Ya Kun success story: How a humble coffee stall grew into 100 outlets

Ya Kun is a brand of home, a sight Singaporeans recognise by sight, and by scent. With outlets in every heartland, the brand has also since gone international with 10 countries across the region in its repertoire.

Founded in 1944 by Loi Ah Koon, Ya Kun kopi and toast has come a long way since its inception. Here's how they did it.

Mr Adrin LoiPhoto: The Straits Times

1. Bringing Singapore Overseas

"While we have expanded to so many locations overseas, every store runs in a manner that is still recognisably Singaporean," says Jesher Loi, grandson of Loi Ah Koon, and son of current CEO Adrin Loi.

In Singapore, Ya Kun is somewhat of an institution, a brand so inextricably tied to our country that it's actually considered a cultural icon by the Singapore Tourism Board.

And as the brand traverses geographical boundaries, it brings with it its culture.

Every outlet brews kopi and teh using the traditional pot and sock, and every slice of bread is grilled. The only thing that changes are the eggs, as not all cultures are open to soft-boiled.

"It is a fine balance between adapting to the local culture and staying true to our menu and so each item is scrutinised carefully before introduction."

Photo:The Straits Times

It's not about sentimentalism, says Loi, but a winning formula, a recipe that appeals to multiple cultures.

"[But] staying true to our Singaporean roots has been the bedrock of our expansion philosophy."

For foreigners, this allows them to enjoy authentic Singapore kaya and toast in Ya Kun's distinctive red and off-white spaces. For Singaporeans overseas, Ya Kun becomes a familiar place for them to reconnect with home.

In a previous interview, Loi shares about a scare he had with a customer crying at their outlet in Shanghai - a man who simply turned out to be a homesick Singaporean.

2. Building The Customer Bridge

Ya Kun Coffeestall began at Telok Ayer, then moved to Lau Pa Sat before returning to Telok Ayer. But despite the upheavals, they enjoyed steady patronage from diners from Woodlands and Jurong.

Food quality was one thing, but customer relationship was also crucial. Mr. Adrin Loi talks about the "easy rapport his father had with his customers", which in return kept the customers coming.

His son Jesher Loi shares how they hung a cork board and post-it notes at 1 China Street when they began. Each night, his mother would address the comments left behind and thank diners for coming, before re-pasting the notes.

"The chat board caught on and we were getting daily comments," he continued.

"Regulars and tourists alike were pinning up their thoughts, leaving comments [on] how much they enjoyed this uniquely Singaporean breakfast."

3. A Family Philosophy

Ya Kun is a family business through and through, passing down form Loi Ah Koon to his son, Adrin Loi, who seeks to pass the mantle on to Jesher Loi in a few years time.

Adrin Loi is famously frank for being inspired by his father and when senior Loi fell ill, he felt that it was a shame if the business collapsed. And so, he and his brother Algie decided to take on the challenge.

They borrowed $8,000 to get started and had to relocate to Lau Pa Sat. But within 2 weeks, the team broke even. Adrin Loi credits success to the groundwork his father had laid, but shares that family also plays a vital role.

Family is who he looks to for help, experience and know-how, he says, as everyone grew up in the coffee stall.

Mr Jesher Loi, brand manager of food & beverage (F&B) chain Ya Kun International.
Photo: Ya Kun

4. Expanding Is About The Opportunities

When they moved to Far East Square, rental costs became a huge problem. At $6,000 - $7,000, the rental was about 30x that of what they paid at Telok Ayer Market.

In order to make costs work, they used their savings for renovation while buying secondhand furniture from other closed businesses. Business from the office crowd was good, and they broke even in 2 weeks. But in order to become a modern business, they had to expand.

Working with business consultants from SPRING Singapore showed them that they had potential for growth, and Loi went into franchising in 2000 - a journey that won them Franchisee of the Year Award in 2012.

One of its successful brands is Beard Papa, who Ya Kun acquired from Japan in 2015. Although the two brands are kept separate, Jesher Loi explains that they share similar philosophies.

"We view heritage as a key component in keeping with our values, use excellent ingredients, and innovate while not deviating from our core product. There is synergy in going forward together but there is also strength in standing alone."

As for how they select which country to expand into, "there is no right country, just right timing."

But the harsh truth is that laying the groundwork takes massive effort, even though there is no guarantee for success. Finding the right partners also require time.

"We are under no illusion that we understand the intricate habits and behaviours of the locals and their receptivity towards a foreign brand."

"You can have the best business concept, strategy and systems, but you also need good people who make success a reality."

A Ya Kun Breakfast SetPhoto: Ya Kun

Ya Kun Today

Ya Kun might not be your favourite brand for kopi-and-toast, but their success as a brand cannot be denied.

From 2010 to 2016, their revenue has been growing at 10 per cent-15 per cent and their brands across the region have all been flourishing.