Online food halls redraw ‘home dining’ landscape

PETALING JAYA: Changing consumer behaviour is making its way into the dining scene, thanks to a craving for speed and convenience in people’s lifestyle today.

The shift is leading to a whole new experience where diners can enjoy their meal without stepping of their home. The change has given rise to virtual or online food halls, which are redefining the concept of having a “home meal” by tapping into the growing appetite for convenience and speed.

Epic Food Hall co-founder and CEO Lai Wick Kee (pix) sees the internet restaurant model as the way forward for the food & beverage (F&B) industry.

Epic Food Hall is a halal-certified chain of online food halls.

Lai said fast-changing consumer behaviour has translated into a relatively short product life-cycle in the F&B market these days. “Fast iteration and fast adaptation are one of the critical survival or success factors today,” he told SunBiz.

Lai elaborated that Epic leverages technology and data in its business decisions, developing new brands and new products based on data analytics.

“More importantly, our innovation/iteration cycle is relatively short. We typically launch a new minimal viable brand/product as quickly as we can to collect data and feedback.”

Backed by data and results, Epic will retain brands that work, iterate brands that underperform and, in the scenario it doesn’t improve after exhausting all efforts, the brand will be retired.

Compared with the traditional restaurant model and the newer cloud kitchen concept, Lai explained, an internet kitchen is an omni channel which caters to delivery, dine-in and pick-up as well as a multi-brand offering under one roof.

He highlighted that under this model, Epic utilises three levers – number of brands of internet restaurants, number of kitchens and average sales per brand – as opposed to the traditional levers of number of stores and average sales per store.

When he started the venture in 2014, food delivery was largely confined to big fast food chains and there was no food aggregator such as Grab Food and Food Panda in the market.

“We would take the orders through phone or online, cook the meals and deliver the prepared food to our customer’s doorstep via our own rider fleets.”

From its first store in Damansara Perdana, the first year saw revenue of RM580,000 with a workforce of 15 people. Subsequently, it expanded to Bandar Sunway and Mont Kiara.

In 2021, Epic recorded sales of RM12.2 million with a 70-strong workforce.

“We made a strategic shift in our business model from a single-brand kitchen to a multi-brand kitchen strongly attributable to our strong intent to solve inefficient pricing in food delivery,” explained the Epic co-founder.

With eight years of cumulative growth in online food delivery competencies under its belt, Epic has created over 30 brands, managed over 90 internet restaurants and more than 200 food products.

“Among our notable brands are Epic Fit Meals and Pak Adam’s Nasi Lemak. We designed the brands and their products with clear and indistinctive food missions in mind,” he shared.

Lai atributed its model’s competitive edge over the traditional kitchen model to its ability to achieve economies of scale in each individual kitchen proficiently.

At the same time Epic is on a mission to achieve the right product market fitting.

“We will only expand into new locations with the right addressable market size, high internet penetration rate and with a population that is digital savvy.”

For 2022, Lai revealed that he is looking to open up more Epic Kitchen outlets, launch new brands, and venture into the ready-to-eat meals segment, among others.

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