June 9, 2017 12:30 pm JST

Food park challenges Kuala Lumpur hawker centers

Founders say trucks selling innovative dishes are the future

JOHN DUERDEN, Contributing writer

Customers gather at the Tapak food park in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo by John Duerden)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's ubiquitous hawker centers have a new rival. Sitting in the shadow of the world-famous Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Tapak Urban Food Dining Experience aims to bring outdoor eating in Malaysia into the 21st century.

Naim Awanie, 32, a Kuala Lumpur office worker finishing a plate of spaghetti, said Tapak, the Malay word for "place" or "base," is different from traditional hawker centers, where street foods are served, often outside, by large numbers of independent traders located in a single area.

"I work around here," she said. "It is trendier and more interesting than a usual hawker center. The international food seems to be of a higher standard too. Westerners may think that spaghetti is boring, but it is not for us. It is very nice and there are lots of different choices."

By day, the area is a parking lot. But it starts to change at about 5.30 p.m. as around 30 colorful food trucks turn off the busy Jalan Ampang highway to transform this patch of concrete into an increasingly popular haunt on the food circuit in Kuala Lumpur, ubiquitously referred to as KL.

No two evenings are the same. There are four spots reserved for beverage vendors and three for Malaysian food. The rest offer a variety of cuisines. On a Monday evening in April, the fare on offer included dishes from Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, Japan and Italy, as well as gourmet burgers, tacos, hot dogs, burritos and fresh fish.

One of the bestsellers is the "Mystic Mango" smoothie. Even on the quietest nights, vendors sell more than 200 units. "People just love it," said Sue Ka of First Order, one of the sellers. "I don't know why but this place puts them in a good mood and we get a good mix of locals and tourists. You see people walk past and then turn around and come in and try."

Site supervisor Adnan Ismail is making sure that everyone is ready for the shift, which runs from 6 p.m. to midnight from Monday to Thursday. "On a weekday, we get over 1,000 customers," he said. On Fridays, the food park opens until 3 a.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from 3 p.m. for 12 hours. "At weekends it is like an expo, we get over 5,000 [people] a day, sometimes more than 6,000."

Growth has been rapid since May 2016, when a group of friends spotted a gap in the Malaysian food market. "One of us had a food truck," said Tawfique Roseli, one of the four co-owners of Tapak. "He was always complaining that there was an issue with local authorities, and they were always giving him tickets and sales were not very good."

All four had traveled extensively, witnessing the growth of food-truck parks in San Francisco and Melbourne, and the idea of establishing one in KL took root. "We thought, 'we can do something similar and build a food truck community here,' and we wanted that in one place."

Golden Triangle

The key, said Roseli, was getting government approval to use the land. It was not easy, partly because the site is in the city's Golden Triangle, the heart of its tourist area, and partly because of local bureaucracy. "It took a long time, but we wanted to have blanket approval so [trucks] in Tapak can operate without disturbance from authorities," Roseli said.

He said there were previously 50 to 70 food trucks in the city that relied mostly on corporate and private events for their business. Some also parked in busy areas in the hope of targeting lunch and commuting customers. "At first, [these trucks] came to us when they had no event to go to, now it is the other way around," he said.

This is the case with Rice Pot. "We have been here six months," said cook Mohammed Iskandar. "This is the first place like this in KL. We just passed this place and wondered what it was. We came and asked the manager and asked if we can sell and then we started."

Iskandar, who said his garlic butter rice was a popular dish, added: "There is a different concept to most of the food here, and business is very good. We hope to stay here a long time."

Tapak now has an estimated 200 trucks on its database, but none are permanent fixtures. "We have an average of 28 to 30 trucks a night," said Ismail. "One lorry can stay here a maximum of five days a week, so they need to rotate. We have a schedule. They make good money."

Ismail said site allocations are based on sales performance. "We pick our trucks by the food and how they perform. We base it on their sales. If the sales are poor for one or two days then we will give others a chance. They can come back but they must upgrade their sales."

Each truck pays Tapak 80 ringgit ($18.70) per night. The company also offers training programs, workshops and mentorships for prospective truck owners. This is one reason, said Ismail, why Tapak can stay ahead of any competition and is planning to expand in the capital and elsewhere in Malaysia.

"We can see a few rivals coming up, but it is all about sustainability and most do not last long," said Ismail. "There was one recently that closed down after three weeks as they did not have a permit. That is key. You have to have the government and all the right people, police, fire officers on board."

He added that food park operators must also enter the business for the long term. "People see the food truck as a trend, but it is not a trend, it is the future."

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