Jackie Kam, Managing Director of Ah Weng Koh Hainan Tea shares her story of how she has successfully carried on the legacy of her grandfather’s business using innovation.
As business owners, we are all fully aware of how quickly the world is advancing in all aspects of work and life. For some of those who are running businesses with a longstanding heritage, there are always concerns on whether they are able to keep up while preserving elements derived from the history they have made. This is always a fair point to think about and according to Jackie Kam, Managing Director of Ah Weng Koh Hainan Tea, it is possible to preserve the roots of a business and innovate to adapt at the same time. Ah Weng Koh Hainan Tea is a renowned F&B brand in KL and has continuously left a deep impression in the KL community since the 1960s with their products as they progress over the years. Join Cleve Yap and Jackie Kam in this episode of Arcc Insights to find out how Ah Weng Koh Hainan Tea managed to stay authentic, retain its traditions and be relevant to the modern crowd with innovation.
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Cleve: So, as you know today we are all gonna hear from you about how Ah Weng Koh Hainan Tea has managed to come such a long way catering its products to the modern world. So, shall we kick off by sharing with us and the audience more about yourself and Ah Weng Koh as a business?
Jackie: Thank you for having me to share about a traditional brand that is more than 50 years old.
Ah Weng Koh is a pioneer Hainan Tea brand based in Malaysia, and we are also a collective memory of many Malaysians especially those from Kuala Lumpur.
In the 1960s, we started our 1st hawker stall, in Kuala Lumpur by my grandfather, the founder Mr Tan Chik Kai who came from Hainan Island in China, like most of the Hainanese immigrants who landed on the Nanyang shores in those days. He started his livelihood by providing catering services to the colonial government officials, and because of the influence he received from a mixed culture environment, he created a special beverage call Hainan Tea. The special taste of Hainan Tea has gained fame over the years for us and become a foundation of success for Ah Weng Koh!
Cleve: I see I see. That sounds like some interesting history back there in the 1960s.
So, all of us at Arcc Spaces know that you and Ah Weng Koh Hainan Tea have actually come a long way from the traditional roots of the business to this point as you mentioned just now. We also heard you have opened up the e-commerce front to serve the online crowd. How did the transformation of traditional brick-and-mortar business to online e‐commerce business take place for Ah Weng Koh? What are the challenges that you have faced?
Jackie: Basically, we have not only opened up on the e-commerce side. We have evolved from time to time based on the market trend and managed to open up the FMCG line and you are right, we did face different challenges at different stages.
One of the most challenging obstacles was like, how do we transform a cup of traditional Hainan Tea into retail packages. About that, we actually took more than 3 years to overcome the challenge.
Hainan Tea is neither coffee nor tea. It is actually a combination of both. At the same time, It is also not cham or HK ying yong. Hainan Tea is a blend of black tea together with arabica, robusta coffee beans. The unique experience when you drink a good cup of Hainan Tea comes from the well-balanced recipe that also enhanced the fragrance of the black tea. So, from a single sip, you will tend to feel the coffee aroma first, followed by the intense flavour of the silky milk tea. Such a perfect concoction has been known to us and our consumers that it leaves you a great aftertaste you can only experience from the authentic Hainan Tea recipe that has been passed down from my grandfather.
As a traditional coffee master/barista, they have their style of “SOP” which is difficult to be copied. Furthermore, coffee & tea have their own unique taste of the brew. When you mix them together, it is kind of difficult to make it balanced. For us, we have been very consistent on trial & error processes. We find different types of coffee beans/ tea leaves to ensure the taste & quality to be similar to the recipe from my grandfather, and in those 3 years of R&D, we have always been relying on my mum’s taste buds and experience to QC the products. She is our product “Quality Control Supervisor”. Hahaha! We have to let her try new recipes every time.
Cleve: Hahaha! That is very very interesting. 3 years is definitely a very long time. I believe there has been a lot of hard work going on behind the scenes.
I believe KL also has a franchise called Paparich and there is this very popular beverage called cham. So, I’ve always been thinking whether Ah Weng Koh Hainan Tea is something like cham but when you mentioned that it is neither HK ying young nor cham, I’m now more curious to taste it.
Jackie: Actually, cham and HK ying yong is different in taste also. It’s just like teh and cappuccino. There’s the different levels of coffee, water and milk. So, it’s the same thing for cham, ying yong and Hainan Tea.
Cleve: I see. So, the concept applies right?
Jackie: Yes, because back in those years Malaysia was also influenced by British culture. So, it’s the same with HK Ying Yong.
Cleve: Oh… Ok. Yeah, now that makes sense. It sort of got influenced by those western beverages.
Ok, I understand that Ah Weng Koh is a household name with a rich heritage and history as you have mentioned, and there was like 3 years’ worth of business research and recipe experiments to bring the business to the next level which was certainly hard work. But, what actually inspired such an initiative, and who was involved besides you and your mum?
Jackie: Basically, the entire family was involved and all of us really wanted to inherit the efforts and achievements of our grandfather, to make the business relevant to the next generation, and at the same time retain its authenticity.
So, following the change in time and era, Ah Weng Koh Hainan Tea no longer became just a cup of good beverage. We are also a brand that reflects nostalgia, habits, lifestyle and the culture of Kuala Lumpur. Most of our customers and supporters have already made it a part of their daily lifestyle. You can tend to see them drop by our store every day for a cup of Hainan Tea, for breakfast, or just to simply hang around to chit chat with my parents and their friends before starting their brand new day. So yeah, this is happening at Ah Weng Koh’s shop every morning. The daily morning scene reflects a simple but very localised lifestyle and culture in Kuala Lumpur.
