rigid location permits.
PASSION FOR FOOD, LOW STARTUP COST
According to food truck operators interviewed by CNA, their journey into the business usually began with a passion for food.
The story of Sundaydo, a food truck that sells desserts and baked goods in Kuala Lumpur, illustrates this. When asked if he has always been passionate about food, owner Faris Zulkifli was quick to respond: “Yes, definitely. Food makes everyone happy. Desserts make everyone extra happy.”
This passion was converted into a mission to make smaller portions of desserts more accessible to those who are looking for sweet treats, but do not want to purchase whole cakes.
However, taking orders mainly through Instagram and Facebook before fulfilling them from a private kitchen proved to be a process that was hard to manage. “We realised that we needed a physical store so that we can sell sliced cakes,” Mr Faris explained.
“The initial idea was to get a shoplot, but we found it quite risky to start that way. So we came up with the food truck idea for a start.”
The “risk” in question here is no secret among food truck owners — or food truckers, as they are sometimes referred to.
Low initial investment requirement is the main consideration for those who choose to start their business via the food truck route. The cost of setting up a small food truck is estimated to be between RM15,000 (US$3,600) to RM20,000. Setting up a restaurant in a rented shoplot can cost 10 times more.
Mr Iskandar Daut, who owns Eight Street Cafe specialising in burgers, told CNA that the rental at the Tapak in Jalan Ampang sets him back by RM100 per day.
“What I spend on rental is about RM2,600 a month. It is much cheaper that lot business where we pay RM 3,000 to RM5,000 a month, much tougher to make back the money,” he said.
Other food truck operators also said they did not see the sense in investing in a brick and mortar setup.
The owner of Cowboys Food Truck, Ku Azharul Nizar, had given up his career in corporate finance and leaped into the local food scene with two partners, hoping to secure a physical restaurant to sell Texas barbeque.
Mr Azharul and his team then came to an agreement that they did not want to sink too much money into a brick and mortar setup. Additionally, they were still trying things out and could not find a location that they were truly comfortable with to establish a restaurant. This led them to set up a food truck instead.
“In the last three years, quite a few physical barbeque shops have come up quite successfully. But for us, personally, I am quite comfortable with our operations and our catering is quite solid, so we’re keeping the brick and mortar idea on the back burner for now,” he added.
‘SOMETHING MODERN MALAYSIANS ARE LOOKING FOR’
Those familiar with the street food scene note that the idea of food trucks is appealing to the modern Malaysian palate. In particular, the hectic manner of city life means that food trucks are a fast and convenient option.
The writer behind the popular Ken Hunts Food blog, who only wanted to be known as Ken, said: “Flexibility and mobility is something that modern Malaysians are looking for, and those factors certainly account for the sustainability of this (food truck) business model”.
Fellow food writer and food podcaster Mr Loh Yi Jun of Jun & Tonic, opined that food trucks also match the preferences of Malaysians due to their age-old love for street food.
“Since we already have the traditional food trucks selling chendol and soy milk (don’t forget Chinese crullers and pisang goreng too!), it isn’t such a stretch for our culture, compared to other cuisines where street food doesn’t feature as prominently,” he reasoned.
Traditional hawkers — like those selling lok lok, rojak, and even heavier dishes like assam laksa and char kway teow — are frequently seen in pasar malam or night markets, and have made regular appearances at these spots for years now, building followings of their own in the process.
The team behind Curbside Cantina, a food truck selling tacos also noted that food trucks are not a foreign concept to Malaysians — even among children.
"We’re pretty sure kids understand the idea of a food truck just from a mention due to exposure to cartoons and movies, if they haven’t already seen one in real life.
“For those that walk up to our trucks at birthday parties, it's always the same look of amazement from them when they realise that they can just walk up to the window, hold their hand out, say please and something yummy is there for the taking,” founders Awangku Irawan and Noreen Ramli told CNA.
The authorities have rolled out some measures to help food truckers.
In 2018, RM120 million was set aside by the federal government to provide easy loans to 1,000 food truck entrepreneurs through Bank Rakyat and Bank Simpanan Nasional.
Coaching programmes have also been customised for new food truckers by the National Institute for Entrepreneurship (also known as INSKEN), which is under the Bumiputera Agenda Steering Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department. The programmes include one-on-one lessons with an industry coach and a site visit to selected business premises, among other topics
Despite these factors that are conducive to food trucks, it is by no means a walk in the park for those in the industry.
For starters, Malaysia’s tropical climate and unpredictable weather makes it difficult to accurately forecast sales on any given day. Poor weather means customers are less likely to step out for food — and since food trucks commonly operate outdoors, this translates into poor sales.
