Beyond the bread, Jing Chew is known for its unique environment that’s unlike any other. Many people go there simply to witness a melting pot of people coming together to work, dine and relax; the customers are made up mainly of Malays and Chinese who are served by Indian waiters; and then, there are the Chinese owners who supervise and take care of the cash register.
Jing Chew seems to be recession proof in spite of a challenging economy. In good times or bad, this iconic coffee shop in Gadong is always packed with people. In fact, when times are bad, business seems to thrive here, as people opt for less expensive food options. “We sell Brunei’s best Roti Kuning at $1, and we have not changed the price for many years. You can have a decent breakfast with your coffee and bread for $2 or less!” Said the current owner, Mr Han Yee Kwong.
Celebrating its 70th anniversary in business this year, Inspire magazine pays tribute to this extraordinary establishment founded by the late Mr Han King Juan who came to Brunei from Hainan.
To understand what makes Jing Chew successful we spent an afternoon talking to Mr Han and his son, Tuan Siew and came up with 5 key factors.
Jing Chew understands the importance of mastering one thing and becoming well-known for it. In this case, it is their legendary Roti Kuning which has been made according to the same recipe since their grandfather’s generation. Mr Han said that even though he has eaten the same bread all his life, he still enjoys it every single day. “There is something about the softness of our Roti Kuning that you can’t find anywhere else. Many people have tried to copy our style, but couldn’t reproduce the same texture. Of course, we have our secret recipe to make this but I am not going tell you.” He laughed. “But just as important, is that we never compromise on the quality of our ingredients.” And then he proudly showed me the fridge which was stacked up with cartons of fresh Anchor Butter, the premium butter that they serve with the famous yellow bread. “This thing is expensive. And at the price we are charging ($1), I don’t know if we are even making a profit. But this is what everyone comes for. And we intend to keep it affordable for our customers.” said Mr Han with enthusiasm. Even though the coffee shop serves more than a dozen delicious items on its menu, the owners understand the meaning of being the world’s best at producing just one item, and as a result the world comes knocking on their door for the Roti Kuning. Incidentally, Jing Chew sells over 5,000 pieces of Roti Kuning on a daily basis.
On an average day, Jing Chew serves just over a thousand people by turning over roughly 80 tables nonstop during peak hours. One can only imagine the scale of preparations behind the scenes with such high volume transactions, not to mention the challenges and difficulties involved in keeping accurate accounts.
Two years ago, Jing Chew introduced a point of sales system, which allows waiters to take orders using handheld devices. Mr. Han explained, “Instead of running to the kitchen to place their order each time, the waiter can now register the order on their PDA and hop from table to table to take more orders from different customers, which makes things faster and more convenient.” He continued, “We are able to monitor whether or not the food has been delivered and more importantly, keep track of which tables have paid, and which have not. Before this, my staff and I had to memorise it all. Sometimes, we wouldn’t even know if the customers had eaten and had left the premises without paying.”
Today, Jing Chew is reaping the benefits of this modern technology with better efficiency, accuracy and remarkably less shrinkage.
But implementing these changes was never going to be smooth sailing. It required a tremendous amount of courage and determination. He remembered, “The first month of introducing the system was a nightmare for all of us. We were not all technologically savvy and were so used to the old way that we had become very efficient at what we did despite the limitations. There was much resistance to change across the board but we knew that it was necessary. During the first few weeks of implementation the staff was confused and the customers were frustrated because of the mistakes and slow orders. The supplier had to literally hold our hands through the process.” However, the perseverance and investment has proven to be worthwhile. It was a necessary one step backward, two steps forward transition that the coffee shop had to go through in order to adapt to the future.
I joked with Mr Han that he has the best job in the world as all he seems to do is to sit behind the counter and collect money non-stop every day, almost like a bank teller. He laughed and explained that there was a great deal of focus and discipline required to do his job well. He has to make sure that he doesn’t overcharge or short change the customers as he oversees an average of 80 to 100 transactions per hour. While other coffee shop owners have the luxury of indulging in deep relationships with customers, it is difficult for him to establish long conversations because of the attention required to do his job well. Mr. Han usually arrives at the coffee shop at around 5 am everyday and leaves at about 8pm. Upon his arrival, customers would already be waiting at the door to get their hands on the freshly baked bread. Jing Chew’s first shift starts at 3am daily at the bakery. Mr Han rarely takes leave, except for the required public holidays and the first three days of Chinese New Year. He explained that the coffee shop has become part of the life of many people and therefore he sees it as a social responsibility to ensure that they are properly fed. “Where else can they go at six in the morning for their freshly baked bread?” he asked.
Jing Chew is made up of 50 plus people together with the entire family that runs the management side of the business. Throughout the years, it has become the trademark of the coffee shop to have a majority of Indian waiters along with a handful of Indonesian workers who manage the floor and kitchen. When we inquired about this unique employee mix, he explained, “A key reason is that Indian employees are hardworking, loyal and they are eager to serve. Most importantly, they have a good heart. Many of our (Indian) workers have been with us for a long time, some of them over a few decades. One of them even went on to start his own business opening a convenient store here in Brunei. We see each other everyday, and treat each other almost like family.” Part of what makes Jing Chiew successful is their ability to identify the strengths of different cultures very early on, and they are then able to use this to their advantage. In order to run this type of large scale operation with their own bakery production, Jing Chiew requires a group of people who possess a good work ethic; the tenacity to grind it out; and the ability to remember orders and do accurate calculations on their feet. The decision to hire this mix of staff has paid off as Jing Chiew has been able to earn the staff’s loyalty over the many decades.
You will not find a vision statement written on the wall of the Jing Chew coffee shop because there isn’t any. However, the owners have repeatedly exhibited farsightedness in their approach to their business process: from their wisdom in human resources selection and investment in technology; to their ability to identify and focus on their flagship product.
Part of the reason that Jing Chew was ahead of it’s time was that the predecessor was determined to find new ways of doing things. Mr Han remembers that from a young age, he would visit different countries in the region with his father in order to try different pastries and they would then return with new recipes. In the 70s, the coffee shop invested over BND100,000 in machinery and ovens to build their own bakery. They didn’t just buy any oven, they researched the type of oven that would best suit their needs and then imported the finest brands from Sweden and UK.
During those days this level of investment was unheard of, but the predecessor understood the importance of using quality equipment to produce the best results. After four decades, the oven is still in operation, giving testimony to the accuracy of his vision.
While many have approached Jing Chew to expand their empire locally and overseas, at this point, Mr Han has no plans for further expansion. When pressed for an answer, Mr Han smiled and simply explained that he’d like to be able to control the quality of his bread. Understandably, running the current empire is more than a handful for Mr Han and family. There is no way he would take the risk of diluting the quality of the product which the family fought hard to establish.
The secret to Jing Chew’s success we can sum up as: constant hard work and consistency. Simple, but not easy. Try maintaining this level of consistency for the next 70 years and perhaps you’ll also earn the same recognition.