Meng Yap was just 23 when he arrived in Wales from Malaysia with a passion for food and was given 150 pounds by his aunt. Little did he know that he would go from working on a factory floor at a Margam industrial estate to owning two successful businesses and receiving an honorary OBE.
Meng, 52, is the owner of Yakitori1, a Japanese restaurant in Cardiff Bay. Arriving in Cardiff from Malaysia in 1982, he built his business after starting out in food manufacturing – at one point becoming the largest supplier of Asian ready meals across the UK to Sainsbury’s, whose business has grown to millions.
Meng said, “I’m originally from Malaysia, from a very poor background. In those days, I think everyone was, but we weren’t running around without shoes – we always had food on the table Was.”
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“We were always taught to appreciate food and not to waste. I learned to make simple food taste good. Birthday would be two hard-boiled eggs, no fancy cakes – it’s not a sobbing story, it’s just our background – And mother will paint red balls for luck.”
Meng’s interest in food began when his parents took the opportunity to run a restaurant.
“A restaurant is hard work, and I see them getting up early in the morning to go to the market. You can do it only if you’re passionate,” he said.
“Vacations for us in those days when teens would go to restaurants for help. It’s part of life — families got to work and you help. That’s our background.”
Then, in 1982, the opportunity came for Meng to work at a food factory in Wales: “I jumped on it. I was very young then and always wanted to go to Wembley Stadium to see a game. In those days we were playing football. Were crazy. It was almost like an adventure,” he said.
One of Meng’s aunts gave him £150 to come to Wales, allowing him to get involved in the food manufacturing industry at a factory in Margham.
“I learned about food manufacturing and health and safety, and I did quite well in my career, even though I started on the shop floor,” he said.
Meng said that he loved Wales when he first moved in, and did not live anywhere else. Now they consider Wales their home, having lived in the country for more than 30 years.
“My daughter, Jacinta, is now working in London, but she was born in Wales – she is a Welsh girl,” he said. “There’s something cool about Wales – you can’t describe it. It has that vibe.”
Meng first moved to Cardiff and went to work at his employer’s house on his way to work. He now lives throughout Wales, including Porthcawl, Bridgend and Mould. He now lives in Swansea.
Ten years after moving to Wales, Meng became a factory manager in the early 1990s before becoming managing director of a poultry company.
“For someone who has no degree, no real manufacturing experience in food, and to move on, I have done well enough,” he said.
Meng decided to start his own factory in the 1990s, and using his experience and contacts, began making “cold Oriental prepared food” for Sainsbury’s at a small factory in Lansmallet, Swansea.
“In those days, that part was rough – I don’t mean in a bad way – but that’s where we started,” he said.
From there, Meng grew the business, Ethnic Cuisine, with his brother Steve, with an emphasis on quality, which he said he learned from his father.
“You can only do it if you’re passionate. I’ve always said I’m passionate about business, but never get passionate – there’s a slight difference,” he said. “Some people are very passionate and want to rule the world with their factories, but I am very passionate about what I do and never get emotional.”
Meng brought her mother, who still lives in Malaysia, to see her factory after opening her business in Wales, to show her how she and her brother learned what their parents had taught them. was repeated. In 2007, he was given an honorary OBE for his services to trade in Wales, which was presented to him by the Queen at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.
In late 2007, nearly 14 years after starting Ethnic Cuisine, Meng and Steve sold it, growing the business from 20 employees to over 400. They were making about 300,000 prepared meals per week.
“It’s one of those things that my brother and I are very proud of. We started out very little,” he said. “Even now sometimes, when I look back, I think ‘Wow, that wasn’t easy.’ I’m from a foreign country – but that’s not a hindrance – but for someone who has started off so small and has been able to convince a large supermarket to buy from us, I think ‘Wow.’ ,
But Meng wanted to continue his journey with food, and decided he wanted to start a restaurant – Yakitori1. The business has been open for almost eight years now and is highly respected in Cardiff.
“Some people think I’m crazy, that I should have gone into retirement, but no – I enjoy food and I enjoy working with people who are passionate about food,” he said. . “That’s what we try and do, to put all our education in a small restaurant.”
Meng realized there was a gap in the market, and felt he had something different to offer than what was already available in Cardiff Bay at the time.
“That was our aim – to get good people and try and do better. That’s the only way you can survive in business, try and get better,” he said.
Yakitori1 recently received the largest takeaway order ever from a surprise customer.
“He ordered 36 portions of salmon sashimi and 29 maki rolls — and it was for the All Blacks,” Meng said. “My team couldn’t wait to tell me. They said ‘Guess who placed the order?’ How cool is that? Hope they enjoy it – that’s our claim to fame now.”
Meng says he wants to challenge his team to remain innovative in Yakitori1.
“It’s so easy to say ‘we’re doing fine,’ and go into automatic gear and I think customers deserve so much more than just serving the same menu week after week, year after year,” They said.
“It’s one of those things that I would challenge myself and my team to do: come up with new and exciting products.”
Meng says her daughter is helping raise her profile and telling Yakitori1’s story on social media.
“She said ‘good food isn’t enough, you guys need to know about Yakitori1’ – and she’s absolutely right,” Meng said. He joked, “Young blood is also important for restaurants. Otherwise, it would be like a dinosaur running a restaurant.”
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