Kluang Series: Meet Barney Lim, Founder Of Barney’s

Written by Juwita Suwito

Making People Happy With Food

“If you drink coffee regularly, make sure you drink a lot of water. I made a rule to make sure that every coffee we serve goes with a glass of water – except that we’ve got 30 more tables here so it’s a bit hard to practice,” said Barney as his wait staff brought us glasses of water with our coffee. 

Gina and I had just settled into our seats at Barney’s new premises in the commercial centre of (Kampung) Haji Manan and I was already warmly surprised at the words I was hearing. It’s not every day that you get to meet a business proprietor who’s genuinely concerned about his customers’ well-being – not every day outside of Kluang, at least. 

We were first introduced to Barney Lim at a family dinner held at their freshly-minted private dining area just upstairs from where we were chatting. I had considered it to be premium dining. Not the up-tight type, though. The double-storey Asian fusion restaurant warmly welcomes their guests to a world of discovery both in taste and decor. 

“How did it start?” asked Gina.

Running Away

I grew up in the kopitiam – the railway station canteen that my grandfather started in 1938. It happened just as he was about to give up. The relative he was working for was abusing him and he was ready to go back to China. But somebody told him that the canteen here was up for rent. So he came down from Tampin to check it out for himself, and decided to move the family over. That’s how Kluang Rail Coffee started.

As the family grew, the small business was no longer able to support so many people. So, in the 80s, my father opened up his own shop in Kluang Baru. Because of the reputation we had in Kluang Rail Coffee, my father instantly had customers.

When I was 15, I made a vow. I’d never go into this business. I felt that it deprived me of my parents. I was very resentful that my parents couldn’t spend more time with me and I didn’t want to do the same thing to my kids. So I spent 10 years overseas running away from it. 

I went to the States and majored in Sociology. But it was there that I met up with a food service company called the Bon Appétit Management Company. I had transferred to Biola University in the spring. In the summer, they took over the food service there. Instead of the conveyor belt kind of concept, they actually served fresh food and presented it very nicely – almost like in a hotel. This was unheard of at the time! I was enticed to work for them because they paid the most per hour compared to the other jobs we could get on campus. The job also came with free meals. 

On my first day with them, I heard there was an opening for the position of student manager. I applied for it and got it the next day. Thanks to my background in the food service, I had learned how to work and direct people. I understood the business and its difficulties so I was hardworking and responsive. I also knew how to relate with colleagues, customers or suppliers. 

But then, as I was working, I got to interact with the cooks and started helping them. I kind of got hooked on it. So in the second year, I asked my boss if he would let me work in the kitchen. He did! In the third year, I was a retail manager. Then, in the fourth year, I was a general manager for the company. But I failed in that role. I had grown very fast because I was proactive but my skill wasn’t there in terms of depth. Thankfully, my boss gave me another chance by putting me in a different position.

They Saved My Life

It was there that I discovered my passion in food service. Personally, I am very happy with wantan mee and nasi lemak. But it’s the joy of making people happy with food that motivates me. And it was that discovery that saved my life. 

I say that because although I did quite well in school, it was a different ballgame in college. Our education system didn’t prepare me for comprehensive essay-writing or for analytical and critical thinking in English. It was a big shock and a big setback. A big hit on my confidence. In fact, I shouldn’t have graduated. I failed my senior paper and would have had to take another year to repeat it. But thank God for my lecturer, Professor Jenkins, who was very wise. She knew I wasn’t a stupid guy or whatever, so she didn’t want to hold me back. She let me pass so I could close that chapter and move on with my life. 

I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I had been stuck in that academic roadblock with nowhere to go. But thanks to Professor Jenkins, I graduated and went on to work for Bon Appétit for a couple more years before I worked for a church in San Diego. I was in charge of hospitality. Again, making people happy with food. I was in charge of the donuts and coffee after worship service on Sundays, and cooked for the Monday and Tuesday night Bible Studies. Then I worked for a Bible College in Austria. 

All this gave me a lot of experience and exposure to Western food, its natural ingredients and how it’s supposed to taste.

Coming Back to Malaysia

When God called me back to Malaysia, I was actually very hesitant to come back. Very, very hesitant. But in that moment of struggle, I received a letter from my mentor in Malaysia which had taken two months to write. I had peace and I knew what I had to do. I broke off my relationship with a German lady. She had a child who was about six at the time so it would have been difficult to put them through what I would have to go through. I felt it was the right thing to do.

To build my business from scratch, I had to piggyback on somebody successful. What I wanted to bring back was very new, so I piggybacked my father’s kopitiam. He gave me some space, bought me an oven, and I started making pizza. This allowed me to do some work and also readjust to the local culture.

“So you sold pizza at the kopitiam?”

