With a passion for health promotion and education, Yong Jen reveals the challenges and set backs he and his partners faced when setting up this hugely popular vegetarian restaurant.
Tell me a bit about your background
I studied Computer Science at USM. During the last year of University I went to a talk on nutrition and this sparked my interest in health. I then did an Open University Nutrition course and further study in China. I decided to leave computer science and start a nutrition business which I called Idealite. Ideal meaning better life and -ite, meaning follower so Idealite means a follower of a better life. From a small office in USM, I started giving consultations. I felt very passionate about making an impact on people’s health.
How did the concept of Idealite come about?
From being just one person and working out of a small office, I had a dream of expanding my passion. I moved to a bigger place in Lengkok Berjaya, but because of the higher costs I decided to get a group of friends that I had met during my health talks to join with me. We started giving health seminars to the public as well as in primary, secondary school and colleges. Five years ago we started running detox camps and giving health seminars for the public and in schools and colleges.
People then started to ask about food. Even though we had no money we decided to serve food, primarily so that people would come back, but also for ourselves as there were no other healthy places close by. We knew the theory of the benefits of food, but none of us had any experience with running a restaurant or cooking. Basically we steamed, blended and served plain vegetarian food which wasn’t particularly tasty. We started with a dish similar to Jawa Mee and a few months later we added spaghetti and Bak Kut Teh. We only charged RM2 in order to get more people.
We spent a lot of money on renovations, but because the building was located in a housing area, it was not suitable for a restaurant. Soon after, the City Council came and told us the restaurant was illegal and took away our tables and chairs. We had no budget to move out, so we managed to borrow money to get more tables and chairs and re-opened the restaurant. Once again, the City Council turned up and took away the tables and chairs. We tried to remain positive and once again we re-opened the restaurant. The City Council yet again turned up, this time threatening to take away our fixtures and fittings.
Even though we were now forced to move the restaurant, we saw it as a positive step. We borrowed more money and were very lucky to find premises on Gottlieb Road. We couldn’t pay a lot for the rent and we offered the landlord a low price, which he surprisingly accepted. When asked why, the owner said that “you bowed and that showed respect”. In 2012 we opened the restaurant upstairs because we couldn’t afford to renovate the downstairs. However, in July 2012 we finally finished renovations and moved downstairs. We wanted to change the name, but no-one could come up with a better one, so we have kept it.
What makes Idealite so unique?
Coming from Penang, we know our market and what people want. We decided to serve “local delights”. We took local dishes such as Nasi Lemak and changed them to healthier versions that people could accept. We design our dishes based on shu food which means comfort, food that is good for health in a calm and relaxed environment. We also plan the food based on 8 balanced nutrients: whole foods, plant-based protein, essential fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, filtered water, fibre and phytonutrients. That’s why there are many items on the plate with lots of colour.
We are also the first restaurant in Malaysia that offers a money back guarantee. If a customer doesn’t like the taste of the food they will not be charged for it.
We are also unique in having one person that is in charge of cleaning, cutting and looking after the vegetables. They are cleaned with a water based non-toxic cleaner to get rid of pesticides etc.
What is your vision for the future?
Idealite’s vision is to promote a healthy and happy lifestyle through serving shu food in a calm and relaxed environment.
So far we have three branches, Gottlieb Road, Queensbay Mall and Gurney Plaza. Interestingly, people were asking us about franchising even before the business was stable. We rejected them initially because we were not ready. We really want people involved who are passionate about health and see it just as an investment. So far all our investors have been satisfied customers. We are planning to expand to KL and Singapore.
What are Idealite’s most most popular dishes?
Green curry ramen, Hakka Lei Cha and Hokkaido vege sushi. My personal favourite is our new dish coming shortly, Hokkien Mee made from yam bean and seaweed.
Do you use MSG?
No we do not use MSG. All our sauces are freshly made and our soya sauce is specially made without MSG. Also our Chee Cheong Fun is made without the preservative, benzoic acid.
Check out Idealite’s Facebook page.