As the only son of a single mother, Syed Ashraf bin Syed Ali had to help his mother support their family. Being a hardworking and responsible son, he started work at the age of 13, but unlike others in similar circumstances who dropped out of school, he stayed on and even went to university. Guided by his core values and faith, he also had an innate instinct in entrepreneurship, which has led him to achieve great success with the Me’nate chain of steakhouses today. In an interview with Top 10 of Malaysia, Syed Ashraf talks about his journey in establishing his now successful steakhouse.
Syed Ashraf bin Syed Ali was born in Kuala Lumpur and moved to Negeri Sembilan when he was eight years old. He resided in Negeri Sembilan until he completed his SPM examinations.
Growing up as the only son of a single mother with four other siblings was tough. Wanting to help his family, he started work at the age of 13. Since then, he paid for his own and also his siblings’ school fees.
“I was my mother’s anchor and she was my priority. She worked three jobs to support us. After school on weekdays, I’d work at the mini market. On weekends and school holidays, I’d take on other jobs such as tile shop, golf caddy and even lorry assistant,” recalls Syed Ashraf.
Despite the long hours and hectic schedule, Syed Ashraf still managed to get into the science stream and excelled in his SPM examinations, graduating with a Pangkat 1. Besides that, he was also good in sports, especially football and martial arts.
He went on to pursue a Diploma in Geomatic Science majoring in remote sensing at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM). It was at UiTM that he began developing leadership qualities when he became vice president of the Student Representative Council. He was actively involved in leadership and training programmes.
Syed Ashraf naturally wanted to excel further in his endeavours and so he studied for a degree in quantity surveying. It was in university that he set up his first company in 2004. He was the pioneer in student entrepreneurship at the time. He started business by selling nasi lemak, curry puffs and other snacks.
“I observed that my faculty did not have a printing and stationery shop. So, I took the opportunity to offer these services to the people at the faculty,” reminisces the inspiring entrepreneur. “My printing shop performed really well. It was also at university that I met my wife, and I married her after our graduation.”
His entrepreneurial activities in university provided valuable learning experiences, but he decided to get a job as a quantity surveyor. He worked his way up to senior executive in over three years at the company, while also moonlighting as a property agent.
Syed Ashraf was later headhunted by the Jakel Group of Companies to be their first property manager. He proceeded to climb the corporate ladder, from property manager to assistant general manager (AGM), General Manager (GM), Senior GM, and at last as Director of Property and Development.
“Through my tenure at Jakel Group of Companies, I built up the skills needed to manage a business and learnt about corporate finance. I was a key person in land and loan acquisition, restructuring and other corporate exercises.”
In 2014, he started a business with his partners, Palace Butcher Resources with the initial idea to get extra income for his wife and kids, so that his wife could retire from the banking industry. He started a restaurant and registered it as an enterprise. Then in 2015, he upgraded it to a Sendirian Berhad and registered a trademark for Me’nate, the brand of his restaurant chain.
“We started business collaboration with a steakhouse in Ampang in 2014 which was the first Me’nate outlet which then it leads to opening of first rebranding Me’nate outlet in Setapak. Early 2015, I realised that this business could go very far,” says Syed Ashraf.
Therefore he decided to undertake a full merger and acquisition exercise on the brand. “We aimed to become the largest halal steakhouse chain in Malaysia, and we have achieved that now,” he explains.
“To be an international brand, we had to go the extra mile. We employed qualified chefs. We looked at how we could improve our food presentation. We were willing to learn and willing to change. We had continuous R&D,” he adds.
Syed Ashraf believes that the employees and the customers are the two most important aspects of the business.
“It’s important to have the right person in the right job. Good people are the backbone of our business. They must be able to be trained and follow our vision and mission. Besides that, the strength of our business depends on our repeat customers and the quality of our food,” says Syed Ashraf.
To Syed Ashraf, it is essential to have top quality ingredients and products in their semi-fine dining restaurants, but it is also important to ensure that they are sold at affordable prices.
Part of the uniqueness of the Me’nate chain is that customers can choose their own meat. Their business model focuses on the high street market, where the restaurants are highly visible and have easy parking. Customers can also stay late.
“At Me’nate, everybody is welcome. Ours is a family-oriented halal restaurant. It has a casual ambiance without a dress code. Customers can eat their food any way they want. Our restaurant staff won’t judge or scold them,” he explains.
When Syed Ashraf opened his sixth outlet in 2019, Me’nate became the largest halal steakhouse chain in Malaysia. Presently, there are nine outlets in operation in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka and Johor. Me’nate also opened outlets in Perak and Kelantan.
The tenth outlet will be opening soon in April 2022 at The Curve in Damansara Perdana. Meanwhile, the eleventh outlet will open in May 2022 in Penang, the twelfth in Sungai Petani, Kedah and the thirteenth will be in Terengganu. Next, Syed Ashraf plans to expand to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah and Miri, Sarawak.
He also has plans to expand overseas, and has already signed an MOU in 2019 to open an outlet in Johannesburg, South Africa. The opening was supposed to be in August 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic. From South Africa, Syed Ashraf will expand to other nearby African countries. Me’nate will be the first halal steakhouse in South Africa.
During the pandemic, the F&B industry was adversely affected due to prolonged closures and customers were unable to dine-in. Syed Ashraf thought out of the box and came up with a new concept for delivery – the Natebox. Before the pandemic, food delivery constituted only 10% of revenue, but during the pandemic, the Natebox brought in 70% of revenue.
“We didn’t lay off any staff during the pandemic. We re-designated some of our staff to do food deliveries, so this service was provided in-house by us. We strengthened our website to enable e-commerce, so that customers could order food online,” he says.
In terms of his leadership and management style, Syed Ashraf said that he is a very focused person. He described himself as strict and cost-oriented. However, he is also very open. His employees could walk into his office any time if they had problems they could not solve. He would help them to find a solution. He is also a family-oriented person.
For those who want to start their own business, he would advise them to be daring in taking risks but be sure that it is a calculated risk. They would need to study the risks before deciding what they want to do.
“Always put your family first and respect your elders. You should also have strong faith – practise your religion 100% in a good way. Besides that, youngsters need to focus and have patience – patience to wait for the results which will not happen overnight,” he says.