BEAUTY IN THE FRIDGE

It took him 5 years & RM100K to start a drive-thru “konbini” brand in Kuching

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When Jerry Toh was in Australia 5 years ago, he saw something that really stuck with him even after all these years. It was a drive-thru beer and liquor store.

Impressed, he pitched his version of the concept to his mother, whom he wanted on board as a partner, but she rejected it. Undeterred, he continued to draft out designs and ideas of how it would work so she would get a better picture of it.

Nothing happened for a good few years, but his opportunity finally came during the pandemic after his mother agreed he should go ahead with it.

“The initial name of Pandarus Drive-Thru (Pandarus) was supposed to be Pandabeer but after brainstorming with the team, we decided to have the name as Pandarus, naming it after my baby boy so we could reach a wider target market,” Jerry told Vulcan Post.

Pandarus’ design and planning started at the end of 2020, and it was open for operations on June 8, 2021. Just a few months before its launch, FamilyMart had open its first drive-thru in Berkeley Uptown.

Seeing an opportunity and taking it

Jerry and his mother had no prior experience in running a drive-thru, but they were already managing a business supplying beer and stout products for a few years in Tabuan Heights, Kuching.

The lot they had been using for the business is the same one that they later renovated into Pandarus’ drive-thru structure. Sticking to that location made sense since they were already familiar with the traffic and opportunities in the area.

Renovating their liquor store into Pandarus / Image Credit: Pandarus

Taking up the ground floor, the 3,000 sq. ft store carries around 50 brands at the moment (including alcohol ones), and Jerry is excited to bring more on board.

Other than selling ready-made and packaged products like most convenience stores, Pandarus is also cementing its own branding through the sale of hot food like burgers and pizzas. The latter model is similar to what FamilyMart, CU, and myNEWS do.

It makes sense since the rest of the packaged products offered would be near-identical to what every convenience store carries. Without unique offerings, a store would have to rely on providing the lowest prices to attract customers, but it seems like an unsustainable model for a new brand.

To order, customers simply drive up to the first window where they can order from a displayed menu and make payments, then head to a second window where they collect their goods.

In order to reduce one’s waiting time between payment and collection, however, customers can also pre-order via WhatsApp or Pandarus’ website.

The Pandarus website

From what I can see, orders via the website can only be fulfilled by self-pickup for now at the drive-thru. Offering delivery may not bring in much additional revenue anyway, as its offerings are fairly similar to what other convenience and grocery stores already carry.

Instead, Pandarus should focus on its stand-out point, which is its drive-thru model.

Repeat and return customers wanted

In total, about RM100K was used as capital to kickstart Pandarus. This amount was bootstrapped by both Jerry and his mother.

Now in its third month of business, Pandarus sees a max frequency of around 25-30 cars per hour, meaning that it can serve customers within 2 or more minutes.

Instead of people, it’s a car queue / Image Credit: Pandarus

Despite this convenience, Jerry noticed that locals still prefer purchasing items the traditional way by physically browsing items. As a business that’s taken on an unfamiliar concept for convenience stores, Pandarus finds it a challenge to build popularity in the market.

But Jerry isn’t discouraged. For him, what’s important is that he sees returning and repeat customers.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen grocery stores like AEON hold drive-thrus as well to lessen customer traffic in-store. However, those are usually items of necessity, while convenience stores offer snacks and quick bites.

When it comes to fresh groceries, I believe many of us would still prefer to pick out our own if given the choice to do so in a safer situation. But as most items you’d get at a convenience store come pre-packaged and are similar in quality, this power of choice isn’t really necessary.

Therefore, Pandarus adds value to the experience by shortening it and reducing direct contact between customers as they shop, particularly as COVID-19 rages on. Furthermore, customers don’t have to find parking for a quick run to the store.

A small-city business that’ll do Kuching proud

I grew up nearby Tabuan Heights, and from memory, it’s surrounded by residential homes and sees a healthy amount of traffic as there are coffee shops and other stores nearby, which spell opportunity for Pandarus in terms of visibility.

Jerry believes that it would be easy for them to replicate the drive-thru convenience store concept in other areas, but their service of offering hot food may be a bit of a challenge.

That being said, it’s one he’s willing to take on as he shared that they already have plans for halal outlets and even dine-in concepts.

As a fellow Kuchingite, I must admit that I’m proud to see something like this start in the small city of Kuching. It’d be great to see Pandarus thrive as a drive-thru convenience store brand and open more outlets across Kuching, and perhaps eventually expand to West Malaysia too.

  • You can learn more about Pandarus here.
  • You can read about other Malaysian startups here.

Featured Image Credit: Jerry Toh, founder and managing director of Pandarus Drive-Thru

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