I really thought that Tony Roma would fail by turning halal to come to Malaysia. If you talk of baby back ribs, nothing beats pork ribs. Well, sometimes its useful to trash what you know best in a new situation. Tony Roma was brave to do what they did and came through with flying colours. I mean, I still won't patronise the Malaysian outlets because I know pork ribs is the best there is, still there is sufficient critical mass for Tony Roma halal to succeed in Malaysia and would be a blueprint for them to expand to other Muslim majority countries.
Tony Roma’s and baby back ribs are pretty much synonymous. Sure, it’s got steaks and barbeque chicken and seafood on its menu, but it’s the pork ribs that made the barbeque establishment so famous.
So how did this American steakhouse restaurant, owned by Dallas-based Romacorp, manage to become so popular with Malaysia’s Muslim-majority population?
If you thought it involved cutting pork from its menu, you’re half right.
When Tony Roma’s first made its debut here, it replaced its signature ribs with grilled beef ribs. It later introduced lamb ribs, an entrée that’s only available in its Malaysian joints.
It was a no-brainer: take pork off the menu and offer Malaysians a halal option.
But Tony Roma’s faced stiff competition from other American rivals so it decided to try out a move that would differentiate it from the rest: it got rid of its bar areas.
In Malaysia, many halal establishments have bars and serve liquor. This is because most Muslims here are more tolerant of drinking, as long as they are served halal meat.
Tony Roma’s decided to do away with its bars anyway. Romacorp president Ken Myres says revenue jumped after that.
“We didn’t think that (having a bar on the premises) would be offensive, but after we removed the bars, sales were up by double-digits,” he says.
Removing the bars also meant more space for more tables.
“We were doing pretty good sales at all our restaurants, but what we noticed in Malaysia is, if you want to go drinking, you go to a pub, but if you wanna eat, you go to a restaurant… so our bars were always quite empty,” says George Ang, CEO of Revenue Valley, the sole franchise holder of Tony Roma’s.
“So I thought if we took out the bars, we could fit in four more tables and have even more turn because every night we had to turn away customers at 8 or 9 o’clock. So by replacing the bars with the tables, we managed to turn more tables and that’s how our sales increased,” he explains.
Tony Roma’s has opened seven outlets here — the latest being the joint in Nu Sentral, Kuala Lumpur — since it was first introduced in Malaysia in 2006. By the end of the year, it plans to launch one restaurant each in the administrative capital of Putrajaya and the southern state of Johor.