Toast of the Town

From this month’s Monocle:

In Singapore a battle is taking place – a battle to dominate the toast-and-spread market. And with the formula proving ever-popular at home, it’s big business for the leading brands who have their eyes set on the rest of Asia.

In Singapore, this humble snack is dividing loyalties, pitting traditionalists against newcomers and roadside café owners against new chains. Nobody knows who the victor will be.

To understand how such a simple dish could leave so many people feeling burnt, you need a quick lesson in local culinary traditions. Walk down Singapore’s Killiney Road at 07.30 on a weekday and you’ll see labourers, business- types and students standing in line for their morning slice of kaya (coconut  jam) toast and a cup of kopi (coffee). Back in the day, kopitiams (an amalgam of Hokkien and Malay for coffee shop) served up kopi with kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs and the coconut-flavoured rice dish nasi lemak – sides that remain popular – at makeshift roadside stores.

But the kopitiam of today is an altogether more serious affair. Toast shops such as Killiney Kopitiam, which has operated from its original location on Killiney Road since 1919, and Ya Kun, founded seven years later, are having to defend their positions as toast kings on all street corners of the island-state:

Singapore now has 178 kopitiams.

“Our competitors are strong so we have to stay on top,” says Jesher Loi, the grandson of  Ya Kun’s founder. He heads up the business with his father and uncle who still brews the kopi and butters the toast the way he has done since 1944 (although he now also has to make kaya and peanut butter toast). “Unlike most of our competitors, we make our own kaya. We guard our recipe tightly,” Loi explains. With 20,000 slices popping out of Ya Kun’s toasters in Singapore every month, Loi keeps his uncle busy.

One of the more aggressive newcomers on Singapore’s “toast scene” is Toast Box, a spin-off from the BreadTalk consortium that controls seven brands within Singapore, including Taiwan’s most famous dumpling export, Din Tai Fung, and has 6,000 employees globally.

With 32 Toast Boxes in Singapore – and five more due to open this year, and an additional 28 already open everywhere from Hong Kong and Malaysia to the Philippines – the six-year-old firm is staking out its place on the toast turf. “The synergies of BreadTalk and Toast Box bring about greater efficiency and economies of scale,” says Joyce Koh, senior vice-president of BreadTalk’s brand development.

Here’s the link to one of the toast shops called Toast Box:

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