The Kitchen opens in Parramatta

The Kitchen's team (that's Rex in the middle, who is in charge of front-of-house).
The Kitchen’s team (that’s Rex in the middle, who is in charge of front-of-house).

I went to the opening of a new restaurant in Parramatta last week called The Kitchen, which is run by a Filipino-Indian duo called Rex Manaay and Sree Mohanan. The pair have worked together for many years and actually made two attempts to buy the premises, which was formerly Sangria. Needless to say it was a happy night, with cold beer and crisp wine flowing and creative canapes served up by smiling young staff, like this super cool toffee tomato:

It was my first launch party in Sydney and I was impressed by how organised it was. Admittedly I used to live in Myanmar and it’s kind of hard to get things to go as planned there, for reasons too complicated for me to go into in this little blog post. Anyway, I arrived a few minutes past five after scrambling there from my office on Church Street and things had already started. A priest was in the middle of reciting a few verses and then he walked around with what appeared to be a pump spray of holy water. We were given name badges to wear, everyone had a glass in hand and something to eat and the gentlemen at Mode Media who did the organising introduced themselves to me while the staff had some group staff shots taken by a photographer. It was all very smooth.

I’d actually also had lunch there that same day with the ‘Parramatta Foodie’ (she has ten thousand followers on Instagram!!). I won’t disclose Sarah’s surname as that’s kind of under wraps (I was eager for a selfie but she declined – modest or what!), but I can tell you that she’s charming (how many people are friendly enough to agree to have lunch with someone who stalked them on Insta?!) and I can show you what she ate:

The Kitchen Salad with added grilled chicken
The Kitchen Salad with added grilled chicken

I had a halloumi wrap, which was tasty and came with a decent serve of chips that I worked hard not to finish. The lunch menu has healthy options like quinoa salad and grilled salmon as well as what I call ‘man-food’ – burgers, wedges and so on. You can check out the menu here. Sree, who is head of the (actual) kitchen described the fare as “modern Australian.”

“It has a bit of everything. Which is modern Australian, really.”

The Kitchen's kitchen.
The Kitchen’s kitchen.

It has a hint of an industrial feel but keeps things cheerful with lots of light and an open plan, plus potted plants on the wall and whimsical font that says stuff like “I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry.”

The Kitchen is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Rex said that they are “smashing it” at breakfast and lunch, which is pretty impressive considering it had only opened its doors a week earlier. Rex did say that business slows down at dinner – he thinks because people assume it’s a café from its appearance and therefore not open late, but hopefully guests at the Park Royal opposite will make like a kangaroo and hop across the road (ha ha). Parramatta is known as Sydney’s “second CBD” and it has a huge office population and a great dining scene. But I daresay things are quieter in the evening when the offices empty out (I myself had only stuck around till dusk this one time). Time will tell. Sree and Rex must be optimistic though, because they’re already on the lookout for second and third venues to open more ‘Kitchens.’

The Kitchen has upstairs and downstairs dining and you'll be able to sit outside and eat when the council grants the permit...
The Kitchen has upstairs and downstairs dining and you’ll be able to sit outside and eat when the council grants the permit…

Rex used to work at a posh golf course in Manila and one day while he was working, someone came up to him out of the blue and asked if he wanted to be sponsored to come and work in Australia. Rex said no because he loved his life in The Philippines, but then gave it some thought and decided that his daughters would get a better education here. They started off on the Gold Coast but moved to Sydney so that his eldest daughter, who is contemplating being an engineer, has the chance to study at one of Sydney’s top-notch universities.

“I can’t believe I own a restaurant in one of the world’s greatest cities,” he said with a big grin as his family ate happily at a booth behind him.

It seems you never know your luck in a big city, and I wish The Kitchen the very best of luck.

The Kitchen is on 14/55 Phillip Street, Parramatta, 2150

Ph: 8628 7686

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Reap what you sew

Published in Red Bull Amaphiko on 24 October 2016

hla-day

In a country such as Myanmar where two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line, income-generating activities are much needed but in desperately short supply. The social enterprise Hla Day, which is a play on the Burmese phrase for ‘beautiful,’ is helping hundreds of people gain a livelihood by producing crafts.

