The founder of The Olive Tree Group on embracing chaos & establishing more than 20 bars, clubs, pubs and restaurants in Malaysia

Adore it or abhor it, Changkat Bukit Bintang is a treasure trove of memories for most Malaysians. It is in this district where drinks are downed; dance-offs are issued; and bonds of friendship are formed or strengthened.

Few remember what the tree-lined stretch was like before becoming KL's unofficial backpacker street, but as someone partially responsible for its transformation, Leslie Gomez certainly does.

"Believe it or not, there used to be only two bars on the whole street." Speaking in a low rumble that suits his rugged demeanour, Gomez reminisces: "When we opened Ghazal Mahel, now known as Sutraa, our neighbours were mostly restaurants, a lawyer’s firm, and a 7-11. Frangipani was one of the original tenants. There were also Gypsy, The Green Man, The Ceylon Bar, and a German bar which is now Werner’s. Once the bars set down roots, the whole vibe shifted."

Total Takeover

Of The Olive Tree Group's 17 establishments in Kuala Lumpur, Genting, Penang, Malacca and Johor Bahru, six alone are concentrated in Changkat Bukit Bintang.

"They may have different concepts but complement one another. Rockafellers attracts fans of live bands, Why Not is your evergreen sports bar, and Soul Room is strictly for clubbing," states Gomez, sweeping a hand across the swanky lounge where we are sat. "We started with one and never imagined we’d end up with six establishments on the same row, but it's worked out well for us," he confesses.

If anyone understands the international audience, it's Gomez, who named his parent company The Olive Tree Group to resonate with Middle Easterners and Europeans. "Seventy percent of our clientele is made up of expatriates or backpackers. Because the latter is constantly on the move, they're bound to hit up at least one of our businesses on a night of bar hopping."

The Old Guard

Not a narcissistic leader, the founder of The Olive Tree Group is prone to using collective rather than singular pronouns. "So many people don’t spot the things we do. We come from the old school style of management that is rooted in fine dining."

As someone who trained under India's Taj Hotels group many moons ago, Gomez often places minute details under a magnifying glass. "Today's waiters are more likely to simply place – rather than accurately position – cutlery while setting a table."

When asked if he plans on passing the torch to his future kith and kin, he replies: "I would love to, but am not sure if the new generation can handle the pressure. It takes a different mind-set altogether, but I enjoy what I do. In today’s paper it was written under my star:

Everyone should have some chaos in life; only then do you give birth to a dancing child.



Under One Roof

Many lament the dearth and death of fine dining, but Gomez doesn't see the point of harping on it. "What's finished is done," he says. "You move on to the next thing.

In the early 2000s, people would dine somewhere, drink someplace else, and then head to their final destination to party. Now everyone’s looking for a one stop centre, the reason being that finding multiple parking places can be a chore."

We keep on innovating ourselves. We're still growing.

"I need something to keep me going, which is how my 17 children came about. And no, I'm not talking about biological babies, but my bars," he adds with a booming laugh.