In a small strip mall in Petaling Jaya, a Malaysian city just outside Kuala Lumpur, the word “Kalamazoo” in large red and white lettering adorns the outside of a cream-colored restaurant. Inside is an establishment devoted to celebrating a Midwestern city and food from the other side of the planet.
Kalamazoo is a Potawatomi word for boiling waters which in the U.S. has come to refer to an exotic place with an exotic name, as in “from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo.” But as strange as the name Kalamazoo may sound to some Americans, the word is even odder-sounding in Malaysia, a Southeast Asian country with a mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and European cultural influences.
“Customers always ask, ‘What does Kalamazoo mean?’” says Lawrence Choy, co-owner of the Kalamazoo Restaurant & Café, “so we — the owners — tell them that Kalamazoo is a place in Michigan where we studied at Western Michigan University.”
While on study abroad at WMU from 2001-03, Choy, Alex Teo, Tisha Ng and Tracy Lee learned to love American food in an unlikely environment: dormitory cafeterias. Choy says his favorite cafeteria dish was “fried ravioli with a good amount of meat sauce over it.”
“When we were at Western, all of us worked in the cafeterias at one point in time, mostly in Bigelow and Burnham,” Choy says in a phone interview. “We always would hang out after work. We got to talking and realized that food and beverage work was really fun. We decided during that time that we might one day want to open a café or restaurant of our own.”
Since the late 1960s, more than 2,500 Malaysian students have attended WMU through its program with Sunway University, according to the WMU Office of Study Abroad. But in 2001, the year that Choy, Teo, Ng and Lee planned to head for the United States, the Sunway program was almost suspended after the 9/11 attacks. In the end, Choy and Teo had to sit out the first semester, staying in Malaysia for further visa checks, while Ng and Lee were permitted to start on time. “We definitely began late because we were men from a Muslim country after 9/11,” Choy says. “I guess it was a crazy time to be in the U.S.”
Once in Kalamazoo, the foursome fell in love with more than just American food, says Choy. “The reason we named (our restaurant) Kalamazoo is because we miss Kalamazoo that much. We had the best time. We’d go to the laundromat on Stadium, and then there’s the donut place that’s open 24 hours and the time we ran down to South Haven in the middle of the night.
“Those would be the best times in university,” Choy adds, his voice softening with nostalgia.
The four students returned to Malaysia and pursued careers: Choy and Teo in computer science, Ng as a journalist and Lee as a psychologist. However, they couldn’t shake their restaurant dreams.
“About a year or two after coming back, we decided, ‘No, we are still young. If we want to do this, we might as well do it now,’” Choy says. After spending a couple of years looking for property, designing a menu and saving money from their corporate jobs, they bit the bullet and got a bank loan. Kalamazoo Restaurant & Café opened its doors on Oct. 25, 2010.
The restaurant serves diner breakfast classics, 12 burger options, soups, salads, French fries and milkshakes. Barbecued ribs are a crowd favorite, says Choy, a claim confirmed by the restaurant’s online reviews. “We make our own sauces. One thing we put into our sauce is beer. That’s a bit different from the local flavors here. We like it a bit tangy so we use Somersby apple cider.”
The first years were rocky. “Business was pretty slow,” Choy says. “People were just starting to get to know about us. We changed the flavors a lot. And we listened to our customers.” For example, he says, Malaysian customers felt the portions were too big and the sauces too sweet. “We slowly tweaked each and every item until the customers were mostly happy about them,” he says.
The owners have found creative ways to make their American fare meet Malaysian tastes. For instance, their catering arm has found a niche market catering events other than weddings.
“People here are used to curries in chafing dishes at weddings,” says Choy. “They really try to make it as fancy as possible. In terms of catering, we’re very different than the other companies. We don’t do traditional Malaysian dishes; we do American. So it’s a lot of finger food and meatloaves or racks of ribs. We have burgers off of a pit. It’s not what people are used to. Most of our weekends are booked for birthday parties and graduations.”
Kalamazoo Restaurant & Café now turns a profit and has healthy lunch rushes and weekend crowds, Choy says.
The restaurant also has a loyal following of Malaysian WMU alumni, says Choy, and WMU administrators have visited the restaurant when in town. Occasionally, American tourists stop by, curious about a restaurant named after a relatively small U.S. city. Mostly, though, Kalamazoo Restaurant & Café serves Malaysian diners amused by the American food restaurant with a strange name.