Today, we have also become one of the must-visit tourist spots of Kuala Lumpur. We have a lot of tourists around the world dropping by our shop just to taste a cup of the original Hainan Tea and also experience the authentic lifestyle in Kuala Lumpur.
So, due to all these demand, support, and the mission we wanted to achieve as a family, all of us were inspired to work towards expansion and innovation to move forward with the times. We want to let our grandfather’s legacy live on.
Cleve: Interesting. It’s all about the family right?
Jackie: Yes, everything is about the family. Every day is also a working day. Hahaha!
Cleve: Oh.. OK. Hahaha! Yeah, I definitely believe it’s still very hard work.
So, have you ever considered whether too much innovation might destroy the heritage and completely change Ah Weng Koh to a totally different business?
Jackie: Basically, what we are doing now is expanding and evolving instead of a total change. We strategize our evolution and expansion plans based on the market trend.
Like how our shop is right now, the atmosphere and how we run it has never changed. Every cup of Hainan Tea is still handmade & prepared by my mum & brother, even the toast & butter are still hand-cut by my father and we didn’t rely on any cutting machine.
However, at the same time, we are fully aware that we must grow & move forward in different stages of life, or else we will become irrelevant and phase out in the market. In view of the pandemic issues, there were also no domestic or international tourists due to the lockdown. Moreover, dine-in is strictly prohibited. This also serves as a reminder to us that we cannot stick with the “traditional way” and need to move forward to survive.
To me, Innovation does not mean that a company’s heritage will be destroyed. I see it more as an opportunity to actually enhance and protect our heritage in different ways.
We still insist on retaining the originality and the quality of the creation our late grandfather has left behind for us while we explore the endless opportunities to expand and improve through innovation.
Cleve: I see. That’s interesting. I can definitely sense some traditional elements left over in the business. I’m also quite curious how come your father still insists on using hand-cut methods rather than using a machine. Does it really retain the taste of the toast or?
Jackie: I think taste is also one of the reasons because when you hand-cut it, you can control the texture and the timing. Even though I know that the machine can set the timing but if you are more hands-on on the product, the process, etc, there is the “heartful” element to it. If you rely everything on the machine, then there is no more human touch to it.
Cleve: I understand. No wonder there are also other traditional cafes that still retains these sort of traditional methods. It’s something technology cannot replace. There is no heart in technology. Haha!
Jackie: Yes yes, it is also for taste reasons and yes human touch is something that technology cannot replace. That’s the thing.
Cleve: According to you, what does it take for a traditional business to attain success in such a business innovation project? Does it take a mindset change or any important skillset?
Jackie: Yes it does. We have to trust ourselves and never forget our original intention. Though we do face challenges but we never had the intention of giving up because the business and our heritage have too much value for us to lose them. So, these are the important steps for us to move forward. Only when the journey is ongoing then can the authenticity and heritage be sustainable.
Cleve: Yeah, it sounds like there has been so much history behind it. It’s definitely something to feel a pity about if you just let it die like that right?
Jackie: Yeah, correct.
Cleve: So, how is the customers’ response to the brand ever since you launched the e-commerce line of instant Hainan Tea?
Jackie: Most of the regular customers actually gave their full support to us. They share & promote our products to their friends. During the MCO When dining in was strictly prohibited, our retail pack became their only choice which we really appreciate their support!
Cleve: Ahhh.. Right. So, that became a very interesting alternative especially when you mentioned no dining was allowed during the MCO right? So, that probably also helped your business during the lockdown.
Jackie: Yeah, they also bought our product as souvenirs to represent KL and send them to their overseas friends to let them know that this is the taste of KL. Haha!
Cleve: Yeah, It’s a good token to also let them know that you are still there for them and you are aware of how they are. That’s a very good initiative.
So, with the recent Covid‐19 situation, F&B is no doubt one of the most affected. Other than the instant packages, was the innovation transformation enough to help your business tide through the pandemic?
Jackie: Yup, we were actually glad that we acted fast enough throughout, even before the pandemic hit. Although it is a very hard time, all of us have already worked very hard to get it through, and thank god we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel now.
Cleve: That’s nice to hear.
Finally, what are your current plans for the future of Ah Weng Koh?
Jackie: For now, brand enhancement & product expansion are still our key objectives, especially for our signature Hainan Tea as our vision & mission is, we want to share our great quality Hainan Tea and make it be a part of a lifestyle for everyone in the world.
We have also created a new beverage culture by providing a selection of “Hainan Tea”. We want to give everyone a new choice of taste besides the ordinary taste of coffee and tea.
For the past 50 years, Ah Weng Koh has garnered the support of many people, and we hope to continue engaging the people in our future endeavours and make this special taste the pride of Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. We also wish for more people to come to try our product and experience a huge part of the true Kuala Lumpur Taste!
Cleve: These plans that you mentioned to me certainly sound pretty promising to me.
Jackie: Hahaha! Have to work hard. Very hard.
Cleve: Yup. Definitely sounds like a lot of effort to be contributed there. Anyway, thanks for your time again with us Jackie. Really appreciate you for sharing with us your story on how you adapted your business to the modern world.
Jackie: Thank you Cleve.
Cleve: OK, so to those of you out there watching this episode, I hope you have learnt something from Jackie’s story on how she actually adapted her traditional business to the modern world. For now, hope to see you again for the next episode. Stay safe, take care and stay positive. Good bye!
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