Yes. My friends were very supportive. They brought their foreign guests to have pizza in a kopitiam! It was peculiar but they enjoyed it. I slowly built up the business and called it Pizza Lim. A year later, we took the shop next door and started Barney’s. We continued selling pizza every day, but offered Western food on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at Barney’s. 

The Entrepreneur Cook

We started with just pizza, spaghetti, fish & chips and chicken chop. Then people started asking for steak, so I added steak. Then they asked, ‘How come you don’t have salmon?’ So I added salmon. 

A lot of this was new to me because in America, my cooking experience had been for big groups, collegiates and companies. When it came down to ala carte, I was a bit lost. It was a challenge getting the right cuts for our Western menu. I even got cheated when I first went to the market to buy meat. But this restaurant has given me the opportunity to try a lot of things that I’ve never tried before. I keep exploring and as I find new things, I educate my customers.

As an entrepreneur cook, I am always learning. I’m always open to feedback and criticism. Unlike the artistic chef whose focus is to present the perfect dish, my goal is to make my customers happy. So I adjust our cooking to their liking. It takes a lot of work, though. As we grow bigger and bigger, it becomes a bit challenging because customers will say, “We only want to come when you are here.

You mentioned earlier that you vowed not to go into the food industry because it robbed you of your parents’ time. Now that you’re in it, are you doing anything differently because of your experience?

Well, opening this restaurant has been a bit challenging but we know that we are not permanently stuck that way. The difference with my parents was that they didn’t give people enough flying time and they never ended up training people. Because of that, they were stuck and didn’t know how to get out of it. They didn’t have the confidence to take a day off or let go. But in paying for my education, my father gave me an experience overseas to learn how they ran their business.

A Believer of Many Second Chances

Bon Appétit, especially the boss that I worked with, gave people many second chances. So my workers know I’m a guy who also gives many second chances. A lot of them come raw or from the kampungs and don’t have work ethics. Some have never even left the FELDA estates. If I didn’t take time to give them chances after chances, I wouldn’t have all these people working for me for so many years. 

They know that I’m not satisfied with good. Many people can do good food, but we have to serve our best. For that to happen, we need to listen to customers’ feedback so that we can maintain our quality and consistency. I also tell them not to be too calculative with the customers. When we build a relationship with people, they are more forgiving and they too will give us second chances. They may not be happy one day but they give us feedback, we respond and they still come back. They still bring their friends. And that’s how things work here. Now these people run my kitchen and I’m quite happy about that.

I’ve been given a lot of chances in life. I have experienced kindness and I feel that needs to be shown now that I have my own business. In my good and bad decisions, God has never left me nor forsaken me. That gives me comfort in the risks and challenges I take or face. I want to do the same for the young people who work with me. Whether they make good decisions or bad ones, I want to give them more grace because a lot of them do not have the resources I had – the many counselors and mentors I had in my life who kept me walking in the straight and narrow. So I’m hoping, even in my own inadequate, imperfect way, to give them something like that along the way. 

Now, my workers are running the place and we are able to let go. I can go out for meals with my children. I think I probably spend more time with my kids than my dad spent with us. And we are able to go on holidays. The only sad part that nags me sometimes is that I’m not able to spend more time with them in their education. But I am not banking on academic qualifications to save them. At the end of the day, they must know how to use their hands and their heads. After all, I’ve never had to pull out my Sociology degree for anything. So at the end of the day, if they are responsible, have good social skills and can relate with people at all levels; if they’ve got a lot of respect for people, even for street cleaners, and if they are willing to learn, I’m not concerned at all about whether they will be successful or not.

The Keys to His Success

For me, whether it’s Barney’s or Kluang Rail, I believe it’s still that personal touch – the ability to create an emotional connection with our customers that keeps them coming back with their family and friends. I think that may be the key to our success. Do we have the best food in town? Maybe not. Sometimes our business is so good, it poses a lot of challenges in terms of our service and consistency. But thank God for our strong name recognition and the relationships we have built with people. 

It is a lot of hard work. Very hard work. You must love to serve people. And your family must be behind you. My sisters, my brothers, my church friends and oh, my aunts! When I had very good business, they’d give me a hand at washing dishes, taking orders and sending food out, especially when I first started out. I’m very thankful that I had that support. 

I’m also a shoot-from-the-holster kind of guy. Very impetuous. So a lot of times, that doesn’t make for a good manager. I may be very good at wowing people with food and doing something inspirational in the spur of the moment, but managing is a bit difficult for me. I would have been a successful but poor man had it not been for my super talented wife. She learns things very quickly and pays attention to details. That has been really vital to my success. Without her skills, temperament and ability to focus on things like the design and execution of this outlet despite being already busy at our previous premises, this wouldn’t have happened. 

Your family really has to be behind you. You cannot fight two battles: one battle with your work and another battle with your wife because you’re not at home and things like that. I’m thankful I have all of that in this town.

Catch Barney in action here: https://youtu.be/2QdKP9vhQkM

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