Like many small businesses, popular comfort food purveyor Charlie’s Cafe was hit hard by COVID19. As captain of the ship, owner-founder Desonny Tuzan had people to take care of and he knew, in order to survive, he could no longer do business as normal. Here’s what he did to save the business that he and wife Debra spent five years building from scratch.

As we were about to tuck into Sarawak laksa and chicken chop at our favourite neighbourhood café, an unfamiliar ding ding ding rang out.

Several moments passed before the source of the sound registered on me. It originated from a device that Grabfood has placed in Charlie’s Café to notify the shop of every new order.

It was 2019 and my first encounter with a food delivery app.

“Delivery is going to be a game changer,” owner Desonny Tuzan, better known as Sonny, predicted. “At some point, the revenue from e-orders would match or even overtake walk-ins.”

Always buzzing with people, Charlie’s Cafe feels like a community centre, rather than a café. One of the reasons my husband and I love Charlie’s is the owners’ hospitality. I often joke it’s the Cheers of Taman Desa. Before COVID19, I couldn’t imagine how anything could replace the sensory pleasures and the human touch involved in a sitdown meal outside.

Nearly half a year later, I have to eat my words. Today, when I drop by to pick up my lime butter cake and curry puffs, the difference is stark.

Except for a Grab rider waiting to pick up orders, there are no customers. It’s just Sonny and his wife Debra behind a row of stacked up tables and chairs. Both are wearing face masks. “It’s too risky right now. We’re going to watch and see before opening up.”

In five years of running Charlie’s Cafe, Sonny has faced his share of storms, but COVID19 is probably the biggest challenge of his life.

Recalling the night MCO was announced mid-March, he says, “My first reaction was oh no, this might wipe us out. Our dine-in has always been our core although we’ve been growing our delivery business for the last one year or so. How are we going to cover 70% of our sales?”

More news trickled in about MCO. The prospects looked grim. But at the back of his mind, he knew that he had to remain calm in the face of the incoming storm.

“As the captain of the ship, I have to strategise and look at things positively, no matter how challenging or impossible the situation may be.”

“My first order of the day was to explain the situation we are facing to the team members. In a crisis, the most important thing is to understand what’s the storm outside, what’s the worst that can happen. Don’t try to hide or play down the situation. You have to be honest with your team members.”

His immediate thought was to plug any leakages and wastage immediately. “You’re bleeding every moment, so your first priority is to look for the lowest-hanging fruit. The easiest place to start is your overheads. Whatever variable costs we can save, we try to save – electricity consumption, water, utilities.”

Closing the revenue gap was harder. No dine-in meant losing 60-70% of his revenue overnight. Unchecked, it could potentially wipe out the business that Sonny and Debra had invested their blood, sweat and tears into building, with the support of people who believed in them. The couple have four school-going children and the café is their only source of income.

Charlie’s almost had to close shop one time at the beginning of his journey. “Our sales were picking up slowly but it wasn’t enough to cover expenses. TNB was going to cut our electricity that night. I was at my wits’ end when an angel called in and made a catering order. It saved my business.”

That near-miss taught Sonny the importance of marketing. He has since learned to master PR and customer engagement, so much so that Charlie’s enjoys a regular presence in broadcast, print and online media – highly unusual for an indie café with no high-profile celebrity endorser or PR agency on its payroll.

He points out, “You can never stop marketing. The F & B scene is so fierce, there are always new competitors, so you always have to be creative and remain top of customers’ mind.”

COVID19 has inspired Sonny to be even more creative, in everything from marketing to product offering to customer engagement.

Since COVID19 started, Sonny has released a series of videos in which he samples and reviews his own food, shot by Debra in between breaks. Punctuated with his entertaining personality and enticing close-ups of the food, the videos are good fun and more importantly, highly effective. My ketua rumah will attest that more than once, I pestered him to drive over and buy whatever food item featured on Sonny’s video minutes after it’s uploaded.

Sonny knew he would have to be extra aggressive in optimising takeaway and delivery after losing their dine-in sales virtually overnight. “We used more delivery apps than ever. The 30% commission is high but the business volume will ease our cash flow. We also did heavy promotion on Instagram and Facebook to maximise exposure of our products.”

Whatsapp was instrumental for Charlie’s Cafe in engaging with customers, with conversations taking place late into the night. “Even though we’ve been up all day since early morning, that is the time customers want to talk to us so we work really hard until midnight to coordinate with customer and answer their questions.”

To generate more sales, he introduced a slew of new products. In my five years as a customer, I’ve never seen Charlie’s Cafe releasing so many products in such a short period of time: bungkus nasi lemak, curry puffs with French butter pastry, lime butter cake, etc. His intention: “To create a hero product that can create its own following and so create more sales.”

Another key observation was the importance of going with the flow instead of fighting it. Sonny started offering his burnt cheesecake, which was already very popular, in bulk – whole cakes – because he felt people would buy in bigger quantities since they had to limit the number of times they come out.

And with hygiene at the top of everybody’s priorities, addressing safety concerns was crucial.

In addition to food videos, Sonny frequently shares on social media about the steps taken to improve Charlie’s hygiene level. “The new SOP is very important so we have to show our initiative. For example, the common corridor where our customers and riders wait to pick up their food is highly exposed so we disinfect it every one or two hours.”

Bottom line: did these strategies work?

He says honestly, “We could not cover 100% of the dine-in loss, but the increase in delivery and takeaway helped us to close half of the gap, which is more than what we had hoped for. We are grateful that we did not have to close shop and see five years of hard work go down the drain. And we are thankful that in this challenging time, we are still able to do business and broaden our base to customers beyond our regular neighbourhood such as Shah Alam, Klang, Kota Kemuning and Kajang.”

Which brings me to the million-dollar question: what’s his goal for Charlie’s Cafe post-MCO?

Without hesitation, he says, “To position ourselves better post MCO so that we can survive the next crisis. And the way to do this, I feel is, to prepare for and accept the new norm. Unless something drastic happens like the discovery of a vaccine, takeaway and delivery will make up 80% of F & B sales.”

Welcome to the new normal.

***

New to Charlie’s Cafe? Sonny recommends the following for first-timers:
– Charlie’s Chicken Chop with Sarawak black pepper
– Laksa Ala Sarawak
– Traditional French Butter Cake
– Burnt Cheese cake
– UFO Tart

Charlie’s Cafe
29, Jalan Bukit Desa 5, Taman Bukit Desa
58100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Whatsapp +6012-816 0003
https://www.facebook.com/orimycharliescafe2015/
www.mycharliescafe.com
Business hours during MCO 10:30am-6:30pm Sundays closed