Not only does Tony Fernandes want to disrupt online travel agencies, he also wants take on American fast-food chains that have long dominated the Southeast Asia region.

Not only that, he is doing it with airline food and — more gulps — airline coffee. The group CEO of ASEAN’s largest low-cost carrier first floated the idea in February that AirAsia’s food was so “fantastic” that he would start a fast food restaurant serving it.

AirAsia on Monday opened its first quick-service restaurant and cafe, based on the airline’s inflight Santan menu and T&Co coffee, in a mega-mall in Mid Valley, a central shopping haven in Kuala Lumpur.

By the end of 2020, the airline group aims to own five Santan restaurants and, within the next three to five years, have 100 franchisee-operated restaurants and cafes in global markets, according to general manager of Santan Restaurant and T&Co Cafe, Catherine Goh. AirAsia is hoping to open in locations where lots of U.S. fast food chains, like McDonald’s, draw crowds of hungry Asians currently.

Santan means “coconut” in Malay and is a popular ingredient in the cuisines of Southeast Asia. T&Co is a company in which AirAsia has an 80 percent stake; it supplies inflight coffee and tea solutions to AirAsia, which also runs a “Barista in the Skies” service offering premium handcrafted coffee such as espresso, long black, cappuccino, and café latte on board select flights.

No Laughing Matter

Before you laugh, here are three reasons why this is no laughing matter. The restaurant that has just opened offers Southeast Asian all-time popular dishes that can hardly be considered junk food — unlike most American fast food.

Uncle Chin’s Chicken Rice, for less than $3. Photo: AirAsia Group.

AirAsia claims it has Santan junkies for dishes such as Pak Nasser’s Nasi Lemak (coconut rice with chilli paste) and Uncle Chin’s Chicken Rice. The menu is extensive and representative of ASEAN dishes, with favorites such as Pineapple Fish Noodle from Cambodia and Chicken Inasal with Garlic Rice from the Philippines.

Secondly, prices are affordable, from less than $3 (12 Malaysian Ringgit) for a dish.

A smart low-cost and delicious fast-food chain. Photo: AirAsia Group.

Thirdly, in line with the airline’s digital drive, the restaurant and cafe features a smart menu equipped with artificial intelligence and machine learning, which recommends popular dishes based on time, past ordering patterns and demographic taste. Customers can also order directly from a dedicated Santan website and T&Co mobile app.

Fernandes, in a LinkedIn post, paid tribute to Goh, who started as his executive assistant and turned his vision of turning inflight food into a restaurant “and later a Dean & Deluca selling goods.”

“I paid a visit to see the products and met all the staff [at the restaurant]. Friendly bunch. Just like the airline. Low cost doesn’t mean low quality. Food is high quality but very affordable. 15RM ($3.60) for a meal and drink. It doesn’t cost anything to be nice or to smile. I want people to see us as different. Not like the fast food joints out there,” he wrote.

“ASEAN first competitor to the American fast food chains. Way behind but hey people laughed at us when we only had two planes. Hey whatever, it’s a worldwide first. First airline to open a quick service restaurant based on airline food,” he added.

Photo Credit: Tony Fernandes at his first Santan restaurant launch in Kuala Lumpur. AirAsia Group