The man behind Uncle Don's

Ian Ong on how he found success with the cult-status eatery.

Ong and his team have merged two concepts — that of a diner and a pub — but largely catering for drinkers. (Photo: Patrick Goh/The Edge)

First, this writer has to disclose that he has known D&D Food & Beverage Sdn Bhd CEO Ian Ong for about 20 years — from the days of a little pub called Scandals in Jalan Telawi, Bangsar, back in the late 1990s. So, there could be some amount of bias.

However, perhaps due to the familiarity, this interview with Ong was the most frank, sincere and honest I have conducted in about 20 years of reporting. Ong tells it as it is, speaking from his heart, almost fearless of being ridiculed. The law lecturer, who has dabbled in financial services, has been in the entertainment industry since 2003, and has admittedly paid a heavy price, losing hard-earned money in the process.

“I lost millions in the early years … perhaps you could look at it as tuition fees. I tried so many things. I am perhaps the only Chinese guy to have owned an Indian pub — Vallavan — in Section 8, Petaling Jaya,” he says, laughing at the memory.

Ong started out as an investor but eventually got involved in the running of the business as well, spending long hours at the outlet, which is when the problems started.

“I was consumed by the business … it’s very easy to get consumed by the business when you own such an outlet,” he says earnestly. “I used to love to drink!”

In a nutshell, after a while, it became harder and harder to make ends meet. “The liquor that the owner of the pub consumes is not revenue-generating,” Ong explains.

After much hardship, he thought he would give the entertainment business one last try, the “last stand” as he called it. “This last venture was going to make or break me. I had lost enough.”

In the third quarter of 2015, Ong and his partner-to-be Don Daniel Theseira, a chef of almost 40 years, learnt about a coffee shop in SS3, Petaling Jaya, whose owner sold about 500 to 600 chicken chops a day.

“The shop was easy enough to find — there were so many people queuing up to buy the chicken chop. It opened at 6pm and was done by 8pm or 9pm. The only selling point was the price — RM9.80,” Ong recounts.

He and Don then sat down and perfected the business model.

“Instead of fried chicken chop, like at the coffee shop, we grilled our chicken, making it healthier. We also came up with other items for the menu,” he explains.

They opted for double compressor ice taps for their beer to ensure that it remained cold for a longer period after serving. Then, with an initial investment of RM400,000, the first Uncle Don’s was set up in SS2, Petaling Jaya, and opened for business in January 2016.

The first Uncle Don’s was set up in SS2, PJ, and opened for business in January 2016 (Photo: Uncle Don's)

There has been no turning back for the duo since, and the slogan “Dine like a Don every day” has really caught on. Other than value for money, all Uncle Don’s outlets have a decent selection of liquor and cocktails to boot.

There are nine Uncle Don’s at present with perhaps a few more to open by the end of the year. A central kitchen was set up recently at a cost of about RM2 million, and Ong is looking to set up a chain of pubs to complement the restaurants, also by the end of the year.

The creative force behind Uncle Don’s is Ong himself, who plays around with the layout.

He mentions almost casually that his revenue touches RM50 million a year. While he does not offer any guidance, the food and beverage industry is understood to have margins of about 20% for food and more for beverages.

“But to us, margins are secondary. We are not greedy; we offer value for money,” Ong remarks. And the concept has taken off.

“Some outlets took about RM1 million to RM1.2 million to set up, and we recovered that in about six months,” he says.

Thanks to his concept, Ong’s restaurants have a much longer lifespan than the average bar and restaurant, which requires a new look or refurbishment every few months.

What Ong and his team have done is to merge two concepts — that of a diner and a pub — but largely catering for drinkers.

“It is common to see families at the restaurant, couples with young children dining, while the drinkers sit at the bar and other areas, more focused on the booze,” he says.

Basically, this means that Uncle Don’s does well every day of the week, entertaining a large segment of the population. It does well even on Sundays — as opposed to other bars, which do exceptionally well on weekends and barely break even during the weekdays. And the business has grown beyond expectations. Initially, Ong and Don wanted to set up seven outlets and were planning to sit back and take it easy. But this has changed now, and drastically too.

The friendly neighbourhood bar and restaurant serves a variety of Asian and western dishes (Photo: Uncle Don's)

“Our central kitchen can cook for as many as 40 restaurants,” Ong says, giving an indication of the size and scale the duo are looking at.

Very soon, there are going to be Uncle Don’s restaurants in the north and the south, he says, and eventually in other states as well.

“We are also looking at one, maybe our last, outlet in Melaka — Don’s kampung,” Ong says.

Also in the pipeline is a possible flotation but Ong, who is well versed in finance, says quickly that an outright initial public offering is not on the cards.

“More of an RTO (reverse takeover) maybe,” he says, leaning back in his chair at his office in Taman Tun Dr Ismail.

Ong has managed to wear two very important hats: handle the daily running of the company and be at the outlets mingling with the patrons, actually doing the public relations.

But he concedes that owning a restaurant can be tiring as the workload and responsibilities are numerous. It is painful to have to keep a watchful eye on things as costs have to be controlled and pilferage is a common problem in the entertainment industry, he adds.

“It’s difficult to trust anyone … you can get disappointed and hurt, you have to keep a close watch on things, hire the right people, people you know you can trust, people you know will not let you down, and you share the spoils.”

All in all, Ong says he is content doing what he does. Despite the challenges, he has grown Uncle Don’s to what it is today in a short span of time, which means he must be doing something right.

Now, we wait for news on D&D Food & Beverage and Uncle Don’s to hit Corporate Malaysia.


This article first appeared on Sept 24, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia. 


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