Q&A With Kantan Owner Hisham Abdullah (Part Two of Two)
Hisham Abdullah opened his catering and cafe business during the height of a global pandemic. In this second and final instalment of his interview, the owner of the Melbourne based ‘Kantan’ talks about the impact of Covid-19 on his industry and what it’s like to have a Malaysian food business in the heart of Melbourne.
By – The STEADYAKU47 Team
ST47 Team – In this terrible time of covid-19 when so many restaurants are closing you were facing the daunting challenge of starting your business. What have been the challenges you’ve had to face starting Kantan and how have you overcome them?
Hisham Abdullah – I have had to rethink and reframe my business model in various ways in response to the uncertainty brought about by Covid-19. Nothing could be predicted anymore, like customer spending, eating habits, costs of goods, government regulations etc. What should my business focus on? There were no right or wrong answers to overcome these challenges, but what I found important was to adapt my offerings according to health developments.
How do you feel about the Victorian government’s response to Covid-19? Did you received any assistance when starting Kantan?
I think the government responded well in tackling the virus in Victoria. It was tough but it had to be done. Yes, businesses like mine received financial assistance throughout the lockdown.
How bad are things in the hospitality industry right now and how long before the industry fully recovers?
Things are getting better in hospitality right now. With the virus eliminated in Victoria, the government is able to further assist restaurants in rebuilding their businesses. For example, many council permits have now been waived and outdoor dining area has been extended onto roadside parking. It may take several years yet to recover. A number of restaurants have had to shut during the pandemic. Many of these places are still empty.
Has it been hard to stay positive? Where do you see the restaurant business in 2021, is the dinning experience going to be forever changed in the future or are these restrictions just a temporary sidestep before things go back to normal?
In my case, staying positive wasn’t as hard as other people I know. My business is relatively small so the financial assistance I received from the government was enough to get me through.
But it was a long period of un-productivity that was painful. You sit around the house doing mostly nothing because you aren’t allowed to go out unless for specific reasons. I think 2021 will slowly see us getting back to normal. People have started to come out in droves to their favourite eateries, and they are willing to spend.
How did you come to choose Fitzroy for your location and what do you love most about working out of this area?
I have been living in Carlton (next suburb) for 10 years but I have many friends who own businesses in Fitzroy and Collingwood. The community here loves supporting local businesses and are adventurous to try different Asian cuisines.
There’s Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, but there was no Malaysian yet. So I thought this was the perfect chance to offer something authentically Malaysian. What I love about this area is that the people are friendly and polite. Always stopping to see what’s new and have a chat about anything. Love the community feel.
How competitive is the restaurant business in Melbourne, how much do you have to hustle to keep your place?
It is highly competitive. You have to be strategic about your product offering. Sometimes what is trendy at one time will cease to be popular, so you have to stay true to what you really want
What would you say are the differences between the food and restaurant industry in Malaysia and Australia?
One main difference is that the food industry in Australia is highly regulated compared to Malaysia. When it’s highly regulated, people tend to do things more thoughtfully and carefully. For instance, dietary in Australia is a very important topic, so you have to get educated about your ingredients and the effects of your food on certain people. In Malaysia, I think this awareness is still growing.
There are so many great restaurants in Melbourne and across Australia. What in your opinion makes the Australian restaurant industry so vibrant?
This is so true of Melbourne restaurants. I think Australia is such a lucky country to have a mix of different food cultures from Europe and Asia. Different techniques and ingredients from these cultures over the years have really shaped modern Australian cuisine to be what is now.
What may be considered unfamiliar, even detested to the palate (like belacan) in the past 20 years is something that is now served in fine dining restaurants. TV shows like Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules also help give exposure to new faces and changes in the industry. It’s just incredible.
Can you give any visitors to Melbourne any local tips on what cool things to check out here in Fitzroy, other than your restaurant of course.
There are many quaint cafes in the back roads of Fitzroy and the nightlife is very vibrant. For those who are new to Fitzroy, go check out this establishment called Naked for Satan. It has an amazing history and it’s rooftop restaurant offers a great view across Melbourne. It is also owned by a fellow Malaysian.
What sets you apart? Why do you feel diners chose you over competitors.
What sets me apart I guess is that I offer home-style Malaysian cooking, which isn’t common here in Melbourne. My menu is seasonal so I can offer something new and fresh, such as peranakan dishes or regional Malay dishes from Terengganu.
And lastly, If you had one piece of advice for someone starting out in the restaurant business what would it be?
I would advise for anyone who is starting out, to do a lot of research and be prepared for really hard work!
We hope you enjoyed our interview with Hisham Abdullah and whenever you’re in Melbourne do stop by 256 Johnston Street, Fitzroy and try some of Kantan’s Malaysian cuisine! Feel free to check out Kantan’s website as well as their Instagram account and give them a follow! And let us know how you liked this series in the comments below.