ya kun jesher loi
In this article

Ya Kun Kaya Toast, a household name in Singapore and a beloved breakfast spot for locals and tourists alike, has a rich history that dates back to its humble beginnings in 1926.

Throughout the years, Ya Kun Kaya Toast has remained faithful to its roots, preserving the timeless traditions and culinary techniques that have made it an iconic name in Singapore’s gastronomic landscape.

Beyond the remarkable achievements of its founder, the subsequent custodians of Ya Kun Kaya Toast have continued to carry the torch, upholding the brand’s legacy while adapting to the ever-evolving tastes and needs of discerning customers.

Over the past decades, each successive generation has contributed their own unique flair and innovation, ensuring that Ya Kun Kaya Toast remains a beacon of excellence and a bastion of culinary heritage.

The origin story of Ya Kun Kaya Toast

“My grandfather is Ya Kun — he’s a real person and Ya Kun is a real story built on a real journey and real experiences,” said Jesher Loi, third-generation owner of Ya Kun Kaya Toast.

The company’s origins can be traced back to Loi Ah Koon (‘Ya Kun’ is the hanyu pinyin equivalent of ‘Ah Koon’), a young Chinese immigrant who arrived in Singapore at the tender age of 15. With no particular skills to his name, he embarked on a journey to create his own path in this new land.

Starting as an assistant in a Hainanese coffee stall, he immersed himself in the world of coffee-making, learning the art of roasting coffee beans and perfecting his craft along the way.

Ah Koon eventually decided to start his own coffee stall business with two other business partners — who are also fellow Chinese immigrants — at Telok Ayer Basin. When his partners later left to pursue other endeavours, he took full ownership of the business.

loi ah koon ya kun coffee stall
Founder Loi Ah Koon at the original Ya Kun Coffee Stall / Image Credit: Ya Kun Kaya Toast

He then chose to rename it to Ya Kun Coffee Stall in 1944, proudly putting his own name on the front and signalling a new era for the establishment.

After marriage, Ah Koon’s wife joined him in Singapore and worked alongside her husband, churning out homemade kaya (a local spread of egg and coconut) to go with their toasts.

Ah Koon also began roasting his own coffee. He bought coffee beans, added margarine and sugar, and roasted these over firewood at the back of his stall.

Eventually, between the 1950s and 1970s, Ah Koon’s sons — Jesher’s father and uncle — joined the business, transforming it into a family business.

In the early 2000s, the Singapore government made plans to reclaim the land where the original coffee stall stood at Telok Ayer Basin.

Ah Koon was forced to find a new location, so he relocated his business across the street to Lau Pa Sat. It remained in Lau Pa Sat for another 15 years, before moving back across the street to Telok Ayer Transit Food Market in 1984 to make way for the revamp at Lau Pa Sat.

This event prompted a decision to “professionalise” the business and explore new horizons, shared Jesher.

According to him, a particular Mr. Chia from Far East Organisation conceived the idea of gathering heritage F&B brands, including Ya Kun Kaya Toast, under one roof, revolutionising the concept of food streets in Singapore.

[Food streets] are very common today, but back then, it was innovative. He actually went to seek these brands out one by one, and that was how we actually got to move from a hawker stall into a brick-and-mortar shop at Far East Square.

And we’re still there today at that street corner. Interestingly, everything else has changed and there’s so much competition for food streets now, but we have lasted there.

– Jesher Loi, third-generation owner of Ya Kun Kaya Toast
ya kun far east square
Ya Kun outlet at Far East Square / Image Credit: Ya Kun Kaya Toast

The new location actually brought about a surge in popularity, drawing both tourists and locals. Encouraged by this response and the influx of international visitors to the business district, Ya Kun Kaya Toast saw the potential for expansion beyond the shores of Singapore.

Focusing on brand development and ensuring a consistent customer experience, the Loi family meticulously laid the groundwork for expansion.

Their efforts bore fruit as Ya Kun Kaya Toast made its way into shopping malls, reaching a wider audience and solidifying its position as a beloved Singaporean brand.

Reflecting on the family’s involvement, Jesher shares how his grandfather, father, and uncle played pivotal roles in expanding Ya Kun Kaya Toast as the “brain and hands of the brand”.

