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Cream of the Crop: Kai Zen Au

Vibrant and diverse, the food and beverage (F&B) landscape in South-East Asia is thriving and offers opportunities for those who are willing to embrace them. And Malaysian multi-brand group Kenny Hills Hospitality Group is leading from the front.

Kai Zen Au, Managing Director of Kenny Hills Hospitality Group

Renowned for its exceptional products, the nine-year-old Group’s brands include Kenny Hills Bakers outlets, Kenny Hills Coffee, Kenny Hills Bistro, Flour, Fire & Stone, Nourish by Kenny Hills Bakers and My Humble Bowl – as well as the upcoming Amazonas.

Currently, there are 15 locations in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, with five more to open in the remainder of 2023.

“Our vision is to be the biggest F&B hospitality group in the country,” says Kenny Hills Hospitality Group Managing Director Kai Zen Au.

“There is still a lot of potential sub-markets within Kuala Lumpur. We’ve signed about 12 more locations across multiple brands until the end of next year. After that, we want to start venturing to other states.”


We are always ‘brand first’ and approach everything from a brand standpoint.

Initially, the Group has its sights set on Penang in the north of the country, with plans to expand beyond Malaysia’s borders by 2026.

“Following that, a slightly larger goal is to be one of the largest F&B hospitality companies throughout South-East Asia,” Au confirms.

“Singapore is a natural progression because Malaysia is so near to Singapore. It’s a very strong market – very affluent consumers, strong spending power and highly competitive.”

A ‘brand first’ approach

As the group scales, Au says it takes a long-term approach versus short-term, targeting the affluent crowd.

“We are always ‘brand first’ and approach everything from a brand standpoint. It’s seen from all the locations we occupy – from the design, the building, the menu and the price point,” he explains.

“As a middle to upper-end brand, we are particular about what brands we collaborate with. We don’t do discounts or promotions, and we are conscious of not franchising – everything is fully owned so we don’t dilute the brand equity and become overly commercial.”

It’s a message sent across the company, with the goal of delivering it to the customer.

“Because when you start as an independent brand and then start scaling too much, customers who want to spend that amount won’t want to spend it with you anymore, because you have become overly commercial,” he explains.

Key relationships

Maintaining long-term personal relationships with suppliers and owners is also key as the family business booms, so as not to lose these authentic connections.

This pays dividends in exciting ways. Au recounts how, as the biggest user of French butter in Kuala Lumpur, Kenny Hills Hospitality Group was recently invited by one of its distributors to attend a masterclass with a French pastry chef.

“We sent about 20 of our top bakers and pastry chefs. It was awesome. Of course, they brought in a new product they wanted us to try, but ultimately that masterclass is what we gained the most value from, and they’re going to try and do that every six months for us,” he says.


From an operational standpoint, every executive is very hands-on.

“These are the little things that strengthen our relationships.”

Because Kenny Hills’ products are mainly fresh and made daily, the Group has a strict set of standard operating procedures that are easily understood, repeatable and can stand the test of time.

For operational efficiency, the Group has a back end of manual checklists and is implementing real-time digital checklists that can be accessed via cell phone applications 24/7. Stores can also be observed remotely via CCTV.

Hands-on leadership

Of course, while AI simplifies procedures, Au says that when it comes to really knowing your product and inspiring the team, nothing replaces practical experience.

“From an operational standpoint, every executive is very hands-on,” he says.

“Our executives don’t sit in a hypothetical ivory tower in the office telling people what to do. They must get their hands dirty. They’ve got to be in outlets at least twice a week to see firsthand what’s going on.

“It helps teach them different skills and brand approaches, depending on the cuisine we’re serving, and everyone in the outlet stands up a little bit taller when they know senior level executives are going to be there.”


We hire driven, self-starting people who take initiative.

With labor being the biggest challenge in hospitality globally over the last 16 months, Au explains that, while the business is stable, it’s imperative to maintain consistency as it expands.

“We hire driven, self-starting people who take initiative,” he says. “We try not to micromanage or overly nitpick.

“When you bring in ambitious, intelligent people, they don’t want you to tell them what to do. So it’s my job to tell them where we want to go, and they have to find their way there.

“Of course, I’ll check in every now and then, but ultimately one of my philosophies of leadership is to let people be free and creative.”

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