From failed restaurant to brewing up cup of success

Matadoe @ Airport Mall

BRUNEI - Faced with the view of a side wall, a kitchen that looks unchic and uninspiring, and an urge to be different in Brunei's cafe sector, are just some of the issues Syen Sofian Abu Bakar had to overcome in 2005 when he bought over a failing restaurant business.

What used to be a failed restaurant, was revamped and renovated to be one of Brunei's longest lasting cafes - Matadoe.

In the early 2000s, Syen returned from the United Kingdom finding himself at the start of Brunei's cafe culture.

The very limited market started to sprout cafes that were "more of the same".

"We realised that every cafe was duplicating what other cafes were doing, and none of it was (impressive) because it wasn't original anymore," says Syen.

"My partner and I got into the cafe business by accident, when we bought over a failed restaurant, which looked like someone's dining area in a kitchen," he says.

Syen and his business partner initially decided to start a menswear shop which included a coffee section for quick snacks, and light foodstuffs. Creating a cafe, says Syen, was something completely different, and they went with their plan in reverse.

"There was a design limitation that we had to work around, as we had to incorporate the existing setup into the new design," says Syen, who is also a designer by profession.

Syen laments about the side wall which was facing Matadoe. "It was dull sitting in a cafe looking at a dead wall, so I installed a projector and used the wall as a screen instead," says Syen.

Matadoe, would play movies, or get a little creative by scenes to change the ambience, such as the view of a fast moving train. "We had to stop that because we all became dizzy, and it actually felt like the whole cafe was moving" says Syen, who noticed that after that other cafes started erecting projectors to put in their premises too.

It was in July 2012 that the business partners decided to make their presence felt in The Airport Mall, and opened their second branch there.

A year later, they closed their branch in Mata-Mata due to problems with manpower and the need to cut their operational costs. The partners decided to maintain their branch in The Airport Mall.

Syen's strong belief in his cafe, and brand translated into the business, with a cohesive design flow that links the cafe's interior, Matadoe's foodstuff packaging and their menswear boutique.

The ecclectic modern Morrocan themed cafe has built its reputation locally in the past nine years as it matured in the market.

"We have to maintain everything so that it looks good, tastes good and feels good, which has the overall effect of making Matadoe look expensive," says the cafe owner.

Syen revealed that what many people are unaware of is that the prices of their operation may be "way lower" than what consumers perceive.

"(Entrepreneurs) need to know that their logo is their face, their name is their company, their brand is what people think of their business and it is what customers will equate you with," says Syen.

Despite the struggle to remain relevant and competitive in terms of pricing, Syen says that with Brunei's small market and price sensitive consumers, being able to sustain his business for this period of time is a success in itself.

"We won't say that we succeeded at all, but to have sustained in this market is already a success," he says. On his future business planning, Syen and his business partner drafts a five-year plan, every five years, and both of them are currently reviewing their third five-year plan.

"We give ourselves a timeline on what we should be delivering and what we should be achieving," says Syen, who adds that the plan is never concrete and the challenge arises when adjustments have to be made.

Being a designer, the cafe and menswear boutique owner strongly believes in the power of advertising, with social media marketing being the avenue of choice in Brunei.

Matadoe itself focuses its marketing efforts on social media to speed the delivery of information, and Syen has found that the visual impact of his advertisement designs are more effective when consumers view it online.

"As a person who is involved in design and advertising, I see three main media for advertising; social media, newspapers for creating awareness, and social events for promotions," said Syen.

As an avid traveller, Syen has a hope to be able to share the Matadoe concept in bigger foreign cities. "We had to adjust the plan when we decided to open up in the Airport Mall, so we are determined that in our next five years, we will make it happen," he says.c