According to an impact study carried out by Hla Day in 2015, 70 percent of its 450-odd producers are women, and 76 percent are the family’s breadwinners. The majority are from marginalised groups, such as people living with HIV, which limits their ability to find work due to the stigma they face in society.

Hla Day works with 40 producer groups and the level of support it provides varies according to specific needs. Some producers undergo product design training while others “already have a great product and the support given is to connect them to the marketplace and enable them to earn a fair wage,” said Hla Day’s Designer and Communications Trainer, Randi Wagner.

Action For Public (AFP) has been one of Hla Day’s producer groups since 2012 and its aim is to support vulnerable communities in cyclone-affected areas and people living with HIV/AIDS.

AFP’s founder Daw Kyi Pyar said that Hla Day has helped its members to “become financially stable and develop a new sense of self-esteem through their sewing skills. They have become the breadwinners in their families and can support their children’s education expenses.”

Hla Day also provides a rare opportunity to earn a living through creative pursuits. Artistic expression was curtailed for decades under the Myanmar’s brutal military regime, and the country has only two universities that teach art, with both placing a heavy emphasis on traditional practices.

“Due to heavy censorship of artistic works in public exhibitions, a practice which ended only in 2013, Myanmar artists have had limited opportunities to display their many talents. It’s important for local and international organisations to create outlets for contemporary artists and artisans,” said the Yangon-based art historian and curator Nathalie Johnston, executive director of Myanm/art and the Myanmar Art Resource Center and Archive (MARCA).

“The training Hla Day provides doesn’t always come easily – students in classrooms are dictated to and free thinking and critical thought isn’t encouraged,” said Randi.

However she was quick to add that Myanmar has a large talent pool to dip into.

“Finding people who can make amazing and beautiful things and need an income can definitely be done – there’s no shortage of producers in Myanmar.”

Hla Day’s store in an airy colonial building in downtown Yangon features a beautifully arranged and eclectic mix of crafts that includes everything from jewelry, kids’ clothing, cushion covers and paper mâché dogs with elongated tails used as toilet roll holders.

Some of its craft items have taken on an iconic status in the years since the original store first opened in 2012.

“It’s like a rite of passage when an expat moves to Yangon and gets a dog toilet roll holder,” said Randi with a laugh.

Producers from Hla Day are paid per item and are also paid for the time they spend training or when helping to develop a new prototype.

“It’s important to us to pay for training because we don’t want it to be like a factory where people are just pumping stuff out,” said Randi.

Sales have risen dramatically since Hla Day was reformed and moved premises in April, and they’ve even started getting inquiries from international buyers.

“We’d like to sell online, but at the moment the infrastructure doesn’t exist. The postal service is unreliable and it’s very expensive to ship small quantities. But we’re ready to go when things change.”

Randi said that expansion plans will be carefully considered.

“We’re making craft – we’re not mass producing. If we grow, we want it to be sustainable – it will require a lot of thought.”

Myanmar’s beauty market poised for growth

Published in Cosmetics Business on 31 August 2016

But can multinationals compete with the popularity of local super-substance thanaka?

Thanaka on display at a cosmetics fair in Yangon July 2016
Thanaka on display at a cosmetics fair in Yangon July 2016

Myanmar’s cosmetics market is expected to grow significantly in coming years. It boasts one of Southeast Asia’s largest populations (53 million people) and a growing middle class. However, consumer sophistication and spending power remains low compared with many countries in the region – its 2014 gross national income per head was US$1,280, according to the World Bank.

According to a 2014 report by researcher Euromonitor International, Myanmar was identified as one of 20 countries that will offer the most opportunities for consumer goods companies globally.

It has a mean age of 30 years, which is below average for the Asia Pacific region, noted Euromonitor.

“Growing middle class and increasing consumer sophistication bolstered sales of non-essential products, such as beauty and personal care, tissue and hygiene and home care products. Beauty and personal care reached a market value of $318m in 2013, after growing at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 14% since 2009,” states the report.

However, for now at least, spending power in Myanmar is among the lowest in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) block. According to survey findings released on 7 July by the Myanmar Rice Traders’ Association, 51% of household income is spent on food. That marks a fall from 64% in 2012, according to the country’s Central Statistical Organisation, but indicates that further economic growth – which the Asian Development Bank forecasted to be 8.4% in 2016 – is needed for the cosmetics and personal care sectors to grow.

