With the rise of bakery chains like BreadTalk and Four Leaves, Jie Bakery remains one of the few traditional bakeries that make their loaves from scratch without preservatives.
From down the street, you can smell it. The yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread wafts out of the bakery and lingers in the air. We followed the scent into Jie Bakery & Confectionery, located along Upper Paya Lebar Road.
Further in the shop, you’ll see neat rows of downy loaves lining the cooling racks and a few bakers hard at work, rolling out and kneading the dough before popping them into a large gas oven that can bake up to 200 loaves each time. Traditional bakeries like Jie Bakery & Confectionery are a rare sight. Its old school signboard and well-worn interiors offer a glimpse of Singapore in the bygone days before modern technology made its mark on our lives.
Owner Jimmy Mah estimates that there are now less than five bakeries like his left in Singapore. “In the 1970s, there used to be more than 200 of such bakeries, but due to the long work hours and low profit margins, most of them have closed down,” he says. For the past 30 years, Mah and his team of bakers have been baking traditional white loaves from scratch. “I started out as an employee, baking breads for a bakery located close to this shop. I worked for my boss for a few years before he decided he wanted to sell off the business as it was not very profitable. I ended up taking over the business as I have a passion for baking.
I renamed the shop and moved to my current location,” Mah shares. Jie Bakery has a team of about five staff, most of whom have worked there for several years. “It’s not easy to find good workers who will want to work in this trade. The environment is hot and stuffy, and not everyone can take the long hours. My staff are all foreigners as Singaporeans prefer to work in a comfortable office with air conditioning,” Mah says.
All in a Day’s Work
The team at Jie Bakery starts work at about 6.30am daily, and Mah says that his day doesn’t end till past 10pm. Despite the gruelling hours, he perseveres as the job gives him great satisfaction.
“In the past we were easily making several thousands of dollars every month, but in recent years our sales have dropped, and we only make enough to cover our overheads. But I still keep the business going as I love seeing the smiles on my customers’ faces—it makes me very happy. We have a lot of regulars who tell us how much they love the taste of our breads, and encourage us to keep the business going. I cannot disappoint them,” Mr Mah says resolutely. Jie Bakery currently churns out over 800 loaves a day, with their signature bake being the traditional white loaf. The shop also sells other breads including brown sugar loaves, ‘rainbow swirls’ bread, sweet buns, hot dog buns and more.
While walk-in customers are plenty, his main business comprises regular clients from the food industry—Jie Bakery supplies loaves to coffee shops and other F&B outlets. So what is it about his breads that keep customers coming back for more? “Our breads are all additive-free, so they are very soft. The drawback is that you can’t keep them for more than three days as they will turn mouldy.”
To maintain the softness and unique texture of their breads, the team of bakers are required to carry out some of the processes manually, such as the mixing of ingredients and slicing of loaves once they are baked. And while it makes economic sense to mechanise processes like slicing, at Jie Bakery, the loaves are so soft that the slicer might end up ruining the shape of the loaf.
According to Mah, the best way to enjoy his soft, fluffy bread is to toast it over hot charcoal, then spread it with butter and sweet kaya. Beyond being an irresistible combination, these simple treats and familiar flavours bring back sweet memories for many locals, of morning breakfasts with their parents and grandparents.
A regular customer, Mr Alvin Lim, who has been buying bread from Jie Bakery for the past 10 years, waxes lyrical, “The soft, cottony texture of the white bread sold here is second to none. I also love coming here as it brings back childhood memories,” he says.
Stand the Test of Time
While many bakery chains like BreadTalk, Four Leaves and Prima Deli have mushroomed across the island in recent years, Mah remains convinced that his traditional style of baking has kept him in the business. Above all, he believes that there is still a demand for traditional breads.
“There are a lot of people who still appreciate traditional breads. Apart from regulars, I recently observed that more youngsters are starting to patronise our bakery too. It could be a trend of revisiting old-school bakeries, or maybe they just really love the taste of our breads.”
How about his plans for the future? Mah confesses that although he has no plans to retire soon, he is on the lookout for potential candidates to eventually take over the business from him.
“My children all have good jobs so they won’t be keen to take over my bakery. They have seen how hard I work, and for the amount of money our bakery makes, I doubt they would want to carry on my business. Till I find someone suitable, I will be here every day, doing what I have been doing for the past three decades,” Mah says.
This story was first published in Wine & Dine’s May/Jun 2018 issue, Future Foods as Heritage, ‘A Taste of Nostalgia’.