When American Mexican Gustavo Zavala (pictured main R) left Los Angeles in 2009 to visit Brunei, he was winging it.
In his mid-30s, the former graphic designer’s contract with Disney had run its course. He decided to take an extended break to travel halfway across the world to meet his email penpal Normuizzah Samat (pictured main 2nd R), who he had been corresponding with for a few years, for the very first time.
A planned two weeks in the Sultanate then turned to a three months stay – Gustavo was unexpectedly charmed by warm hospitality and a blossoming relationship with his penpal who would turn out to be his future wife.
After returning to Los Angeles, Gustavo decided on an even bigger gamble. He sold his house, packed his bags, and moved to Brunei in 2010, shortly after which he embraced the religion of Islam.
Muizzah however was determined to take on a Masters in Psychology abroad, and Gustavo, now known as Hadi, obliged as the pair moved to the US for Muizzah to continue her studies.
A year later they returned to Brunei prematurely after enduring difficulties – which they choose to keep private – but there was one common and lasting experience that endured in their conciousness.
“It was our almost daily trips to this halal hot wings shop,” said Gustavo with a smile. “It was called Wingstop.”
With the couple married and back in Brunei, Gustavo began doing graphic design for a local company while Muizzah decided she was going to replicate the American hot wing experience from their home in Mabohai.
“The wings we kept simple – deep fried (without batter),” said Muizzah, whose first step was serving wings at family functions. “The sauce, which we tossed the wings with (after they were fried), is where we began to experiment.”
They began with BBQ, garlic with parmesan, hot and the seriously hot (atomic). Orders made through WhatsApp and Instagram, were picked up at their home. Prices started at $8 for 10 cuts.
By the time it was December 2012, the couple’s brand of Wing-it was ready to tip into an online sensation.
At the DST carnival, the public flocked to Wing-it’s booth, as their humble chicken wings became the event’s trending topic. They continued the momentum by partnering with other female owned home-based business, calling themselves the Fab Five, to host events at Muizzah’s home.
“By then we had built a following (online) in the thousands,” said Muizzah, who was receiving at least 20 daily orders. “We hosted events and participated in events at every opportunity.”
For the hundreds, if not thousands of Brunei home-based businesses, garnering interest online is a noteworthy step. But of the many, only a few manage to make the transition into running a fully fledged commercial store.
In 2015, the couple rolled the dice once again and invested their savings to open their first branch in Citis Square. They had more than 14 flavours, and soon established a healthy average 2,500 wings sold daily. Then at their loyal customers’ insistence, they began bottling up the different sauces to be sold separately.
“While the branch is doing well, we really wanted to experiment and see if we could developing our own line (of bottled sauce) that could make it to stores,” said Muizzah, who has traveled as far as China and most recently to Sabah, to test the product’s viability abroad.
“We are yet to crack (retail stores or supermarkets) – but there is interest (from the Sabah International F&B Fair) in franchising our brand here,” says Gustavo, as the couple packs up their booth at Suria Sabah Shopping Mall yesterday evening.
At 4am today, they’ll make the drive back to Brunei, arriving in time for Gustavo to resume his duties as a graphic designer for a local bank.
“We didn’t want to miss this opportunity,” says the 43-year-old, who has since renounced his American citizenship and is now a Bruneian. “Each (international) fair and expo brings new possibilities. It takes us closer to the possibility of bringing Wing-it beyond Brunei; that’s the dream.”
To learn more, follow @wingitfoods on Instagram of contact +6737224999 to get in touch. Wing-it is located at Unit 16, Ground Floor, Citis Square in Berakas and opens from 10am to 10pm daily.