Jesher Loi thought he had it all sorted out. Fresh out of the army in the early 2000s, he planned to take a gap year to study music abroad before returning to Singapore to read life sciences at the National University of Singapore.
But, during his year at The Master’s University in California, the violinist enjoyed his musical studies so much that he decided to enrol in its degree programme. It was then that his father Adrin Loi – executive chairman of the Ya Kun International chain of Singapore-style heritage coffee shops – told his only son there was a “good chance” that he would eventually have to join the family business.
So the younger Loi, now 35, brokered a compromise. “My grandfather Loi Ah Koon is the founder of Ya Kun, and I grew up seeing my dad work hard to build the business, so I felt a sense of gratitude and responsibility,” he says. “But I also have a passion for music, so the agreement was that if there are opportunities to be involved with music, I would have leeway to explore them.”
In 2010, armed with a bachelor’s in music and just one credit short of a business minor, Loi flew home to assume his position as the personal assistant to the chairman, his father. “My dad wanted me to be a PA so that I could attend meetings with him and learn.”
Now the director of branding and market development, Loi provides strategic directions for the brand, both locally and overseas. He was personally involved in the launch of Ya Kun in multiple foreign markets, including China, Dubai, Myanmar, South Korea and Japan. There are currently 73 Ya Kun outlets in Singapore, with another two scheduled to open soon. Overseas, it has 70 outlets.
A key focus has been modernising the brand while still upholding the heritage factor of its humble kopitiam origins. The secret is to make gradual changes, he tells us. For example, in some outlets where customers tend to linger over a conversation, traditional stools have been replaced by chairs with cushioned seats. And, while Ya Kun will always be synonymous with freshly brewed coffee and kaya toast with eggs, there have been popular additions to the menu, such as steamed bread and durian kaya toast.
Like most in the beleaguered food and beverage industry, Ya Kun experienced a drop in takings due to the pandemic. For Loi, these tough times have spurred him to double down on putting livelihoods and jobs first. “This issue is bigger than Ya Kun and what I can do is provide food to the needy and play my part in the economy by keeping the wheels turning for as many as possible,” he says. Almost all of Ya Kun’s outlets continued operating during Circuit Breaker, allowing him to keep workers employed. Locally, Ya Kun has a staff strength of about 400. The company also provided affected families with kaya toast, offered kitchen space to charitable initiatives, and supplied cooked food to migrant workers.
Through the years, true to the deal he struck, Loi has managed to make music a part of his life. In his free time, he conducts music-related co-curricular activities for various schools; he is also the music director for the River Valley High School String Ensemble.
And, more than ever, flying Singapore’s flag overseas is most significant to him. He says, “When we go overseas, people associate us with local heritage. My goal is to uphold that name and to build on that positive reputation for Singapore.”