“I never dreamt of doing this; it was just a bunch of lucky coincidences”, enthuses Hoh Loyi over the phone.
The 22-year-old is the chef-owner of Champion Bolo Bun, a cafe that is quickly achieving cult status as one of the best places to get the delectable bolo bun in Singapore.
For those unacquainted, bolo bun is a classic Hong Kong cha chaan teng pastry that features a buttery, crusty top that resembles a pineapple with a soft and pillowy exterior cradling a slab of butter.
Against the trendy Korean BBQ joints and burgeoning cafes overflowing with croissants, you can’t deny it is a bold move to have a cafe that only featured the humble bolo bun.
The path towards success in the F&B scene in Singapore is never smooth or easy. In fact, Loyi took many left turns before she arrived at where she is today.
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Unlike most 16-year-olds after completing her ‘O’ levels, Loyi didn’t enter polytechnic or junior college. Instead, Loyi cut her teeth in the baking world in Taiwan, where she pursued a bread-baking certificate for a year.
Still, like most of us finding ourselves, Loyi was unsure of what her calling would be. Then, while on holiday in Hong Kong, everything seemed to click and fall into place.
“I was eating the old bolo bun from the same old shop that my brothers and I grew up eating. I decided to just talk to the kitchen (staff) and then see who is interested in taking in an apprentice,” Loyi told me.
The kitchen was rather reluctant to accept her initially, seeing as she was so young and only a PR in Hong Kong, but Loyi was determined as ever and eventually found herself in their kitchen learning all she could about Hong Kong pastries.
An education unlike any other, instead of the usual after-school escapades or cramming with friends for tests, Loyi found herself kneading dough and surrounded by friendly, avuncular older bakers who took her under their wing.
Taking up a baking apprenticeship in Hong Kong is unconventional, to say the least.
I didn’t really tell a lot of my peers what I was actually doing at that point in time. Everyone would have thought that was crazy. You know, you’re like what, 17, 18, working in Hong Kong. And you’re not working in a so-called prestigious industry, you’re working in a cha chaan teng, you know! Hoh Loyi, owner of Champion Bolo Bun
I didn’t really tell a lot of my peers what I was actually doing at that point in time. Everyone would have thought that was crazy. You know, you’re like what, 17, 18, working in Hong Kong. And you’re not working in a so-called prestigious industry, you’re working in a cha chaan teng, you know!
For Loyi, perhaps one of the hardest things is seeing those in her social circle move on without her.
“(Expanding) my circle of friends stopped at secondary school for me,” explained Loyi. “And then when I was in Hong Kong, I saw on Instagram that my old circle of friends are all hanging out together. I felt a little left out and such.”It certainly was an unexpected drawback for bucking the trend and pursuing baking in Hong Kong. For Loyi, it was also one that she didn’t think would affect her as much. I don’t need to tell you that at the tender age of 17 when friends are your world, it can be difficult to see them go on with their lives without you.
However, Loyi soon found herself with a different set of friends. Her Shifu (teacher), and the other bakers became her support system in Hong Kong.
Armed with a winning recipe, Loyi started small with showings at Ang Mo Kio Hub events. With a stroke of luck, a representative from EXPO called her with a last-minute slot. Loyi remembers the mad scramble for logistics and food prep with only two weeks to put everything together.
“At that point in time, I had no connections. I just came back from Hong Kong, and I built all my work connections in Taipei and Hong Kong.”
Truly, Loyi was starting at ground zero, and even if she did have the odds stacked against her, she charged forward unfazed. As it turns out, entrepreneurship runs in the family.
I grew up with a family of entrepreneurs. All my uncles and aunties started their businesses from scratch. They started from nothing and built their business from there. Watching them since I was a kid, I’ve really gotten to know how to adapt to changes and get ready for unforeseen situations.Hoh Loyi, Owner of Champion Bolo Bun
I grew up with a family of entrepreneurs. All my uncles and aunties started their businesses from scratch. They started from nothing and built their business from there. Watching them since I was a kid, I’ve really gotten to know how to adapt to changes and get ready for unforeseen situations.
That tenacity definitely rubbed off on Loyi as she managed to rope in her friends to help her out. As the number of events grew, so did the queues.
Like any good entrepreneur, Loyi knew it was time to scale up Champion Bolo Bun.
It was a bit funny, because we put up a banner that said, “Looking for an investor”. It was very straightforward, and during the event, we’re very lucky because we have one of the longest queues. I guess that’s how we caught some of the attention of potential partners and friends in the industry.Hoh Loyi, Owner of Champion Bolo Bun
It was a bit funny, because we put up a banner that said, “Looking for an investor”. It was very straightforward, and during the event, we’re very lucky because we have one of the longest queues. I guess that’s how we caught some of the attention of potential partners and friends in the industry.
A three-storey shophouse, Champion Bolo Bun found itself along the streets of Tanjong Pagar and snaking queues.
“Since Champion Bolo Bun started until now, we’ve spent S$0 on marketing,” explained Loyi, which left me a little agog given that the eatery sells 700 to 900 buns on weekdays, and up to 1,200 buns on weekends.
“When we first opened, our operating hours were only 12pm to 3pm. The reason why it was 12pm to 3pm wasn’t because like, oh, I’m hao lian (boastful). Opening a business is all about cost and profit.”
These odd opening hours were not for vanity, but practicality’s sake, though it was certainly a genius marketing ploy.
As this was her first venture, Loyi tread carefully. With a loyal following from her events, it wasn’t long before local publications caught wind of Champion Bolo Bun.
Naturally, just like any first-time business owner, there were teething issues. After all, managing a kitchen and working in one are two very different things.
“For sure, I made a lot of mistakes,” said Loyi. “But, it’s good. The most important thing is that I learned from those (mistakes). I’ve been appreciative of my team that they are willing to go through this trial and error period with me,” she continued.
It seems like the bolo bun is the great equaliser between fussy millennials, trend-hungry Gen Zs, and retired boomers who are perpetually ‘looking for a place to sit’.
“At Champion Bolo Bun, something that is quite fascinating is that we have customers of all ages. We have young millennials, middle-aged folks, and even elderly couples. It’s very cute that elderly couples will go on double dates.”
While Covid-19 and its various restrictions have put a damper on their sales, the advent of group buys has managed to keep Champion Bolo Bun afloat.
“We’ve been very lucky. We still have income from group buys and walk-ins, and many people have purposely come down just to get our buns. We’re still growing healthily, and we’re grateful for that.”
As for future plans, Loyi is not looking to expand locally. She has bigger dreams and Loyi has set her sights on one of the Meccas of food: New York.
“We believe that New York will be a very good market. New York will be a place that affirms our branding. We want to bring our cuisine, our Asian cuisine, to the world stage.”
“Being a homegrown Singapore brand, we hope to bring Champion Bolo Bun overseas and have more people know about us and bring the yummy food of people of all different races to the other side of the world.”
As the adage goes, ‘good things must share’, and so she shall.
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Featured Image Credit: Champion Bolo Bun via Instagram
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