Tan Chong International's car business has led, in a roundabout way, to its first foray into food.
The famed 81-year-old Asanoya bakery from Karuizawa is opening its first branch outside of Japan here in a joint venture with Tan Chong International, which deals in brands such as Nissan and Subaru.
The tie-up is not as odd as it may seem, says Tan Chong's executive director Glenn Tan.
He says his father knows the uncle of Asanoya's chief executive officer, Ms Maki Asano, 45. Her uncle has a trucking business and got to know the Tans.
Calling the trend for Japanese bakeries the "hot thing now", Mr Tan, 36, decided to tie up with a brand familiar to his family.
He says: "I think it is a good fit for both parties as they want to find the right partner, while we understand the Japanese culture since we have long-term working relationships with the Japanese."
Ms Asano, who had no plans to expand before Tan Chong International approached her, says that she has turned down requests from Thailand and South Korea. She is in town for the opening of the 80-seat Asanoya on Saturday.
She says: "The market here is very mature with diversified cultures. I hope Asanoya will work here. Unlike other bakeries, we do not bake with frozen dough."
The 5,000 sq ft space that Asanoya occupies used to be a car showroom before it became a restaurant.
Bread lovers can look forward to a wide variety of stone-oven-baked loaves and buns, such as its signature fruit rye, and Karuizawa Raisin, which is 55cm in diameter and weighs 1.3kg. It is sliced upon order and charged by weight. There is also a small selection of sandwiches, quiches and salads.
The shop also has a small retail section selling products such as olive oils and pasta.
More savoury food options will be rolled out in the future, with recipes from Asanoya's full-service restaurant, Chez Marie, in Japan.
Asanoya's Japanese chef and consultant Naomichi Kobayashi, 47, is also in town to ensure the smooth operations of the bakery here.
And it is Malaysian head baker Kenny Wong, 37, who has five years of working experience with Asanoya in Japan, who heads the kitchen in Singapore.
To fit in with the establishments in the vicinity such as the Singapore Art Museum, National Library and National Design Centre, Mr Tan calls the outlet a "blank canvas" that artists can use to showcase their works.
Back in 1933, Asanoya did not start out as a bakery because it was "not popular" to eat breads in Japan yet, says Ms Asano, whose grandfather founded the brand. Instead, it was located in Kojimachi, Tokyo, and sold Western liquor, groceries and bread.
In 1940, the move to Karuizawa in Nagano prefecture, was strategic, as the place was a hot spot for tourists and visiting diplomats. When another bakery opened in 1972 in Yotsuya, Shinjuku District, Asanoya realised the demand for bread and improved its bread-making facilities. Its breads gained popularity and, in 1983, the Karuizawa shop was remodelled to cater to the influx of tourists.
Now, there are 10 stores across Japan, as well as a central kitchen which produces bread to supply to hotels and restaurants.
Ms Asano, who used to work in the paper pulp division of another Japanese company, joined the family business in 1998 and became the chief executive in 2006.
She is also a wine adviser with the Japan Sommelier Association and her husband is head sommelier of the three-Michelin-starred L'Osier in Tokyo.
She says: "My father (who was the previous CEO) suggested, or rather, ordered me to join the company. He requested a lot more than I expected. But now that we have expanded, he is very happy."
Both she and Mr Tan are cautious about rapid expansion in Singapore and overseas.
Mr Tan is looking to open outlets on his company's premises here, such as its car service centre in Bukit Timah. He does not rule out getting more food and beverage brands under the company too.
Admitting that it has been a "steep learning curve" so far, he says candidly: "Tan Chong has built its reputation for a long time. It hasn't been easy but I will do whatever it takes.
"I don't think I could eat sushi every day, but I can eat Japanese bread every day. When cars come to the showroom, I can only sit in them. I can't eat them."
Asanoya opens on Saturday at Wilby Central, 15 Queen Street, tel: 6703-8703.
Opening hours are from 10am to 8pm (Monday to Thursday), 10am to 11pm (Friday), 8am to 11pm (Saturday), and 8am to 8pm (Sunday).
What: Asanoya's signature rye bread features a mixture of orange peel, rum-infused raisins, crushed walnuts and almonds.
Price: $6.50 (half loaf), $12.50 (whole loaf)
KARUIZAWA GREEN TEA
What: This loaf is marbled with matcha and white chocolate. There is also a blueberry version. The bread is sliced upon order.
Price: $2.60 for 100g
What: Fragrant Earl Grey tea leaves perfume the dough, which is also flavoured with blueberry or orange peel. This is a good breakfast or tea loaf that pairs well with jams.
Price: $4.80 a loaf
TOMATO & MOZZARELLA
What: You do not often get bread that comes with a cautionary note. This one says: "Cherry tomato centre bursts easily." The crispy bread has a layer of mozzarella cheese inside as well as two whole juicy cherry tomatoes. Price: $2.60
MAPLE WALNUT PRETZEL
What: Shaped like a heart, this bread features Asanoya's housemade maple cream. Best eaten warm.
This article was first published on MONTH DAY, 2014.
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