In every venture, the beginning stage is often said to be the most important. The ideation, the conceptualization, the planning–these dictate the stage of the grand opening. Once through, everything is expected to be easier. Indeed, good plans lead to good outcomes.

While this will always be true, others may argue that attaining something is the easy part. Maintaining is where the real challenge is at.

There are so many perspectives and lessons. Each quite contradicting the other. Even though there is no definite answer, this exclusive interview with Serai Chicago’s founder, Victor Low, may provide some valuable insights on their own journey of beginning, overcoming, and maintaining—then by effect, realizing the endless possibilities for their own venture.

Victor Low. Photo Courtesy of Serai Chicago

Initiated by great minds, pursued with brave hearts

It was in 2006, just two years since Victor earned his MBA in Pennsylvania, when he stumbled upon the bustling streets of Chicago. As if by fate, it was also here where he found a Malaysian restaurant that soon became his home away from home. Dining there became a nightly ritual and the staff members became his family. Despite moving back to Asia in 2011, fate brought him back again to Chicago in 2014 for work. This was when a former chef from that same Malaysian restaurant proposed opening their own establishment. Despite being intimidated by the idea, Victor accepted. “The prospect was daunting, but the allure of bringing a taste of Malaysia to Chicago was too enticing to resist,” he professed. 

Then these two great minds, the MBA graduate and the seasoned chef, got down to business and found a perfect home for their dream–in a vacant lot between a former Thai restaurant and a long-shuttered bar.

“Despite our lack of experience in the Chicago restaurant scene, we dove headfirst into the endeavor. From curating the menu to designing the interior, every detail was meticulously planned. And before we knew it, Serai was born in December 2015, with just four team members and a bootstrapped budget,” Victor proudly recalled. 

Serai Chicago has become a new addition to Logan Square’s eclectic charm. 

Still, the early days were uncertain for Serai, unsure if Logan Square would embrace Malaysian cuisine. However, as words spread, patrons lined up, and Serai quickly became a beloved spot, growing stronger each week.

One significant challenge was a feedback questioning their authenticity. Being the only Malaysian restaurant in the area, it is understandable that there are many who will doubt their cuisine. “This feedback initially shook our confidence, leading us to doubt ourselves and our culinary choices,” Victor admitted.

But with brave hearts, they learned to return their focus on the positive responses, reaffirming their commitment to genuine Malaysian flavors. This resilience helped them build a loyal customer base and establish Serai as a cultural beacon in the community.

Amid struggles, focus on being kinder to work better

As news of COVID-19 spread at the end of 2019, Serai Chicago is one of those severely affected. Remembering what happened during the SARS epidemic, Victor knew complacency was out of the picture. Immediately, he gathered the team for a contingency plan. Usually, plans like this are built to protect the business, but it was also evident that their plan was built to serve and protect their employees and patrons. 

They were committed to keeping all team members employees so apart from implementing extended operating hours and delivery services, they assigned new tasks like answering phone calls or customer support. As an additional gesture of support, they also started to provide free meals to all team members.

For the customers of Serai, Victor shared that they also offered free meals to anyone who came to their doors. “Recognizing the widespread impact of the pandemic, we opened our doors to anyone in need, offering free meals to all, regardless of their background or profession. Whether they called ahead or simply walked in, we welcomed them with open arms and a warm meal, no questions asked. It was our way of giving back to the community that had supported us through thick and thin,” he elaborated.

Surviving COVID-19 and navigating the post-pandemic world hasn't been easy. They've faced labor shortages, fluctuating expectations, and rising costs. However, Serai's resilience and adaptability have kept them going. With community support and team dedication, they're confident Serai will continue to thrive, serving up a taste of Malaysia in Logan Square and beyond.

Photo courtesy of Serai Chicago

Embrace accomplishments beyond accolades and recognitions

When asked about their accomplishments, Serai takes immense pride in providing a home away from home for Malaysians and Singaporeans in Chicago. Reflecting on their journey, it is offering a safe space where people can gather, enjoy familiar cuisines, and reminisce about home that has been incredibly rewarding for the team.

Still, Victor shared that their greatest achievement has been the community that they have built.

“By providing a space for Malaysians and Singaporeans to come together, connect, and celebrate their shared heritage, we've fostered a sense of belonging and camaraderie that transcends borders. Watching friendships form and bonds strengthen over shared meals and shared experiences has been truly gratifying.”

Photo Courtesy of Serai Chicago

Always remember the generosity that was given

Throughout their entrepreneurial journey, Serai has been guided by numerous mentors and role models like Mabel Menard, President of Greater Chicago, and individuals like Mr. Sonny Lim from Penang Arlington Heights, Mr. Kelvin from Asian Noodle House, and Ms. Yin Kean from the Malaysian community. Their mentorship instilled confidence and determination, helping navigate the complexities of the restaurant industry. As Victor looked back, he expressed, “In essence, the wisdom and encouragement imparted by these mentors have been instrumental in shaping our entrepreneurial journey, and I am forever grateful for their guidance and generosity.”

And remember to generously give it back

True enough, Victor and the team of Serai was generous enough to offer three pieces of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. In respect, below is a word-per-word transcription so our dear readers can fully appreciate and take in.

1. Find Your Purpose: Beyond the desire for financial gain or independence, it's essential to unearth the deeper purpose behind your entrepreneurial journey. What drives you? What do you hope to achieve? Identifying your purpose serves as your guiding north star, providing the resilience and determination needed to weather the inevitable challenges that will arise along the way. Keep this purpose at the forefront of your mind, and let it fuel your passion and commitment, even when the going gets tough.

2. Make Connections and Be a Student: Embrace the mindset of a perpetual student. The entrepreneurial journey is a continuous learning experience, and the landscape is ever-evolving. Don't hesitate to seek guidance and wisdom from others, whether they're seasoned veterans or fellow beginners. Everyone has something valuable to offer, and by remaining open to new ideas and perspectives, you'll constantly evolve and adapt to the changing dynamics of the business world.

3. Find What Works and Have Fun: Don't be afraid to experiment and explore different approaches. It's okay to not have all the answers or to make mistakes along the way. In fact, some of the most valuable lessons are learned through trial and error. Embrace the journey with a sense of curiosity and playfulness, and don't forget to enjoy the process. After all, if you're not having fun along the way, what's the point? Let your passion and enthusiasm drive you forward, and remember to celebrate the successes, no matter how small they may seem.

In every venture, the beginning stage is often said to be the most important. While this sets the opening stage, it is when you stay true to your purpose, embrace learning, and approach your journey with joy and adventure, that will create more stages for your dream to expand and continue.

Serai Chicago's story is a testament to the power of resilience, authenticity, and community in achieving entrepreneurial success. With this, we can believe that this beloved restaurant will continue to strive and grow. In parting, Victor ended with this: “With the right mindset and determination, the possibilities are endless.”

Jun 26, 2024

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