From opera music to running a coffee business

Jesher only joined Ya Kun Kaya Toast in August 2010. Prior to joining the company, the 38-year-old pursued his studies in classical music at The Master’s University.

Although he initially planned to study science at a local university, his love for music led him to take a gap year and take up music training in the United States.

jesher loi orchestra
Jesher Loi (middle) with some of his U.S. school orchestra friends / Image Credit: Jesher Loi

I wanted to enrol in music courses first before returning to Singapore to pursue a degree for four years. But when I went there, I loved it so much that I told my parents that I wanted to stay on.

My parents were okay with it but on one of their trips to the US, they told me that I would have to be involved in the business in some way or another, so they advised me to take up a minor in business.

– Jesher Loi, third-generation owner of Ya Kun Kaya Toast

Jesher heeded his parents’ advice, though his business minor was not officially documented as he “lacked one class to graduate on time,” said Jesher. “I may not have the necessary paper [qualification], but I did learn everything about business — from micro and macro economics, marketing and business management.”

jesher adrin loi ya kun kaya toast
Jesher (right) and his dad Adrin Loi (left) / Image Credit: Grace Fu via Facebook

When Jesher first joined Ya Kun Kaya Toast, his father assigned him the role of his personal assistant (PA). This position allowed him to learn the ins and outs of the business directly from his father — observing meetings, accompanying him to interviews, and meeting key individuals.

At these business meetings, Jesher’s father always introduced him as his son rather than his PA, setting the foundation for Jesher’s gradual growth within the company.

Over time, Jesher’s responsibilities expanded, and he transitioned into the role of brand manager. Today, he holds the position of director for branding and market development, leading the charge in shaping Ya Kun’s brand identity and exploring new market opportunities.

Despite being the boss’s son, Jesher said he did not face any significant criticism within the company. His father’s amiable nature and the mutual respect fostered among employees contributed to a positive working environment. Jesher’s familiarity with the office staff, having made friends during his visits as a student, also helped him integrate seamlessly into the Ya Kun family.

However, taking over a well-established and beloved family business was not without its challenges. Jesher admits that the transition presented a steep learning curve, especially since it was his “first proper job”.

Regardless, he approached it with determination and an open mind, eager to learn and grow. Through the years, he honed his skills in various aspects, including report writing, effective communication, team management, and decision-making.

Balancing tradition and innovation

Ya Kun Kaya Toast outlet
Ya Kun Kaya Toast outlet / Image Credit: DigiconAsia

When Jesher joined the business, Ya Kun was already on a growth trajectory, with 30 to 40 stores under its wings.

His focus then was primarily on expanding its outlets, establishing relationships with landlords, and mastering the operational intricacies of the business. However, over the years, Jesher recognised the need to adapt with the changing times and embrace digitalisation.

Today, he places great importance on building relationships with stakeholders and leveraging technology to enhance customer experiences and streamline operations.

“For the most part, between then and now, 30 years later, there’s not really a radical change. Instead, there’s a lot of incremental improvements, new departments, and new ideas. But that’s also a conscious effort — it’s not easy to maintain your brand and standard in an evolving world,” said Jesher.

Balancing tradition and innovation is a delicate task, and he emphasised the importance of “knowing the brand intimately”.

By understanding Ya Kun’s core identity, Jesher ensured that any new ideas or initiatives, such as the development of a mobile app, would seamlessly align with the brand experience.

For example, I know that people coming through our doors just want a coffee, sit down, and talk. And when they’re done, they move on. I don’t need my app to be following them everyday with a ‘spin the wheel’ notification.

We don’t need that because we understand that customers come with a very specific purpose, and we fulfil that need. The same goes for collaborations — we only partner with brands if it makes sense to us.

– Jesher Loi, third-generation owner of Ya Kun Kaya Toast

He added that over the years, Ya Kun has faced several business challenges, including limited resources, talent management, and fluctuating ingredient prices. As a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME), Ya Kun had to be “creative and nimble” in resource allocation.

They took calculated risks, explored new ventures, and prioritised HR training and talent retention. The brand’s ability to adapt and make necessary adjustments within its means played a crucial role in overcoming these challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic posed an unprecedented obstacle to businesses worldwide, and Ya Kun was not exempt. However, the brand was fortunate enough to be able to continue operating during the circuit breaker period by offering takeaways and catering to the increased demand for food delivery.

