When I think about chicken chop, one of the few places that comes to mind is Yut Kee.
It’s my favourite dish there, and arguably a great one with an affordable price.
This Hainanese coffee shop is no doubt a all-time Malaysian favourite, but the fact that it’s been operating since 1928 shocked me.
It only has 8 more years to hit a century of operations, which isn’t something you come across every day with coffee shops.
Started By A First–Gen Chinese Immigrant
The shop was started by Lee Tai Yik, a first-generation immigrant from Hainan Island, China.
He’s the late grandfather of the current proprietor, Mervyn Lee, whom we interviewed for this story.
Prior to Yut Kee, Tai Yik had already been in Malaya for a few years and worked as a cook for the Choo family, led by Choo Kia Peng.
You may remember his name from the street Jalan Kia Peng which is around KLCC.
So even before Yut Kee, Tai Yik was a personal chef for a very influential businessman in Malaya during the British occupation.
Tai Yik then opened Yut Kee on January 15, 1928 at 35, Jalan Dang Wangi 50100 Kuala Lumpur.
At the time, Tai Yik ran Yut Kee with his 3 wives.
He later passed away in 1947 when Mervyn’s father was only 3 years old, but his legacy lived on.
Most of the dishes, including the chicken chop, have actually been here since the shop opened in 1928.
They used to have more on the menu back then, but a lot of them were dropped when they lacked demand and just didn’t fit the demographic change in their customers.
Mervyn started helping out when he was 10, which was around 1989 at the time.
Back then, it was usually office staff, businessmen and nearby residents who frequented the place.
Until today, their coffee shop is still a lunch hotspot for the office crowd.
Families would flock during the weekends, some of which have had 5 generations who ate at Yut Kee before.
In August 2014, Yut Kee shifted their shop to their current location in Jalan Kamunting.
Their landlords wanted to take back the space for development, hence the shift.
Thankfully, Mervyn’s parents had already bought over this current premise before their relocation for other purposes, but decided to move the business there later.
Getting Hit By Two Financial Crises And Other Challenges
Mervyn’s father took over from the late 1970s till 2003, which was when Mervyn stepped in full-time.
Though Tai Yik had children from 3 wives, Mervyn’s dad was the only son in the family, which made successorship for the business easier to decide on.
Throughout the years since then, he’s been witnessing a steady upward trend in their revenue.
While their business has been doing remarkably well since 2003, things weren’t always easy.
“There have been years where growth has stagnated, or even declined, such as in 1988 during the financial crisis and again during 1995-1997 when the Asian Financial Crisis happened,” Mervyn shared.
However, with the recent lockdown again, their revenue has fallen by 10-20% on average.
Editor’s Note: Information in the above paragraphs have been edited to reflect greater accuracy.
Throughout the 17 years Mervyn has taken over, he’s had to adapt to changes in workforce, raw material availability and transitioning the business from his father’s way of doing things to his.
Before 1988, they had no problem hiring locals to work at Yut Kee, but that has changed over the years as blue collar jobs like these weren’t as favourable to locals anymore.
“This resulted in a shift to a migrant workforce which has persisted to today. Ever-changing policies on the migrant workforce continue to plague me every few years,” he shared.
Moreover, some customers had pointed out their changes in their food, which they can’t help since the change of raw materials was something that they had no control over.
“The composition of Milo now and in the 1980-90s has varied so much that the end product in the drink can taste so different. A tablespoon of Milo 30 years ago had a thicker concoction.”
“Today, almost 3 tablespoons are required in order to get that extra strong flavour. Our costs went up to provide these to the customers, without passing the cost to them if possible,” Mervyn explained.
When the business was transitioning from father to son, Mervyn ran into some problems with his dad.
“My father was running a smaller operation back then. Again, most things done back then weren’t well organised, resulting in a clash of business approach between myself and him.”
However, Mervyn thinks that he got things more organised in the last 10 years as they were able to minimise over-stocking and legwork.
Yut Kee May End With Mervyn Lee
It’s not every day you get to find legacy businesses like Yut Kee.
The other coffee shops I can think of are Ho Kow Kopitiam in Petaling Street and Nam Heong Ipoh, both of which have been running for around 60 years already.
However, these coffee shops aren’t their direct competitors, as Mervyn thinks they hadn’t affected their business at all.
Which makes sense, seeing how niche Yut Kee’s food and concept are.
Mervyn also has no plans of franchising the business even though it would’ve brought in more profit.
“I was not willing to sacrifice the personal touch element. As long as I’m able to keep running it this way, I will do so until I am no longer able.”
Although their business has lasted for almost a century, Mervyn doesn’t have much hope for it going on for another century.
He believes that it puts unnecessary pressure on the future generation, like his daughter.
While the business has provided a comfortable life for his family, the sacrifices that came with it were great as well.
“I do not have the opportunity to spend much time with my daughter. As time went by, I changed the way I operate so that she would not have to grow up without a father being around most of the time, as I have experienced in my childhood,” Mervyn recalled.
“She will make her own choices in life. If she wants to assume the mantle of YK’s ownership in the time to come, that’s all good and well. But if she chooses otherwise, that’s fine by me too.”
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Featured Image Credit: Mervyn Lee, current proprietor of Yut Kee