The Warung, a lifestyle store and café, was started in 2018 by six friends who wanted to make a difference. “We have this vision or dream of helping local designers and artists to actually sell their products. We started with the idea of creating a platform for local makers,” says co-founder Ooi Zhi Yi.
From young, the six friends had been active members of Leo Club — the youth organisation of the Lions Club — and partook in many charitable projects. So, when they wanted to start a business, they were very clear about wanting to empower local artisans, who make products such as stationery and clothing. They began The Warung as a retail store, but immediately ran into a few problems.
First, it was difficult to find local makers and artisans who would commit to keeping their store inventory up to date, especially as so many were running their small businesses part-time. Also, as The Warung was unknown and the founders did not have connections in the industry, it took a while for small businesses to trust them. “The products we sell are not everyday necessities, so people would not come to buy from us every day. So, we felt like we needed to do something to get people to come in. After half a year, we decided that we needed to set up a café,” says Ooi.
The Warung is located in a long shoplot in Lebuh Victoria. The front section is dedicated to the retail portion of the business. Familiar brands, such as Amazin’ Graze, fill its shelves and its product range includes homeware, scented candles, T-shirts, stationery and even skincare.
As it was unable to sustain the business by depending on other brands, The Warung started its own brands such as Ben for stationery and journaling equipment, and Lahym that has cement homeware. “We wanted to explore branding and marketing. Our initial idea was to help other businesses build their brands and market their products. But many could not be as proactive with their branding because they had full-time jobs. So, we decided to try our own brands, to explore how we could help in the future and have a portfolio of brands,” says Ooi.
They have a few criteria for the products that go into the store and on their website. “We try to promote local as much as we can. We also want to promote sustainable products, for example, we have bags and pouches from Freitag, which are made with recycled materials,” he explains.
The back half of The Warung is where the café is located. “None of us have café experience, except from our own café hopping. So we had to learn the basics — most of us went for coffee training. We found a supplier, luckily someone we knew, who could teach us everything about coffee-making, from how the beans are processed to operating the machines properly,” says Ooi.
With a long coffee bar and a few high tables and chairs, the space is sparsely decorated, which allows the exposed brick walls and the stripped-back feel to shine. The menu began with sweet waffles and coffee, but because of the pandemic — which forced them to create takeaway options — it was expanded to include savoury waffles.
On my visit, I sampled the sweet waffles with vanilla ice cream and a matcha latte. Crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside, the waffles were delicious and they also came with honey, cream and a knob of butter — definitely not a diet-friendly plate. A few customers were about, enjoying their cuppas. Some were even indulging in the rice or noodle dishes.
“In September 2020, we began a collaboration with Common Ground in Penang and became their vendor. People at the co-working space needed full meals for lunch and dinner, so that was when we added rice and noodles to our menu,” explains Ooi. As this outlet does not have any retail component, it was rebranded as The Warung Plus. It expanded to more Common Ground branches in May 2021 and The Warung Plus is currently in four locations in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya.
Operating The Warung and The Warung Plus was tricky during the pandemic and lockdowns, and the founders had to rely on takeaways and deliveries. However, Ooi looks on the bright side. “During the lockdown, the staff were quite new, so we took the opportunity to train them. By the time the MCO was lifted, they were all familiar with the operations, so it was much easier when the crowd came in,” he says.
Learning as they go with their in-house brands, the team behind The Warung are still holding on to their dream of helping people first. “During the pandemic, we had a lot of free time to discuss and plan. We wanted to help more people and empower more local creators. But we also wanted to help young people who are unemployed — we’re still planning this — but the general idea has been to provide training for them to become baristas, to cook or manage a store or café,” says Ooi. He adds that the people they train will not necessarily have to work for The Warung, but he hopes to create a database of trained individuals and help them by putting them in touch with other cafés or businesses.
Ooi has big plans for The Warung and the future looks bright. “We are actually hoping the industry of local makers can be as big as the ones in Taiwan and Thailand, where the local makers industry is pretty huge and established,” he observes.
This article first appeared on Mar 7, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.