Government support schemes provided additional aid, enabling Ya Kun to sustain its operations, retain its workforce, and navigate through the crisis.

While its heartland outlets witnessed better sales, its CBD locations suffered due to the absence of office workers and tourists. Despite these challenges, Ya Kun managed to maintain sales and cash flow, a testament to its resilience.

IP is both an offensive and defensive strategy

When asked about potential intellectual property (IP) infringement issues, Jesher describes IP as a multi-faceted concept that encompasses both defensive and offensive strategies.

“Very early on, we were given very good advice that IP should lead the way,” said Jesher. This approach was ingrained in the company’s DNA from its early days.

Rather than treating IP as an afterthought, Ya Kun Kaya Toast prioritised IP protection right from the start, even in countries where they had yet to establish a presence.

This proactive stance acts as a deterrent to potential infringers and has significantly reduced the need for legal battles to protect their IP.

While they have encountered a few instances of contestation on paper, where others have expressed interest in registering similar-sounding names, Ya Kun Kaya Toast’s legal team has managed to handle these cases without resorting to litigation.

Jesher clarifies that as long as the contested business is in a different category and offers distinct products or services, such as a Ya Kun car mechanic shop or Ya Kun laundry services, they do not pose a direct threat to the core business of serving coffee and kaya toast.

Delving deeper into the specifics of their IP assets, Jesher highlights the registration of their brand, logo, and colour scheme as critical components of their IP portfolio. These elements are inseparable from their brand identity, and even their franchisees are prohibited from altering them.

Jesher feels that their comprehensive IP protection strategy has not only helped to differentiate their brand, but it also lent credibility and assurance to government bodies and vendors in foreign markets.

A continued focus on sustainability

Today, Ya Kun Kaya Toast is present in eight countries across Asia — Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, China and Japan.

With 73 outlets locally and approximately 50 outlets overseas, it has indeed come a long way since its humble beginnings as a hawker stall.

Reflecting on the turning point that propelled Ya Kun Kaya Toast to its current success, Jesher acknowledges the blessings that have accompanied the journey.

jesher loi ya kun
Jesher Loi, third-generation owner of Ya Kun Kaya Toast / Image Credit: BizQ

The favourable timing of Ya Kun’s emergence in the F&B scene, when it was less crowded and still developing, played a crucial role. Jesher also credits his mother’s astute branding instincts, which were organic and relatable. By maintaining consistent colour schemes and fonts, Ya Kun resonated with people without the need for extravagant investments in branding agencies.

Above all, he attributes Ya Kun’s enduring success to the collective efforts of the team.

His long-term vision is for Ya Kun to become a mainstay in Singapore and a “place of attraction” in various cities overseas, but his immediate focus lies on day-to-day sustainability.

We are not hyper-growth people. We are not looking for cash injections to grow the company and we don’t take loans [to maintain stability]. We’re really about prudence, being analytical and methodical, and slowly grow. We just take things one step at a time.

– Jesher Loi, third-generation owner of Ya Kun Kaya Toast

Currently, Ya Kun is concentrating on growing its presence locally, with recent openings in Balestier, Bukit Timah Plaza, and Woodleigh. However, Jesher remains cognizant of the overseas market and is exploring opportunities to re-engage with international audiences.

Drawing inspiration from his family, Jesher shares valuable lessons from his father and grandfather. While his grandfather may be a man of few words, Jesher’s father instilled the importance of putting “people first”.

This philosophy encompasses taking care of employees and their families, offering more than second chances, and understanding the hardships faced when supporting a family without employment. For Jesher, these qualities of empathy, patience, and prioritising the well-being of others serve as guiding principles for him as he leads Ya Kun Kaya Toast into the future.

Featured Image Credit: City of Good / CapitaLand

Unlock the knowledge of
Asia's tech landscape

Subscribe to our premium content for just S$99.90 a year.

Monthly Package

S$9.90 / month
(or S$0.33 / day)

Gain access to all Vulcan Post Premium content for S$9.90 per month.

Annual Package

S$99.90 / year
(or S$0.27 / day)

Gain access to all Vulcan Post Premium content for S$99.90 per year.

or login to existing account 

Subscribe to our newsletter

Stay updated with Vulcan Post weekly curated news and updates.


Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)

Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)