Opening up a business can be easy. But not everyone survives the tough industry, of constant boulders thrown at its owner. Sharing the rough path he went through, Ceylonese Restaurant’s Damith Senanayake speaks of his experiences, surviving in the local food industry as a foreigner and newcomer.
Trials and tribulations are what a business owner must journey through on the path to success. It is a daunting experience, filled with unpredictable risks and uncertainty that a business must go through to thrive.
Such was foreigner Damith Senanayake’s endeavour when he decided to open a restaurant specialising in Sri Lankan cuisines in Kuching. With no prior experience in the food and beverage industry, the mechanical engineer graduate opened the Ceylonese Restaurant in 2016.
“I wanted to pursue what I like as I had no passion for engineering. I wanted to connect with people, talk to them and make new friends. The easiest way was to open up a restaurant where I wanted to share with the locals a new culture, a new kind of food,” said Damith.
Despite being a newcomer to both the country and industry, Damith persevered. Understanding the risks, the former Swinburne University Sarawak graduate garnered the courage to go for it.
“The whole F&B sector is risky. It is an adventurous business to go into. You are feeding people on a daily basis, and you might not know whether their taste buds can accept the food. There will also be competition.”
The 30-year-old restaurateur conceded that F&B was among the most difficult business to open. Elaborating further, Damith said that there were patrons who loved the food. “Then you’ll hit jackpot. But what about those who do not? Your business can go bankrupt. You’ll have to close shop.”
Apart from patrons’ opinions towards the food served, Damith also had to consider the risk of hiring employees for his business. “A restaurant requires intensive labour. You will need waiters, helpers, cleaners, dishwashers.”
At Ceylonese Restaurant, Damith hires Sri Lankans in a bid to help his fellow comrades earn an income in the Cat City.
He also emphasised the importance of having the right help when building a business. “A business owner must have proper workers and proper support from the staff and partners.”
Five years after opening his restaurant, there were many things that Damith learned. Opening an eatery at the age of 24 was not easy for the then young lad. Furthermore, he was a foreigner. However, these did not deter the young Damith but instead ignited him further.
“And in those years, I have been through many obstacles. I learned whom to trust. The initial days were not easy. I didn’t understand what I was doing and it was tough,” he said.
He disclosed that he had mixed with the wrong partners, and they had given him dead-end ideas. “Gradually, I learned everything by myself, through experience.”
Most would advise a young business owner to follow the books, however, Damith opined otherwise. “You will have to do it first, then you will know. Every situation in a company is spontaneous, it could happen right away and disappear in no time. Anything could happen.”
The biggest lesson he had learned throughout the six years was to be inquisitive. “When I want to get things done in a proper manner, I will ask. I always have thousands of questions to ask. This is simply because I don’t know how, so I would ask. The key here is to be very open with what you know and do not know. Only then, you’ll learn.”
Characteristics of a business owner
In every business, the characteristics of the owner are important to ensure a thriving company. These personalities do not only affect the current situation, but also the future of the business in the long run. With Ceylonese Restaurant — a thriving eatery in Kuching — Damith has become the epitome of “nothing to something”.
Asked for his opinion on what made great businessmen, Damith said that treating the people who mattered the most well was essential. “For me, it is my customers and my staff. When you treat your staff right, they will take care of your business. When business is taken care of, customers will be taken care of. So when the customers are taken care of, that means the business is in order.”
Damith also said it was important to always be honest and truthful. “The thing is, you can look like anybody. But if you have a pleasant smile, you always greet people, you are polite with everybody, then you have some of the very important qualities as a business owner.”
And in the 21st century, Damith said business owners should be smart and alert to what’s happening around them. “From there, you can learn the things that are lacking in a business and how to stand straight in a competitive world.”
Business in the 21st century
The world of today is a fast pace industry filled with challenges unlike before. With the presence of technology, business owners who have not embraced modernisation may find it difficult to survive. Meanwhile, those who rely solely on it may find the wonders that come through it.
In this new world, the internet plays a vital role in many industries. It is without a doubt that the internet can help, but the powerful tool can also destroy. With the application, a business can thrive further in the future.
Understanding this, Damith encourages business owners to utilise the internet in building their businesses. “Everything is at your fingertip. You can do anything you want.”
Taking the example of the food industry, social media is important. “Aside from Facebook and Instagram, you can also upload photos on travel websites Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet. Bear in mind that people do check online before they visit a place.”
“People want to hear what other people say of the place, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant experiences at the place. Social media can attract you to your business. At the same time, it can have a negative impact on your business when people post negative comments,” he added.
However, with the positive comments posted, Damith advised business owners to maintain the food quality. “Whatever good that is posted on the internet, it is the business owner and staff’s duty to maintain it, so that whoever feels that experience, can feel the same too. Otherwise, it is like a bottle of soda, after the foam is gone, there is nothing left.”
The numerous challenges have moulded Damith to be the person he is today. And these obstacles will not stop there — they will continue to shape the restaurateur’s future. The same goes for any business owners or those who want to dip their leg into the industry. Nothing ever goes down easy, it is only a matter of hard work and perseverance.