A conversation with Rob Ngo from Eat Lah who owns a Malaysian street food business (and now many other things!), with wife Mel. Always love talking to Rob, he has one of the biggest hearts and a headful of advice to share, always wants to learn and looks at everything as part of the wider community, the anchor for where his business will grow.
Like everyone else, 2020 threw a gigantic spanner in the works but Rob has made it work - and the energy with which new ideas seem to keep bounding out of him have inspired me so much, can't keep up. "I'm just a man selling rice bowls" - NO. Now he's a T-shirt designer, nationwide sambal batcher, zhongzi maker, podcast host and continues rolling out these beautiful things to keep eaters alive and learning when we're locked in walls.
The part that interested me most, and has since COVID, is the increased inter-generational connections happening around food in not just businesses but homes; Rob is now working closer with his Dad, John Ngo (who opened a Chinese takeaway shop and restaurant when he came to the UK in the 80s), is currently furloughed from his contracting job and can't stop making zong zi for family and friends - hidden tag "@unclewoouk", so watch out - father/son biz coming soon!
Brief business story: Rob started Eat Lah in Summer 2019, leaving his full time job as an architect and part-time content creator (of Yummy Jubbly) because he was a passionate cook and wanted to do something he enjoyed. He also wanted Londoners to know about Malaysian food; there was no Blue Rice (nasi kerabu) stalls anywhere and he had an opportunity to open that door.
Rob is Chinese, both his parents were born in South China and came to London before Rob was born. Rob grew up in the kitchen - "I started washing plates at six years old" - absorbing food knowledge from the routes his parents have travelled due to various civil wars (Southern China to Vietnam to Hong Kong to here).
"My Dad believed in the Eat Lah idea more than my mum as he knows what it's like to run a business". Because of Covid - John is now working with Rob on recipe development and helped build Eat Lah's first permanent place in Boxpark Croydon "from the ground up" in October 2020. Here's digging a bit more into the last year and the swerves:
What opportunities did COVID open for your businesses, and personally?
Lockdown gave us the chance to do not just Malaysian food but tap into the Chinese culture that influences it. I've always wanted to work with my dad more - there's so much knowledge and food that he could share but just doesn't know how to do it in the modern food businesses era - and this online thing, like developing Chinese New Year meal kits together - is a great introduction to what my dad could do. The extra time has allowed us to be more creative - slow-braised pork belly and baos take hours to dry, steam, fry - the zong zi - soaking the mung bean, rice flour, marinading pork and wrapping them all in leaves - I wouldn't have been able to do that on a street food stall. It's definitely going back to the roots.
Since the 1st lockdown lifted in June, we actually managed to make a profit from online orders - money which we then invested into opening at Boxpark. Lockdown has allowed me to connect more with customers and take the business to a different platform.
Tell us more about your food influences growing up.
Both my parents are amazing cooks but are very different in what they do; mum does home cooking - basic but delicious - whereas my dad trained in restaurants so knows how to do char sius, roast crispy pork, lobster, crabs, intricate veg dishes with tofu - not as healthy, so you can't eat on a day-to-day basis, and takes long time to cook. I only really started "cooking seriously" about 11/12 years ago. I wasn't cooking Asian let alone Chinese food - it was mainly Italian cooking that I loved.
When he came to the UK, my dad had a clothes production businesses and started working in Chinese takeaways where he learned his stuff. Then he opened a fine dining Chinese Restaurant - and later a Chinese fast food one in Leyton that really made him the main money - which is still there today going strong". (A testament to how important businesses like this are to us).
Saving the Business
We didn't receive a penny of government grant - which is why we had to innovate our way out. If I didn't do anything, I would have lost presence on social media and not been able to make a living. In a way, I'd say we were forced to do what we did - on the 20th March, we got the website up and running within a few hours and the first sauce sold in half an hour of launching it. We made £280 that day from online sales. The support was overwhelming, and we didn't do much marketing. It was through instagram, word of mouth, and people came back. It was also on exactly the same day my best friend died from COVID, so was bittersweet, and I think this also inspired me to act quickly to do him proud as I wouldn't have started Eat Lah without his support.
I mainly did it because I enjoyed it, too. It was stressful - there are so many things you're worried about from packaging to delivery to batch-cooking in the kitchen and cooling - if you don't do it you won't really know . But I'm glad that I'm going through this process because we don't know where it will take us. It's very hard to predict, but as long as we're willing to try new things and be willing to fail I think we'll be okay. I'll adapt to what the market and audience is asking for.
Perseverance. How did you keep mentally strong and inspired?
Making a living was one motivation. My mate passing away was another - as was finding a way to feed back and help the community. We did a fundraiser for my best friend's widow and managed to raise over £4000 for her.
We also started designing T-shirts to raise money for the NHS, and then Black Lives Matter related charities. I got to scratch my own itch of being creative and work with the amazing Malaysian Designer who did our rebrand. The first one we designed spread the message "we're one family, we should just get together and eat". It said: "We may be different, but we are all Kuin" - which is a name for all types of dessert in Malaysia from gateaux to victoria sponge to strawberry creams. We may be different because we're Chinese, Indian, Black, White - but we're all human at end of the day. I always believe that food brings ppl together thats the great things about this industry. It was our most popular T-shirt.
Life advice you'd give to other people pursuing ideas, and biggest learns?
What we've done isn't huge - but it's definitely something we should be proud of. One of my friends once told me: "you don't need to have a big impact, you need to have a big impact on an individual person and that's enough".
The best thing about an idea is to act on it quickly. Figure out how to do it, and execute it. Stop dwelling on it - the knowledge is out there - if you're passionate enough to do it and willing to put in the hard work nothing should really stop you. The moment people's approval doesn't mean anything to you, their judgement doesn't either. You have to believe in and enjoy what you do. Once you get yourself in this mindset you'll be happier. I'm still working on.
I don' t find myself that interesting - what we do is just quite normal to me and it's weird but good to be on this side of the table, reflecting.
Lead with hope rather than fear - hoping that it will work out rather than it won't. That's why we're still working hard on our online store, thinking about what we'll be doing when we re-open in Boxpark, and looking to the future to open multiple shops this or next year. Life isn't infinite - it's finite. Once you get older you realise - shit, its actually real. But don't take yourself too seriously, being humble very important.
Thank you Rob.
Images: 1. @routesandfroots 2019 at KERB West India Quay; 2. 2020 at Victoria Park Market; 3. from Rob; 4. @routesandfroots; 5. screenshots from Rob's Instagram @ehlaeatuk; 6. our Jan 2021 zoom call!; 7. photo outside BoxPark from Rob.