SERI KEMBANGAN, Jan 5 – We love our crunchy roti bakar with cold butter and fragrant kaya. Soft milk loaves and sausage buns from the neighbourhood bakery. Croissants and pain au chocolat from a café that serves a mean flat white too.
But bagels? That’s what New Yorkers eat, right? Not us, surely?
Friends and bagel enthusiasts Kaka Yong, Yee Thong and Ling Hwei are counting on Malaysians being open to a new (to many of them, at any rate) kind of bread. The thirtysomething trio started 明明 DAY 9 Kitchen to share their love of everything bagel.
The name of the shop is infused with this sense of possibility: “明明” (pronounced “Míngmíng”) refers to “day and night” in Mandarin while National Bagel Day is February 9, hence “DAY 9” which also sounds like “day night”. They even have discounts on some bagels on the 9th of every month.
Clearly a lot of thought has been put into how their first business together is meant to be perceived. Yong says, “You see, there are relatively few coffee shops with Chinese names. So when the older generation sees the familiar Chinese characters, they realise a café isn’t just a place for young people.”
A stint working in the Taiwanese food-and-beverage (F&B) industry was the spark that began everything. Yong says, “Yee Thong and I were students at Ming Chuan University’s Haiqing Class Food and Beverage Department in Taichung 10 years ago. After returning, I worked at an Italian restaurant but over time the three of us wanted to realise our dream of running a business together.”
That first taste of bagels in Taiwan left a lasting impression. Yong recalls, “Back then, I thought to myself that this bread was very special. Appearance-wise, it wasn’t unlike a doughnut. But when I ate it, it tasted and felt completely different. So we took a risk and based our business on a bread that is both curious and unfamiliar.”
Before conducting R&D (research and development), the trio bought different versions of bagels to try but these didn’t taste like what they enjoyed in Taiwan.
Yong says, “Most of the bagels lean towards the European and American approach, with a solid and chewy texture. What we discovered was that this ‘taste’ isn’t an absolute and there is still a lot of room for development and changes.”
To adapt their bagels to local preferences, they delved into reference books and the experience of others making bagels, gleaned from the Internet. Yong explains, “We read about the history of bagels because we feel that if we want to study bagels, we must understand its original appearance and the meaning behind it.”
Besides the original plain bagel, other flavours include sesame, cheese, chocolate, marbled, mocha, matcha, cinnamon and rosemary. Savoury bagels are also available such as the fried pork sesame bagel with sriracha sauce.
There’s a bagel with freshly fried chicken sandwiched in between, reminiscent of a Southern style chicken ‘n’ waffle (albeit with tartar sauce), and one filled with potato croquettes. For vegetarians, they also offer a tofu and mushroom bagel.
Yong shares, “As we’ve said, we recognise the bagels made in Europe and America but we also understand, as Malaysians, most of us love to eat softer bread types. In fact, the three of us are no exception. Maybe it is our cultural background. Still, we will also retain the original characteristics of bagels, that is, the outer skin is crispy and the inside is soft and chewy.”
Before the movement control order (MCO) last March, things were hectic due to a lack of manpower. The lockdown and ensuing slowing of business meant the trio could finally regroup and review the issues such as improving food quality and kitchen operations.
Yong recalls, “We worked 12 hours a day and could not take a good rest. When MCO started, it was like a blessing in disguise as it gave us a chance to get a breather and recuperate.”
While the trio have outsourced their food delivery service, like many other shops, they delivered their hand-crafted bagels to customers who lived or worked nearby in the beginning.
“Many customers will feel at ease if they know that we deliver the goods in person. During that time, we felt that we were like family members or friends to our customers. Each time after a meal delivery, we would write words of encouragement to each other. No matter how bitter the pandemic is, that connection feels very warm.”
Success didn’t come easy. Yong recalls a transitional period where they were simply relieved that customers who weren’t familiar with bagels would at least order other menu items that were more recognisable such as pasta, salads and cakes.
“When we first opened, in order to cover our operating expenditure, we wanted to attract customers to dine first. We lost sight of our original intention. But we re-centred our purpose by developing more flavours of bagels and designing new dishes that can be paired with bagels such as savoury bagel sandwiches.”
Some entrepreneurs take months, even years to develop and perfect recipes before they are satisfied with the final results.
Not everyone has this luxury.
The first official development of bagels for 明明 DAY 9 Kitchen – from how to make the bagel dough to the process of cooking it, from first boiling before baking, in order to achieve a golden brown colour – only started half a month before the store opened.
Yong recalls, “We only had two weeks for our first phase of R&D. Two weeks after the soft launch, we adjusted the recipe a second time so that the bagels are not only delicious when freshly baked, but also much later, if they are properly preserved.”
Parkinson’s Law states “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”; one could get dangerously bogged down with perfecting a product instead of shipping it.
As such, Yong believes that time is of the essence so it’s better to develop their first iteration of the bagels as quickly as possible and then improve upon it later. She adds, “In fact, apart from listening to the opinions of people around you, your own persistence is very important. If you are not satisfied, then how can you convince others to like it?”
Do Malaysians even like bagels? That’s not an invalid question given how many start-ups fail because they jump in before acquiring proof of concept.
Yong would be the first to admit that they didn’t have the resources to conduct extensive consumer surveys. However she notes that, over time, the response has been encouraging: “The longer we operate, the more we find a surprising number of people who like bagels. As long as you create food with your heart, someone will always discover and appreciate it.”
True entrepreneurs know there will be hard times. The good ones plan for them.
This mentality is what spurs Yong and her partners. She says, “A positive attitude can help you during the ‘low tide’ so even if we face economic problems, we won’t give up but instead try other approaches. The three of us understand each other and won’t get bogged down by negativity.”
On the road of entrepreneurship, perseverance is the key to continuing the journey when others have long thrown in the towel. For明明 DAY 9 Kitchen, three’s a company – and very good company at that.
明明 DAY 9 Kitchen
3-1, Jalan Equine 10B, Taman Equine, Seri Kembangan, Selangor
Open daily (except Tue closed) 11am-10pm
Tel: 016-616 0590