I was scrolling on Instagram when I came across something that looked positively indulgent. Framed by red-and-white chequered paper was a platter of golden-brown foods from curly fries to fried chicken sandwiches. I could hear the crunch through the screen.
Naturally, I clicked into the account, which was called AyamGuys. I was greeted by even more platters of fried foods, and the first thing that stood out to me was the doughnut fried chicken sandwiches.
The pairing of doughnut and fried chicken was new to me, but it seemed to make complete sense together. I love waffles and chicken, so this sounded totally up my alley.
These deep-fried dishes reminded me of Southern soul food from the States, which I had the delight of trying before at a county fair.
It was no surprise to hear then that the founder of AyamGuys, Ilyas Omar, had been inspired by “state fair” foods from America.
“It was back in 2010 during uni days when I realised that there was no such thing as American state fair food in Malaysia,” Ilyas said. “That had always been my go-to idea for my first venture into the business world.”
However, no one around him seemed to know what he was talking about. So, Ilyas shelved the concept. But still, he never strayed too far away from food.
He went on to work in marketing communications for a food distribution company, where he gathered intel on consumer needs and the food industry as a whole.
Although Ilyas was never formally trained to cook, he did assist his friend with his grilling business, Mustafa Jones Burger.
Through this experience, Ilyas was able to learn a lot from the African-American chef about soul-food. And that’s where his fried chicken expertise started to take off.
Doughnut stop believing
The concept of using doughnuts instead of regular buns first arose when Ilyas was served a familiar kuih during a work meeting. It was the “Pau Sambal”, also known as Burger Malaysia.
Essentially, a Pau Sambal consists of a fried dough stuffed with ikan bilis (anchovies) sambal and a cucumber slice in between. The food had established itself as Ilyas’ favourite childhood snack, but he felt disappointed when he didn’t enjoy it as much as when he was a child.
“Being a marketer of food products, I tend to always think of ways to make a product better,” he explained. “And [for the Pau Sambal], that was to add more than just a spread of sambal and a thin slice of cucumber. Maybe ayam masak merah with pineapple acar?”
At around the same time, Ilyas also came across an article that featured the winning dish of the Mississippi State Fair. It was a Krispy Kreme Donut Burger—a cheeseburger that ditched the normal sesame seed buns for two sugar glazed doughnuts instead.
It was a lightbulb moment. Ilyas put two and two together and decided to adapt that idea and create the so-called “KL’s original donut fried chicken sandwich”.
And so it launched in January 2020, but had to stop when the lockdown began. It reopened in December 2020.
Now with a physical outlet for AyamGuys already in the works, this idea seems to be working with the local crowd.
Perfecting the art of ayam
Although Ilyas had the idea for a doughnut fried chicken sandwich, actually formulating the recipe took plenty of trial and error.
Thankfully, the food distributing company Ilyas was working at had an in-house R&D chef that worked closely with his team to create cooking content. Leveraging this connection, Ilyas got the chef onboard as a consultant to whip up the dishes based on the flavour profiles he wanted.
“It took some time as he wasn’t familiar with American state fair food. But after countless after-work discussions and five weekends later, we had our last food tasting and it was a solid go,” Ilyas shared.
Nowadays, testing and formulating new items take around a week. AyamGuys tend to try out new menu items with regulars and see if they vibe to it. If they do, AyamGuys will sell it as special offerings. Such was the case with their Deep Fried Oreos and Chick N’ Rice dishes.
AyamGuys dishes also include dipping sauces created to go with each dish’s flavour profile.
While state fair food may be appealing to people who enjoy fried foods, there are those who might think all those fried dishes are unhealthy.
“It really comes down to taste versus function,” Ilyas refuted. “We wouldn’t say it’s unhealthy, but it is what it is. Everyone deserves a cheat day every once in a while.”
In AyamGuys’ defence, at least the doughnuts aren’t coated or glazed with sugar. Plus, the doughnuts are handmade, and we don’t mean with a dough mixer, but with actual hands instead.
On top of that, the brand has already come up with healthier menu options for when it starts operations at its upcoming outlet.
AyamGuys vs the big guys
On AyamGuys’ Instagram, I noticed that the brand has posted a few screenshots of customers’ tweets about how AyamGuys is better than big players such as KFC.
Ilyas pointed out mischievously: “AyamFans yang cakap, bukan kita.” (It’s AyamFans who said it, not us.)
With that said, the founder does see AyamGuys as a competitor to KFC, though, saying that the business is gearing up to disrupt the market for chicken products.
“We will be crazy happy if we manage to secure even 2% of KFC’s market,” the founder shared.
Just like those big players, though, AyamGuys have had to face increased prices of poultry and other ingredients during the past months. This is especially tough on them as they’ve decided to maintain their food prices.
“Although our margins are thinner, we still carry every item in our menu on a daily basis and it’s a big win for us when AyamFans come to us saying that KFC and McDonald’s didn’t have enough fried chicken,” Ilyas pointed out.
Global franchises aside, AyamGuys also have to face local competition such as FOWLBOYS, a brand we’ve featured before. AyamGuys and FOWLBOYS share an arguably similar presentation with their chequered paper and Southern-style fried chicken sandwiches.
What’s next for AyamGuys
Based on what Ilyas has observed in the past year and a half, he believes that there is demand for the fried chicken brand. His goal is to make AyamGuys a strong contender in the F&B industry and have an outlet in every state.
The founder also said that he has his eyes set on East Malaysia, though that would be further in the future. For now, he hopes to sharpen their current tools. This includes ensuring streamlined food processes and producing dishes that pass daily quality checks.
“Our short-term goal is to be as investor-friendly as possible,” Ilyas said. “That would lead us into achieving our long-term goal which is world domination. Malaysia first lah, of course.”
The first step to that plan is already underway. So far, AyamGuys has been operating out of a kitchen space in Gaya Taman Melawati.
Come August this year, though, Ilyas will be moving into a physical outlet with a coffee and dessert bar in Wangsa Maju.
As Ilyas has kindly extended an invitation to the new store to me, I must know which menu items are his recommendations.
“As a brand owner, I’d say everything,” Ilyas answered. “But what really stands out in my opinion is The Sneaky Chick doughnut sandwich.”
The Sneaky Chick features a fried chicken leg glazed with their signature honey garlic, topped with cili padi slaw, sandwiched between doughnuts. This “naughty” dish got its name because the kick from the cili padi slaw sneaks up on you in between the sweet and savoury flavours.
I still haven’t been able to get my hands on those scrumptious looking sandwiches yet, so I can’t tell you how it tastes personally. But with Ilyas’ description, I bet it won’t be too long before I give in and try it for myself.
Featured Image Credit: Ilyas Omar, founder of AyamGuys