Ben’s Independent Grocer or B.I.G is a supermarket... but not as we know it, discovers Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal
THERE’S no resident robot sporting a dashing blue toy and trundling up and down the aisles telling customers about innovations, nor is there a hi-tech interactive video game projected onto the floor where customers can run around chasing (but never catching) computer-generated fish in a virtual sea. You can find these sorts of things in western Germany at a new Future Store, in Toenisvorst, near Dusseldorf.
But Ben’s Independent Grocer or B.I.G, a supermarket that rolled up its shutters to the public just over six months ago at Publika in Solaris Dutamas, is an exciting space none the less, the kind of supermarket concept that’s bound to change the landscape of the Malaysian grocery shopping experience as we know it.
But of course, change can’t be too drastic. I’m not so sure that Malaysians can stomach something too hi-tech just yet. Or at least the idea of dealing with a robot at the check-out counter instead of some surly check-out girl. Instead,
B.I.G, which covers an area of 4,645 square metres within Publika and the brainchild of local food mogul, Benjamin Yong and his team, the BIG Group, offers the urban family a perfect avenue to eat, drink and shop simultaneously.
It has a modern marketplace with several well-defined sections such as Botanical for fresh fruit and vegetables, Barn Butchery for quality meat, right up to the Gingerbread Man for rustic loaves of bread.
The personality of each section accentuates the consumers’ shopping experience and engages the five senses through abundant displays, tastings, scents, music and textures. Shoppers are encouraged to involve themselves in the act of shopping and eating, making grocery shopping more of an adventure than a chore. This sensory experience is essentially B.I.G’s USP.
Why the supermarket?
“There’s no real agenda,” confides Benjamin Yong, when we meet over really good coffee at Plan B Roasters, one of the eateries inside the supermarket and an outlet under the B.I.G umbrella.
“Ultimately the reason we went into supermarket was because we could see that there’s great synergy between the restaurant business and the food retail business. I like to say it’s a right hand, left hand business where we sell all the produce we use in the restaurants. This way we can have a turnover of our products faster. It sums up the idea that you should have the freshest produce available in the supermarket as well as the restaurant. As single components, things may be fairly slow but as one unit...”
The idea to go into this business was already brewing. When they discovered that Publika had space available and were looking for an operator, they jumped. “At that stage we were looking for a central kitchen anyway, so we thought that this would be worth exploring,” recalls Yong.
There were no grand plans to be the next big supermarket chain in the country though, adds the dynamic 34-year-old. “The idea was to build a food emporium where we could celebrate all things food — whether it’s produce, or restaurants, or utensils — it’s all things that are connected to the lifestyle of food. We wanted to push boundaries.”
Sheepishly, Yong confides that he and his team have no background in the supermarket line. “It’s a case of tembak (shoot) and then try and see whether it works or not. Then we fix it. It’s a very progressive thing.”
“I lived in Australia for eight years and I used to love grocery shopping and spending time in the markets there,” Yong shares. “In those days the supermarkets used to run for 24 hours. The best time was to go at 2am when it was utterly silent and you could just walk up and down the aisles like you owned the supermarket. It was from there that the idea came. Could we actually make grocery shopping exciting rather than a chore?”
The aim was to enrich an experience. Yong wanted to create a place that would make people linger. “I wanted to create the sort of space where people would be happy to say, “Hey, I’m spending the day in a supermarket! Actually, we’re a little bit more than a supermarket but we’re not a food hall. When people think food hall, they think ‘pricey’. But we sell everyday products — from toilet paper to foie gras — everything under one roof and our prices are competitive.”
The team knew what they wanted from the outset — a non-pretentious space.
“It should be about heart, whether it’s your passion for food or anything else,” says Yong. “Ultimately, B.I.G is like a food depot or emporium that celebrates all things food, whether it’s a RM500 bottle of olive oil or a 50 sen packet of tissue.”
The idea was also to opt for the industrial look so it fitted in with fixtures like cartons and boxes, and bulk purchases. “The concept is what you see is what you get. We’ve kept the design very simple. Then with each corner we try to create that different look and different feel. The layout of the supermarket encourages the shopper to move through the different areas instinctively.”
It’s not about dollars and cents, says Yong, when talking about his supermarket’s value proposition. “It’s about the experience that you take away from here.” The team is currently trying to build a portfolio of education too. “We do tastings here for the different types of coffee beans we roast, which we then supply to the rest of the chain. It’s like a whole process, which we share with everybody. When I go to a supermarket, I love finding new products in the market.
And variety. What I look for is a place that caters to everything I need on a daily basis; the other is a place I can go to and be inspired to try new things.”
Smell the coffee
On a day when coffee is being roasted in the cafe, literally the whole area permeates with a wonderful heady aroma. When the bakers are baking in the bakery, the comforting smell of freshly baked bread is difficult to ignore. These are some of the things that make you want to linger here.
“In the morning, you get mums who’ve dropped off their kids at school coming here to have their cup of morning brew and some time for themselves before doing their grocery shopping. It’s nice,” smiles Yong, whose supermarket spree is normally conducted on Saturdays, a day in the week when he generally cooks at home. He’ll also grab some of his favourite magazines, some bottles of wine and shop enough to last the whole week.
One of the unique features inside the supermarket is the Malaya Kitchen.
“The idea behind the Malaya Kitchen is to create a buying team that sources out the best of Malaysia, whether it’s the belacan (shrimp paste), old nostalgia stuff,” shares Yong. “Eventually, we’ll start packaging our own range of products once we’ve sourced enough of the best of the best of local products.”
The team is also building their own “cooking school”. A small cooking demo area at the back is where you can learn to whip up some simple recipes. “Ultimately we’re here to try and create those experiences that you don’t get elsewhere,” continues Yong. “Some of the things that’s happening on a regular basis is the wine tasting in the supermarket. I tell the team here that wine tasting shouldn’t just be about a pour, sip, spit kind of experience. We need to complement it by, for example, having a cheese platter. It’s a right hand, left hand movement — everything complements each other.”
“We put in our own experience as consumers and then we try to create a spectrum. The biggest challenge is creating that market list, that 50,000 different kinds of products that we stock. And then of course, trying to inventorise everything with little experience,” says Yong when asked about the challenges they face.
Before they opened the supermarket, the team spent a lot of time visiting farmers up in Genting and in Cameron Highlands, and checking out the wholesale supplier scene to see what’s out there, and how they could select the best and make things different.
“Things are settling down now and the inventory is working out fine. We’re finally getting used to the rhythm of the supermarket. It has been an incredible experience to start off a supermarket from scratch.”
The right balance
“I can’t say that this is the single most original idea out there... there’re a lot of people out there with far more varied, crazy ideas but ultimately we also have to deliver something that consumers can accept and can appreciate,” concludes Yong, before adding: “There’s no point in doing something that’s so far advanced, ahead of time and where we have a great product yet nobody wants it. It’s about trying to find that balance — things that appeal to different people and to have enough of an audience.”
A TWO-day food feast-ival “The BIG B.I.G Weekend” will be held today and tomorrow at Publika aimed at introducing Ben’s Independent Grocer to the public. Lots of interesting line-ups to look forward to. Go to www.facebook.com/thebiggroup for details.
B.I.G is located at Lot 1A, 83-95, Level UG1, Publika, Jln Dutamas 1, Solaris Dutamas, KL