We are greeted by a smoky scent as we reach the top of the stairs at what is now one of Kuala Lumpur’s most elegant burger joints. Formerly Bobo KL, which was known for being a restaurant with a cosy live performance venue on top, it is now called B_G_R: Burgers for Adults.
But fret not live music and theatre aficionados, the performance venue remains intact, though temporarily closed.
The man instrumental in this change is co-founder and owner Edward Soo, who recommends that we try two burgers from a streamlined selection of six. Two crispy chicken options, some side dishes and desserts complete the menu.
It has to be the classic cheeseburger, he tells us, and the luxe Rossini burger, which has a beef patty stuffed with foie gras, topped with boletus mushrooms and truffle mayo. That decided, we settle comfortably into the cushioned seats and sip our refreshing fruit coolers, which are complimentary during lunch service.
The saloon-like ambience of Bobo has been retained. “I didn’t change any of the décor,” Soo says, gesturing towards the white table cloths, cosy lighting and pieces from his signature artwork collection that adorn the walls.
The business model needed to be changed swiftly, he explains. “Bobo was doing quite well, especially on days and weekends when we had shows upstairs. We also did a lot of private events. But when the MCO (Movement Control Order) happened, we were caught out.”
The extended lockdown and standard operating procedures for social distancing made him wonder when people would feel comfortable enough to pack themselves into a small venue.
“I told my partners and investors that we needed to do something for this floor — the restaurant — to allow it to be standalone. We paid all our staff throughout [the MCO], although business had dropped 90%. Even after we reopened, I couldn’t just sit here and wait for people to come,” Soo says.
It took about six weeks to get B_G_R off the ground. The key was to make minimal changes in operations. “Burgers don’t need any special equipment beyond a grill. Also, we’re not doing huge volumes like fast food joints.”
While KL has no lack of eateries specialising in burgers, the restaurateur believes that, at least in Bangsar, there is room to offer a more gourmet experience. “There are some very good burger places around. But the majority of them cater for a younger demographic,” he points out.
As its tagline “burgers for adults” suggests, B_G_R distinguishes itself not only with a more refined dining service but also with its substantial wine, beer and cocktails list. There are 60 gin concoctions to try.
Since it opened early this month, most of the new restaurant’s customers have been brought in via word of mouth or social media. It is more of a soft start and Soo is still fine-tuning things. “There are definitely teething problems and tweaks are needed, including in the recipes.”
Nevertheless, affirmation came unexpectedly from the world’s best restaurant, Noma, in Denmark. “When I read that they would reopen and sell burgers as well … to know that I had hit on the same thinking as these guys was encouraging,” laughs Soo. “Of course, it’s Noma. Their burger is probably a thousand times better.”
On the topic of businesses making pivoting strategies during the pandemic, the lawyer-turned-F&B entrepreneur says he prefers to call it pirouetting. “You know, it’s like a ballet dancer on one leg, except it’s because the other leg is now incapacitated by Covid-19. It’ll take a lot of strength, agility and gracefulness to make it. We are trying to be better than what we were before, but in a way that leverages our strengths.”
Soo observes that many have opted to slash prices to gain volume but he thinks it cannot be good for anyone, as earnings in F&B we already slim even pre-MCO.
“Cash flow will be the biggest challenge. Most of us will be rolling on supplier’s credit. This is happening all around the world, not just here. It’s only going to bring everyone down if you play the discounting game,” he notes.
Then, there is the increased popularity of food delivery. Acknowledging that none of his five restaurants on the Jalan Bangkung row are particularly suited for the model — although they did begin doing deliveries via Tableapp or by direct order during the MCO — Soo says B_G_R was started with a takeaway-friendly idea in mind. “But that will not be our main focus,” he qualifies.
In a climate in which customers are more cautious about dining out, he believes the product and service must speak for themselves. “We have to have something to attract customers. There must be a story that invites them to come to us.”
Soo also revamped the menu for Spanish restaurant Cava before the MCO. Working with a Spanish executive chef, he strengthened the tapas menu, introduced new dishes, brought in Spanish beer and took out non-Spanish wine. “It’s about strengthening the identity of the restaurant,” he says.
He has also refreshed the menu at Leonardo’s Dining Room & Wine Loft, and Lucky Bo’s is next. “We want to emphasise the steakhouse identity more but with a Malaysian twist, because that’s what it is. And then we’ll get to Opus, our Italian restaurant, after that.”
Be it selling bak kut teh next to steak at Leonardo’s, traditional Spanish tapas, tomahawk with a plate of char kuey teow or burgers, Soo is confident that improving constantly and offering something interesting will make all the difference in his restaurants. “But underlying all our unique and ‘weird’ ideas, there must be authenticity,” he concludes. “This is an industry where if you have a good idea, people will catch on quickly. All the more why being authentic and playing to our strengths is important.”
B_G_R, 65, Jalan Bangkung, Bangsar, KL. 03 2092 5002. Daily, noon-3pm; 5pm till late.
This article first appeared on June 29, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.