Navigating the Covid crisis – MQuah, MD of Carefood Industries
The Covid19 crisis has shipwrecked many industries. SME food entrepreneurs across the board are struggling to stay afloat until better times return. Many are scouting and hoping for new opportunities for growth. Mickey Quah, founder of Carefood Industries Sdn Bhd which produces halal sauces under the brand name Asian Meals, is one such entrepreneur. Asian Meals has a 400 product range which includes curry sauces, pasta sauces, dipping sauces, salad dressings, instant meal kits, rice noodle soup bowls, and konjac noodle soup bowls. Carefood Industries and Asian Meals are halal certified and have met International Quality standards for food production. It won the ITC Business of the Year 2019 award, the ANUGA Taste Inno Show Award 2019 at the ANUGA Food Fair in Germany, and recently the APAC Business Award 2020.
The Covid pandemic threw a spanner in the works for Carefood Industries. “After winning the awards, we had overwhelming inquiries from overseas customers who wanted to either buy outright our sauces or use our facilities to do private label or OEM products for them. We had spent more than RM100,000 to ship out samples of our products and a spirit of euphoria ran high among our staff. Then wham! The unexpected covid19 pandemic hit us and the world’s economy. We have been affected as most of our customers on the B2B Food Service are Restaurants, Hotels, and Cruise Ships. No one seriously wanted to make commitments in the short or medium term. We can understand that. Sigh. We were all waiting to see when it would come to an end. But the months rolled on.”
Carefood Industries retained its staff and everyone tightened belts and kept going. Mickey said, “I thank God that I did not have to tell everyone to go like some businesses had to do so because it was quite impossible for keep on bleeding losses.”
Navigating the Crisis
Mickey said, “We had to restrategise and shift focus in the interim. We went online to sell specially packed sauces and instant meal kits which are geared to address the B2C (Business to Consumer) market. Our instant noodles are unique in that they are healthy, non-GMO rice noodles instead of waxed noodles and the soup base is from our sauces instead of synthetic powders. The response is encouraging. E-commerce or direct to consumer via social media platforms is a new channel of business growth that came out of this Covid crisis.”
While B2C strategy represents a new beginning, Mickey Quah is hopeful that mass vaccinations and the continuing decline of new covid spread will bring an end to the pandemic and business will return to pre-covid times. B2B (Business to Business) segment is where we have an advantage. “We have the manufacturing facility and experience to do private labels for our partners. Working together with food purveyors like cafes, restaurant chains or catering/convention companies to tweak the right sauces for their food will save them time and speed up their ready to market meals for their customers. We were in discussion with several parties and we are optimistic that post-covid pandemic will bring us all back to the table again to ink B2B deals.”
Carefood Industries operates its own facility at Bandar Sri Damansara on a 20,000 sq ft land which was purchased in 1993. It currently has three automated lines with one cooking station only and at any day our max capacity is 10m/tonnes. Mickey Quah said that expansion is possible by adding another floor to the factory which can in future increase capacity by another 50%.
Carefood Industries ventured overseas in the mid 1990s after it launched Asian Meals in 1994. With the assistance of The Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (Matrade) which encouraged Malaysian manufacturers to export their products to global markets via subsidies for trade exhibitions and international fairs , Carefood Industries received the exposure it needed to break into the export market. Up and until the Covid pandemic, 90% of the company’s revenue was generated from exports.
It was not always that way. Mickey was working with Esso Malaysia for 11 years and then with Sime Plantations before he ventured out to start his own business. His first Asian heritage food products were marketed under the brand name MUM ( both to remember his mother’s great cooking and also as the acronym for Mudah Untuk Masak). Sales were moving well and supermarkets and retail outlets carried MUM sambals and sauces. He worked with several distributors and wholesalers.
Then Mickey said he was approached by someone who suggested that he grant exclusive distribution rights to one big agency. That sounded like a good idea and Mickey terminated the rest of the distribution channels and gave exclusivity to the established agency. Later he discovered that the agency had internal issues and MUM’s products were left grounded in the warehouse and not replenished at retail outlets. The brand suffered a backlash which was a painful lesson that Mickey learned about trusting the wrong distributor. His advice to new entrepreneurs in the food manufacturing business is to make sure you do a diligence or background study on the reputation of the distributors of your products before signing up with any exclusive agency. All your hard work and investment in the food products you love and all the marketing and branding done only to see the whole thing fall apart because of a third party’s default of performance of obligations was a bad experience for Mickey. Instead of taking the matter to the courts, Mickey had to decide whether to wind up the business or to rebrand his products and export the same. He chose the latter alternative and Asian Meals was born.
Mickey also changed the focus from retail sales to B2B and the HORECA industry (hotels, restaurants and cafes) showed promise in terms of cashflow and volume sales. Cruise ships were an opportunity as their kitchens required bulk ready to use sauces. Mickey spent more of his time overseas to market Asian Meals and that kept his factory at home busy.
The Verve to Keep Going
Mickey says, “You have to be very committed in any business that you invest your time and money in but particularly in the food business. Unless you have a passion for it and is a foodie at heart (like me he grinned) you will find it difficult to face tough times. It is not a business for the faint hearted. You can be floored completely by an unpredictable thing like Covid 19. The food business demands that no compromises are to be made where food quality and safety are concerned because the health and welfare of the consumer is at stake. Carefood Industries has met international food and health safety standards. Asian Meals have :
- No preservatives added
- No artificial colours added
- No synthetic flavours added
- No MSG added
- No trans fat
and uses Non-GMO (genetically modified) ingredients
Having been around for more than 30 years in the food business and riding the waves that come seasonably, Mickey has no regrets. His advice to budding entrepreneurs is to keep going and don’t let the bad times break you. “In business you must expect bad times to come. If it is always going to be good times, everyone will be in business.”
Care Food Industries Sdn Bhd has been enlisted in Global 100 -Food Manufacturer of the Year 2021.
- The Star Online. 21 January 2019. Joy Lee. Quah’s recipe for sauces. https://www.thestar.com.my/business/smebiz/2019/01/21/quahs-recipe-for-sauces
- Mickey Quah. Championing the Asian Food Heritage. https://my.linkedin.com/in/mickeyquah-carefood-asianmeals
- EWorld Trade. Carefood Industries Sdn. Bhd. https://www.eworldtrade.com/c/care-food-industries-sdn-bhd-5741/
- The Halal Times. CareFood, A Malaysian Manufacturer of Authentic Asian Sauces Speaks Up. https://www.halalbiz.com/carefood-malaysian-manufacturer-authentic-asian-sauces-speaks/
- The Halal Times. Halal Food Industry Growing Despite COVID-19, Says Mickey Quah From Care Food, Malaysia. https://www.halalbiz.com/halal-food-industry-growing-despite-covid-19-says-mickey-quah-from-care-food-malaysia/
- The Halal Times. CareFood Industries, a Success Story in Authentic Sauces Business Globally. https://www.halalbiz.com/carefood-industries-a-success-story-in-authentic-sauces-business-globally/
- South China Morning Post. 24 October 2020. CareFood champions Asian heritage with authentic sauces. https://www.scmp.com/country-reports/country-reports/topics/malaysia-business-report-2020/article/3106459/carefood
- Interview with Mickey Quah. 24 February 2021.