Normally, Nizar Ku ’08 spends his days running his Texas-inspired Cowboys Food Truck, serving wings, brisket and barbecue chicken sandwiches at corporate events and annual conferences in Subang Jaya, a suburb of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
But in mid-March, the Malaysian government implemented a movement control order (MCO) in response to a surge of coronavirus cases.
“We’re a food truck,” says Ku. “The bulk of our revenue comes from retail and corporate events and catering. When the MCO hit, everybody canceled everything three months out. That hit us pretty bad.”
Malaysia, a country of 32 million people, had fewer than 7,000 COVID-19 cases and 114 deaths by mid-May. But the initial outbreak swept through Kuala Lumpur’s wholesale markets and their workforce.
“In a situation like this,” says Ku, “the hardest hit are the low-income earners — grocers, construction workers, people in laborious, blue-collar jobs. They live hand to mouth, relying solely on a daily wage. So not being able to work means not having food on the table. We knew, yes, we may be struggling, but we still can help.”
So Ku went to work to feed his community. He and a few friends created a “fund-a-meal” program to provide fresh, hot meals to those in need. They started delivering food to front-line medical workers but quickly shifted to feeding daily wage earners most affected by the lockdown, including Rohingya refugees, who often have no official status and find it hard to ask authorities for help.
Ku received support, including from several Northwestern alumni in Malaysia, Hong Kong and beyond, to help sponsor meals and buy raw materials. “Any amount that people give, we’ll convert that sponsorship into food — trays of eggs, rice, vegetables, tomatoes. We’ll cook something with that — hot food, decent food.”
He then partners with What a Waste and other NGOs who work in the hardest-hit communities to effectively distribute the meals. “These guys are the survival front-liners who are literally going door to door, delivering food to families who have gone weeks without income,” Ku says.
By the first week of April, Ku and his team were preparing 100 meals a day for families in need. Donations grew, as did the recipient pool. By day 10, they were preparing 300 meals a day.
When the Malaysian economy opened up in early May, Ku planned to continue preparing and distributing meals for as long as funding allowed. He and his team had collected $6,000, enough for 3,500 meals.
Ku, who returned home to Malaysia in 2012 after eight years in the United States, started Cowboys Food Truck in December 2014. He missed the American-style barbecue sauces he’d grown to love while working for American Airlines for four years in Dallas. Back in Kuala Lumpur, Ku worked for Malaysia Airlines and, later, in corporate finance. (Read more in "Nizar Ku: BBQ Cowboy.")
The former industrial engineer says he found some silver linings in Malaysia’s lockdown. With more time in the kitchen, he found time to work on Cowboys’ menu. And the MCO’s delivery-only mandate forced him to improve the business’ online preorder operations.
Going forward, “It’s going to be new way of doing business,” he says. “All these big corporate events are going to be off the table. We’ve got to go small. It’s a bit exciting and scary at the same time.”
The lockdown, Ku says, also gave him some perspective.
“Before I started doing this ‘fund a meal’ project, it was always how bad I’m having it. My business has dropped 90%. We’re going to lose money. But we are fortunate to be a position where we worry about making less money. There are people out there who are worrying about where is the next meal going to come from.
“We go through 300 meals per day — we just pack like robots. But each meal goes to someone. This is a 5-ringgit [$1.15] box of food, but to them, that is today’s meal. I keep telling my crew, we are working slightly longer hours than before — 30 days of work condensed into two weeks — but we’re not here to make money. We’re trying to be a part of the community and use our skills and resources to actually give back.”