“This would be the main challenge,” said Mr Faris of Sundaydo. “Knowing Malaysia has unpredictable weather. Sales will definitely drop during the rainy season.”
Concurrently, Mr Azharul says that one of the biggest challenges faced by Cowboys — both during the initial start-up stage and while operating as an established business — would be staffing.
As food trucks are not always able to match the employment terms of larger restaurants and food franchises, there is a perception among some job seekers in the F&B industry that working in a food truck is not a particularly glamorous or valuable career path.
“Staffing is a challenge for F&B in general … Our job offers to youngsters now are very different than what they would receive if they were to work in a restaurant. We can pay a higher rate, but restaurants can offer whole packages.”
He noted that working on a food truck is regarded as hard labour. As younger job-seekers are pickier these days, the job is not appealing, he added.
“My current hiring rate is about one out of 15 interview candidates,” said Mr Azharul.
With these challenges in mind, it comes as no surprise that the key to a food truck’s survival rests in innovation.
Mr Kee Chee Yong, the owner of GottaC Music & Ice Bingsu, attracts customers with a functional piano installed in his food truck, in addition to an array of refreshing shaved ice desserts.
The former piano tuner and press photographer said the gimmick works.
“Occasionally, one or two customers will hop onboard to tinker on the ivory keys, although most just take photos of the unique feature for their Instagram and Facebook,” he said.
Brothers Jason and Daniel Wong who own two popular food trucks in Kuala Lumpur: BurgerGilerPower and Wheeloaf, said they had to figure out how to work with a minimal menu due to a lack of storage onboard.
”Malaysians love their variety or rice staples. It'll force you to work on that few items you can have on the menu and probably be super good at it, (rather) than just hitting an overall 'meh' on an extensive menu," they said.
For the Sundaydo team, they are always thinking about how to change things up so that they can continue to offer customers fresh cakes despite having only one chiller.
“We made some changes to the recipes to make them last longer outside the chiller. It’s quite challenging as we transport the cakes quite a lot daily; from the kitchen to the food truck, and vice versa after operating,” said Mr Faris.
Mr Ken, the food blogger, noted that food truckers must have a pulling factor which will continuously draw in customers because they are not only competing among themselves, but also against stationary food stalls.
“If their food offerings turn out to be the same as stationary food stalls, what makes someone want to purchase from them instead of the usual food stalls?” he asked rhetorically.
SHACKLED BY LOCATION PERMITS
Food truck owners lament that there has not been enough government assistance in one crucial aspect: location.
At present, food trucks are required to obtain permits from city halls or municipal councils to operate in a specific area. For instance, if a food truck wants to do business in Subang Jaya, if would have to obtain a permit from the Subang Jaya Municipal Council.
They are not allowed to do business in any part of the area aside from their allocated spot, which shackles their mobility tremendously.
The problem with this arrangement? These spots are reportedly allocated based on where the municipal council or city hall believes traffic would be least affected — as opposed to locations where food trucks would receive optimum exposure.
Mr Azharul cites an example, when his truck was given permission to operate in the compound of a wet market at night.
“It was pointless! The area was so dark,” he noted, before highlighting how bubble tea purveyors have been allowed to open their stores along one particular street in Subang Jaya’s SS15 area — which has ironically caused massive traffic congestion.
Responding to CNA’s queries, Mr Ken Chia, a councillor at the Subang Jaya Municipal Council said it was a matter of balancing the interests of food trucks and other mobile traders.
While food truck operators and mobile traders prefer hotspots such as SS15, allowing all of them to operate there would cause serious traffic congestion, he said.
“Some food trucks would rather be fined by the enforcement team for operating in a hotspot than to stick to their designated spots as stated in their permits,” he pointed out.
Even those who can secure government grants and subsidies - which can be a tedious process involving the municipal council and city hall - are not guaranteed good locations.
Mr Iskandar of Eight Street Cafe said: “The locations these government grants trucks are allowed to operate is not good, definitely not in central Kuala Lumpur where we get a good mix of tourists and locals trying the food”.
Summing up his experience in the food truck industry, Mr Kee of GottaC Music & Ice Bingsu said: “(The local governments) have tried their best to help food truckers find the best spots to do business. I would say the environment for food trucks has improved greatly”.
He added: “In reality, operating a food truck has more hardship than happiness.
“We are exposed to the harsh weather, but on the other hand, we get to enjoy flexibility and mobility. The business risks are lower.”
Additional reporting by Tho Xin Yi and Amir Yusof