Seven kids in neatly pressed shirts sit gazing at chalk drawings as their legs dangle from adult-sized seats.
Accompanying them, a young woman, presumably in her 20s, who’s brought a DSLR camera, the settings of which she begins to fiddle.
“Will you take a picture with my students?” she interrupts a chef clunking in his safety boots across the food stall. “Of course,” he replies, as the children from Sg Liang primary school – enjoying their semester break – hurriedly line up alongside the chef at a makeshift, life-sized photo frame with more chalk scribbling, placed right in front of the stairs that leads up to the eatery.
As she bends to take a snap, the children chatter and tug at the chef’s outfit, before he gently guides them back to their seats.
It’s been almost two years since I first met Pg Muhd Abd Qayyum Pg Zainal, on the introduction of a friend, who swore that the then 24-year-old – who left secondary school with just a solitary O-Level pass in hand and whose first job was scrubbing the floors of a gym – was on the cusp of becoming the “next big thing” in a budding grassroots entrepreneurship scene in Belait that began to bubble in the wake of the downturn oil and gas prices.
The fact that he spent the first 12 years of his life in an industrial site in Sg Duhon, living in a single makeshift room built above a small noodle factory his father had invested all his savings in. Or how when he turned 19, he decided he wanted more than just a monthly salary of $400 to work as a rigger on an onshore platform, and began to sell nasi bungkus or packed rice door to door as early as 6am – which meant rising at 2am everyday.
His journey – it all came together in 2016 – when his situation finally tipped.
Qayyum was kicked out by the stall leaseholder of the popular Tudung Saji market whom he had a backdoor agreement to rent from; but in a surprising turn of events, he managed to rebound by turning his home garage into a beach-styled cafe in two weeks, built with discarded food crates and logs.
Within its first week of opening, Taman Raudah was catering to a full house every night. The public had rallied to his side.
Media spotlight followed and within a few months, he was unanimously the biggest home-based seller in the district, making $30,000 in sales; month after month. But one question had yet to be answered.
Was Qayyum – and the fried noodles he is popularly known for – just the flavour of the year; a one hit wonder enjoying their 15 minutes of fame?
As I sit down with Qayyum at his newly opened eatery at Tudung Saji’s Block A – a stone’s throw away from the block he was unceremoniously removed from almost three years ago – I was expecting a hero’s welcome, but business is unusually quiet.
The school children know him by name – as do almost every other customer who greets him as they arrive. But this isn’t the capacity crowd Taman Raudah has become accustomed to.
“Things have gotten very tough the past month,” says the 25-year-old as he takes a towel to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “Sales have dropped… and so has the economy.”
The days of making $1,500 in sales from a single outlet are becoming uncomfortably infrequent. And because Qayyum has forked out almost his entire savings over the past year – $60,000 in all – to open at a food court in Batu Besurat in January this year and Tudung Saji in March, he is starting to feel the pinch.
Qayyum is trying to remain in good spirits, and is undoubtedly hospitable as he asks his staff to whip up for us fried Lao Shu Fen and Kuey Teow, typically Chinese dishes, that have become Taman Raudah’s signature.
A 17-year-old boy, known as Boboi, gleefully takes to the wok, bringing it to life with a spiraling flame – a technique Qayyum has imparted to him, known as the wok-hei technique. We are then served by two Bruneian girls, who are not much older than Boboi. I realized then that there are also four others on duty, all who are local.
“When I opened up applications last year we had hundreds sending in their CVs,” says Qayyum, who now has a team of more than 20, only one who isn’t Bruneian. “And as we opened more branches, we looked for more Bruneians to hire.”
It’s a sharp contrast to the rest of the workforce in the food and beverage industry in Brunei, which has long been overwhelming foreign.
Business owners have pointed the finger at local work attitudes – and often this is the consensus; they quit without notice, they don’t show up on time, they don’t work as long or as hard; they just don’t have the experience.
“For sure. I face these problems too,” says Qayyum as he shakes his head. “I can only be at one branch at a time, so at any time two others have to be run by others. My team are all below 30, and most of them have never worked at a food stall or restaurant. But at the same time we all know that unemployment is high. Can you turn your back on your own people, knowing they are struggling for jobs, just because you want to make your life easier.. or just for the sake of earning more money?”
As the clock strikes 10pm, Qayyum and his team began to pack up. They have been here since 8am, breaking between 2pm to 5pm, effectively meaning they’ve put in 12 hours of work. They will do the same tomorrow, and they day after, until they reach six days, and on the seventh, they will rest.
Questions about the long-term future of Taman Raudah? They’re far from being settled. One thing’s for sure; the young Bruneians that have chosen to join Qayyum are not here purely for the paycheck, they are also here learn his ways – and although he may grill them quite hard from time to time – they still view him as their own, or as one employee better puts it “ia orang kitani“.
“I’m trying to sell my car,” says Qayyum as he glances indifferently at his $100,000 turbocharged Mercedes hatchback that was once the source of his notoriety and fame. “There are things more important. I have locals and my two sons that are relying on me. It’s make or break for Taman Raudah.”
Taman Raudah is located at Block A, Tudung Saji – Jalan Tengah, Kuala Belait, 1st Floor and No.5, Spg 363-29-27, Kg Pandan 7, Kuala Belait. They can be contacted at +6738636657 (Belait). You can also stay up to date with their latest offerings @tamanraudah on Instagram.