When Adrin Loi’s father left the southern Chinese province of Hainan Island on a junk destined for Singapore 90 years ago, it’s unlikely that he ever imagined that his family would one day preside over a café empire with more than 100 outlets in a dozen markets in East and South-East Asia.
Fifteen-year-old Loi Ah Koon began working on a Hainanese coffee stall in the downtown district of his new homeland. Soon he opened his own outlet serving coffee, tea, toast and soft-boiled eggs to the traders and boatmen who worked in the area. When he married, his wife began producing her own kaya, a jam-like paste made from egg and coconut, and Ah Koon began to import coffee beans and roast them himself.
Ah Koon devoted the rest of his working life to running his coffee stall business, named Ya Kun (the Chinese pinyin transliteration of Ah Koon).
“Dad really established the business and it seemed a pity not to carry it on,” says Adrin Loi, explaining his decision to take on the stall with his brother Algie in 1998 when their father became ill.
Construction work in the business district forced the two sons to relocate the stall. Rent skyrocketed and they decided they needed to modernize the business if they wanted it to thrive.
Almost 20 years later, the Loi family now oversees a business that has more than 60 outlets in Singapore and 55 across Asia, from Dubai to Japan and the Republic of Korea to Indonesia.
Ya Kun cafes continue to offer customers a core menu of coffee, tea, toast, kaya paste and soft-boiled eggs. Mr. Loi says that his goal was to make Ya Kun a household name and for its outlets to be affordable and accessible.
How has the business grown so fast? Mr. Loi says intellectual property is at the heart of Ya Kun’s strategy. The company has a simple offering, but the Loi family has leveraged its trademarks and branding to offer franchise opportunities to partners. Now, half its coffee and toast outlets are run by others.
“Franchising is one of the fastest ways to grow a business,” says Mr. Loi. “I haven’t been to Dubai and Bangkok but I have licensed businesses there. If we ran all the stores ourselves, it would take a lot of capital. This way, we share the financial burden of expansion with the franchisees.”
Even before Ya Kun coffee shops spread across Singapore and beyond, Mr. Loi was determined to protect the brand that his father had worked so hard to create and uphold.
“When we started, we realized that copycats can easily leverage...