The food and beverage industry is indeed an exciting one that beckons to many an entrepreneur who wants to be in business. But it is a highly competitive one too. Over the years, the Serai Group has successfully captured the ‘stomachs’ of its customers from all walks of life with mouth-watering delectable offerings and top-notch dining experiences. To date, it has established more than five restaurants and is highly regarded by its customers, the numbers of which are ever-growing, as their go-to food paradise. In a recent interview, the enterprising duo – the prominent individuals behind this accomplished homegrown brand, Rina Abdullah and her son-in-law, Najib Abdul Hamid, give an insight into their backgrounds, how the Serai Group started and about future plans for the business.
Rina Abdullah had her fair share of working as a stewardess for Malaysia Airlines before she decided to focus on raising her family. With the head of the family working as a hotelier, moving from one state to another was a common affair for Rina. Some years later when her eldest daughter, Qistina Taff, was ready to step into primary school, Rina figured that it would be best to settle down. “We decided to move from Johor to Shah Alam,” she says. It was in this state capital that a refreshing and dynamic chapter of food entrepreneurship was to begin.
“We have been eating at Thai restaurants often. My daughter had often said to me, “Mama, why don’t you open a restaurant? Then, we can eat for free,” she reminisces. With the free time that she had and the opportunity to start her own restaurant knocking on the door, Rina decided to give it a shot. In 1990, Serai Thai was born. “Back then, there were not many restaurants like ours that comes with an extraordinary ambiance. Alhamdulillah. The first restaurant was very well received by the residents in Shah Alam,” explains the soft-spoken Rina. Serai Thai has stood the test of time. After several decades, it still remains a favorite go-to dining paradise, attracting customers from all walks of life. “It is now onto the third generation with mother bringing the daughter into the business and now that daughter is bringing her daughter,” she says gleefully.
Najib Abdul Hamid came into the picture when he tied the knot with Qistina. Prior to his involvement in the family business, this gentleman has already earned his credentials in the field of gastronomy. Having graduated in Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts from Le Cordon Bleu in Adelaide, Australia, Najib is a chef by profession. “I lived in Australia for 11 years and I have worked in a few hotels and restaurants there.” He worked his way up to make it as the head chef. “It was not easy being an Asian leading the way in the professional kitchen. It took me a year to earn the respect from the others,” he says. His experience proved to be a valuable asset in the business expansion plans of the Serai Group.
In 2010, the decision to expand the business was made. “Instead of changing the name to some other name, we decided to maintain the name, Serai because it is a recognized Malaysian homegrown brand. We just need it to a different level,” explains Najib. The Serai Group has established five Serai outlets at major malls around Kuala Lumpur and in Selangor.
The Serai Group has also started Jibby & Co, a charming glasshouse-style restaurant strategically located just outside the Empire Shopping Gallery in Subang Jaya offering trendy food that has created such a buzz amongst food enthusiasts in Malaysia. It is the brainchild of Najib. The thought of starting a restaurant with a ‘Melbourne-New York’ feel had always been in his mind since day one. “I have always been raring to go for that kind of concept for a food place. That’s my forte as I have gained valuable experience working in fine dining restaurants and hotels in Australia,” says Najib.
However, Jibby & Co only became a reality five years after the Serai Group has been firmly rooted and taking off well. “When Serai Group has become stable, we came up with Jibby & Co. In case you’re wondering, Jibby is what they call me in Australia,” reveals Najib. Following the overwhelming response over Jibby & Co, two more ‘Jibby’ restaurants have been established – each having its very own unique twist. Jibby East provides a fusion touch while Jibby Chow has its interpretation of Chinese cuisines on the menu.
When dining at Serai, the mouth-watering steamed fish with refreshing lime sauce is a must-try. This signature dish is, in fact, made according to Rina’s recipe. The nasi kerabu, lamb shank, pavlova and Serai iced tea are wise choices too. “Over at Jibby & Co, the wide selection of pasta, as well as the Thai ribs, should not be missed. Jibby East is known for its dukkah baked eggs with turkey chorizo. At Jibby Chow, the Mongolian lamb ribs and mantou are a must,” recommends Najib.
While some may be under the impression that working with family members is not an ideal setting, this particular family has it all figured out. “We may be family but when it comes to work, we do it professionally,” says Najib. It certainly helps that each of them has their own field of expertise needed to elevate business in the F&B industry and are willing to work together on it. Rina and Najib are food connoisseurs who also play their part in the management aspect.
The attention to detail does not only apply to the delicacies they serve but also to the restaurant setting and image. Qistina works her magic in designing the interior of their restaurants, giving each outlet its exclusive identity while Atiqah, Rina’s third child, is in charge of the brand’s social media marketing, an important element to stay relevant in today’s era. It is a complete package. Rina believes that it is part of God’s plan. To be able to grow the brand with her family as part of the team that makes it possible is a big achievement to her.
It is also part of the company’s character to treat the employees, of which they have more than 400 in all, like family too. While it is tough to find loyal employees these days, Serai Thai has been blessed. The chef and employees there have been around since its early days. “I don’t know how she does it,” quips Najib adding that his mother-in-law is a superwoman.
Rina is the motherly figure in the company. “We are very open. We listen to the ideas from our employees,” she says. “Well, two heads are better than one,” Najib adds. The Sabahan also cited teamwork as the key to their success. It is the passion for food and their business that keeps them going. The positive feedback from their customers also continues to fuel their drive to achieve greater heights.
The Serai Group will be opening four more restaurants this year. Teaming up with the company Rina used to work for, the Serai Group is now Malaysia Airlines’ food and beverage partner. With the partnership, Enrich members get to earn one point for every RM1 spent at Serai Group’s restaurants.
The Group is also currently planning to set up its first restaurant in London. “We don’t just want to be a local champion. We want to establish the business in the international arena,” states Najib.
Rina certainly has got advice for the young ones who aspire to excel in this industry. “Be very patient. You should not expect money to roll in when you just get into the business. The experience and laying a strong foundation is vital.” Najib encourages those who have the ambition to be on top in this industry, to travel the world and gain as much experience as possible. He also points out that constantly ‘jumping ship’ is a big mistake. “You must work at the same place for at least two years to be able to learn something of value. Just because you are a good chef doesn’t mean you can open a restaurant. Not everyone can be a leader. You have to know everything about the business,” he adds.