The sweet aromatic scent of a freshly-baked Rotiboy bun will lure just about anyone walking past its shopfront.
With its crisp coffee exterior and moist buttery center, the bun has become a signature product for Rotiboy Bakeshoppe Sdn Bhd, so much so, the popularity of Rotiboy bun in Malaysia helped pave the way for the company’s overseas expansion.
“We even opened in Iraq, can you believe it?” says founder and managing director Hiro Tan. “The gentleman was so insistent to take the brand there. We couldn’t say no to him.”
I guess that’s why people call it a Mexican bun because when the coffee cream on the top melts down to the side, it looks like a sombrero.
Rotiboy Bakeshoppe was founded in Bukit Mertajam, Penang in 1998. It started as a neighbourhood bakery that baked fresh breads and loaves for three years until Tan decided to move the company to the Klang Valley, driven by a desire to expand the brand.
Rotiboy has since sold over half a billion buns across the world, from Malaysia, China, South Korea to Dubai and Saudi Arabia.
“Starting Rotiboy was without a doubt really tough in the beginning but my intention has always been to build and grow something,” says Tan, who had worked as an insurance agent, airline station manager and a tuition teacher; he even tried his luck at mushroom farming before starting Rotiboy. “It didn’t achieve much success but I learned some valuable lessons.”
Opening a bake shop turns out to be a natural choice for Tan; baking runs in the blood for the self-made entrepreneur who used to help his father knead, shape, steam and deliver ‘paos’ (buns) as part of the family’s business.
“I’ll wake up at five in the morning to go to school and be home by 1pm to help my parents stuff the ‘pao’. I did that until I was in Form Four, when I got my motorbike license to make deliveries instead.”
His siblings, meanwhile, had worked for Penang-based Eden Bakery, making bread and cakes. “I thought with their expertise, it was time to start something of our own. That’s when Rotiboy came into existence.”
Rotiboy is also known as the Mexican butter bun but with a slight tweak in the recipe. “In Mexico, the bun is filled with something savoury but my sister tweaked the recipe to have ours be filled with butter.”
“I guess that’s why people call it a Mexican bun because when the coffee cream on the top melts down to the side, it looks like a sombrero,” he says with a chuckle.
The big break for Tan and Rotiboy came around 2002. “Not a lot of people know this but we were once making RM60 sales a day. Then as God would have it, we managed to rent a space in Wisma Central.”
“We also decided to do two things; bake our buns on the spot and instead of using plastic bags, we use paper pouch because you can’t put the bun in a plastic bag if it is warm,” he explains.
The smell of delicious buns baking in a waft of creamy butter along Jalan Ampang drew customers in droves.
“People from Citibank, Public Bank and KLCC area started coming over. We then sold from 20 to 30, 60 and then hundreds of Rotiboy buns a day.”
“Back then we had a very small oven - a two-tier convection oven which could only bake 12 buns per 15 minutes. So, in one hour we could only make 48 buns - that’s how our infamous long queues started,” says Tan.
For those who’ve never had a Rotiboy, I can’t explain the taste. You have to kiss to know. You have to bite into it to understand
To illustrate how popular the bun was, in Thailand, they were sold at a price of 40 to 60 percent higher on the ‘black market’ when the bun was first introduced there. The shop even had to limit purchase to 10 buns per customer due to its popularity.
Rotiboy has since exited Thailand but Tan is looking to enter the market again. “My wife is going to lead that business there because she is Thai.”
In Malaysia, Rotiboy produces a complete range of products from breads, sandwiches, pastries, muffins, cakes, beverages to light meal. In South Korea, they have mini cafe's delivering buns, coffee and ice-cream. In Indonesia, there are specialty stores which only carry the signature product.
So, what exactly makes the signature bun so irresistible? Tan says the first bite of Rotiboy is like having one’s first kiss.
“For those who’ve never had a Rotiboy, I can’t explain the taste. You have to kiss to know. You have to bite into it to understand,” he says with a smile.
The Rotiboy brand has been in the business for 21 years, a notable feat in a fast-paced, cut-throat industry - a fact that keeps the 55-year-old on his toes.
“This industry is tough because I’ve seen people make a lot of money very fast and lose it all even faster.”
The biggest challenge, according to Tan, is to stay relevant. “How do we stay relevant to our customers in the context of the changing trends, consumption and purchasing behavior?”
“We now have online food delivery services like GrabFood, FoodPanda and others - they will certainly affect businesses."
"So are constantly innovating, coming up with new ideas and improve ways in doing things. But I also focus on integration; getting the entire team as ‘family’ to work together to achieve a great objective,” says Tan.
“I know I won’t be around forever to manage this company but I am looking to build a long-term legacy for the Rotiboy brand. I want this company to live on forever.”
Overseas expansion plans are on the cards for Rotiboy, says Tan. Apart from re-entering Thailand, the company is also in the midst of setting up in Oman.
“Growing is inevitable, because if we don’t grow, we would not be able to stay relevant to our customers. The only way is to keep moving forward.”
We feel that we’ve just scratched the surface - there’s still a long way to go, especially overseas
In Malaysia, he is focused on rolling out more stores. Kiosk-sized outlets at petrol and rail stations have been doing well, says Tan. “Over the past three years, we have embarked on quite a massive expansion phase. Across Malaysia, we have about 50 stores.”
“At the same time, we are looking to develop a cafe model, and if everything works out fine, you’ll probably see that first one of that kind outlet in i-City, Shah Alam.”
He is also not ruling out the possibility to take the company public. “This will enable us to get more resources to keep on growing the business,” he adds.
“We feel that we’ve just scratched the surface - there’s still a long way to go, especially overseas.”