What is thanaka?

If this happens, Khine Linn, Executive Director at the Shwe Pyi Nann Group of Companies will benefit. It is the largest manufacturer of Myanmar’s traditional cosmetic thanaka, a cosmetic paste made of ground bark that adds a yellow colouring to the face, notably the cheeks. His company also distributes personal care brands St Ives Swiss Formula (of Unilever) and South Korean cosmetics brand Nature Republic.

“Nothing can beat thanaka,” he said, while noting that Myanmar consumers were increasingly interested in foreign brands. He said European brands are trusted highly and that “‘made in the US’ is very, very popular”. Moreover, Korean products are “number one because of the popular Korean TV dramas that have elevated people’s expectations of beauty”.

Part of the ground floor at the high-end Parkson Department Store in downtown Yangon stocks cosmetics displays featuring products from Clinique and Kanebo, while the largest supermarket chain City Mart has dedicated customer service teams at each of its stores for displays from Yves Rocher, L’Oréal and Revlon.

Linn said there are also thousands of Chinese brands on the market, especially in rural areas, but these tend to be low-end items with a poor reputation: “It’s usually a one-time use because the quality isn’t good, so consumers aren’t happy and change to another product.”

Foreign brands need to note, however, said Linn, that after thanaka, powders and foundations are the two most popular cosmetics items in Myanmar. “Women have been using pressed powders for years. Lipstick is a lot less popular. Women don’t know how to use lipstick properly and they only know a few colours. Most are scared to try colour cosmetics,” he noted. Whitening products are also a “huge industry”, although many consumers struggle to source such products.

Building consumer trust

Consumers may also be wary of unfamiliar brands due to a number of scandals in recent times, such as when two whitening skin care products being sold by the popular Thai ‘Forever Young’ company were found to contain clobetasol propionate, a topical steroid that is banned in several countries due its harmful side-effects. The company had failed to secure a Myanmar Food & Drug Administration certificate and the health ministry ordered a sales ban and destruction of these products, citing a 1972 Public Health Law after a public outcry on social media.

One problem is that consumers who developed sores on their face after discontinuing use were unable to seek redress through official channels. Consumer protection is nascent in Myanmar, although a Myanmar Consumers Union was formed in mid-2015 and is a rival to the Consumer Protection Association, which, according to The Myanmar Times, “has a fraught relationship with government officials due to its willingness to criticise their perceived failure to protect Myanmar consumers”. Products which feature endorsed safety-tested labels are therefore likely to gain currency in Myanmar.

Linn said that one of the biggest challenges new brands face in gaining market share is dealing with retail bottlenecks.

“We go to the stores but the manager can’t make a decision right away – they say they have to speak to the owner. It’s really frustrating and the bigger the retail store is, the worse it is. New brands aren’t treated well,” he told cosmeticsbusiness.com.

Thai national Nook Kamonntip launched her cosmetics and personal care product brand Sarna a year ago and already has ten dedicated stores selling her lines. She said that the highest purchasing power is in Yangon, while the cities of Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw and Taunggyi together with Yangon comprise 70% of Myanmar’s market share, as rural spending power is very low.

Every item in the Sarna range contains thanaka sourced from Myanmar, although the actual products are manufactured in Bangkok due to lower manufacturing costs. The company is half Thai, half Myanmar-owned.

“Women of all ages love thanaka and I realised that there weren’t any brands tapping into that except for producing tubs of thanaka. Myanmar has quite a lot of international brands here now, but it still doesn’t have many natural products because people lack awareness,” she said.

Naturals market takes off

Meanwhile, a market for natural cosmetics products is starting to take off. Yalee Azani is business development manager at Israel-based Tag International Development, which founded the fair trade Plan Bee range of honey and beeswax by-products such as lip balm and beeswax infused with essential oils. The company is seeking sales in Myanmar. Azani said that Plan Bee’s range is limited to tourist-orientated stores around the country, as well as artisan and health stores in Yangon.

“We are slowly expanding our client base, but there’s not a huge market for natural products yet. It’s a challenge and it will only grow through awareness. People tend to say, ‘why would I would a product with beeswax in it?’ It’s not something that people are familiar with and Myanmar people tend to view honey and its by-products as medicine.”

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