92-Year-Old Malaysian Coffee Shop Serving Chicken Chop
When I think of chicken chop, one of the few places that comes to my mind is Yut Kee.
It’s my favorite dish there, and arguably a great dish at an affordable price.
This Hainan cafe is without a doubt an all-time Malaysian favorite, but the fact that it has been operating since 1928 shocked me.
It only has 8 years left to reach a century of operations, something you don’t find every day in cafes.
Started with a first–Chinese immigrant
The store was started by Lee Tai Yik, a first generation immigrant from Hainan Island, China.
He is the late grandfather of the current owner, Mervyn Lee, who we interviewed for this story.
Before Yut Kee, Tai Yik had already been in Malaysia for a few years and worked as a cook for the Choo family, headed by Choo Kia Peng.
You may remember its name from Jalan Kia Peng Street which is around KLCC.
So even before Yut Kee, Tai Yik was the personal chef of a very influential businessman in Malaysia during the British occupation.
Tai Yik then opened Yut Kee on January 15, 1928 at 35, Jalan Dang Wangi 50100 Kuala Lumpur.
At the time, Tai Yik was running Yut Kee with his 3 wives.
He later died in 1947 when Mervyn’s father was only 3, but his legacy has survived.
Most of the food, including the chicken chop, has actually been here since the store opened in 1928.
At the time, they had more on the menu, but many of them were dropped because they lacked demand and just didn’t match the changing demographics of their customers.
Mervyn started helping at the age of 10, around 1989 at the time.
At the time, it was usually office staff, businessmen and local residents who frequented the place.
Until today, their cafe is still a lunch hotspot for the office crowd.
Families flock during the weekends, some of which have had 5 generations who have eaten at Yut Kee before.
In August 2014, Yut Kee moved her store to its current location in Jalan Kamunting.
Their owners wanted to reclaim the space for development, hence the turn.
Fortunately, Mervyn’s parents had already purchased this current premises before they moved for other purposes, but decided to move there later.
Getting hit by two financial crises and other challenges
Mervyn’s father took over from the late 1970s to 2003, when Mervyn entered full time.
Although Tai Yik had children from 3 wives, Mervyn’s father was the only son in the family, making it easy to choose the successor of the company.
Over the years since then, it has witnessed a steadily increasing trend in their income.
Today, Yut Kee earns around RM320K in sales only per month.
While their business has been doing remarkably well since 2003, things haven’t always been easy.
“There were years when growth stagnated or even declined, such as in 1988 during the financial crisis and again in 1995-97 when the Asian financial crisis occurred,” Mervyn said.
Even now, during the pandemic, their turnover has fallen to 20-30% of that figure.
It has since rebounded, but with the recent lockdown again, it is down 10-20% on average.
In the 17 years that Mervyn has taken over, he has had to adjust to changes in the workforce, the availability of raw materials and the business transition from his father’s way of doing it to his own. .
Prior to 1988, they had no problem hiring locals to work at Yut Kee, but that changed over the years as blue collar jobs like these weren’t so friendly to locals anymore.
“This has resulted in a shift to a migrant workforce which has persisted until today. The ever-changing policies on migrant labor continue to plague me every few years, ”he said.
Additionally, some customers had reported on the changes they made to their diet which they couldn’t help since the change in raw materials was something they had no control over.
“Milo’s makeup today and in the 1980s-90s has varied so much that the end product of the drink can taste so different. A tablespoon of Milo 30 years ago had a thicker concoction.
“Today, almost 3 tablespoons are needed to get this extra strong flavor. Our costs have increased to provide these to customers, without passing the cost on to them if possible, ”explained Mervyn.
As the business passed from father to son, Mervyn encountered problems with his father.
“My father was running a small operation at the time. Again, most of the things done at the time were not well organized resulting in a conflict of business approach between me and him.
However, Mervyn thinks he’s organized things better over the past 10 years, as they’ve been able to minimize over-stock and legwork.
Yut Kee can end up with Mervyn Lee
It’s not every day that you find legacy businesses like Yut Kee.
The other cafes I can think of are Ho Kow Kopitiam in Petaling Street and Nam Heong Ipoh, both of which have been operating for about 60 years now.
However, these cafes are not their direct competition, as Mervyn believes they have not affected their business at all.
Which makes sense, considering how niche the food and concept of Yut Kee is.
Mervyn also has no plans to franchise the business even though it would have generated more profits.
“I was not prepared to sacrifice the element of personal contact. As long as I can continue to perform it this way, I will do it until I am no longer able. “
Although their business has been going on for almost a century, Mervyn has little hope that it will continue for another century.
He feels this puts unnecessary pressure on the next generation, like his daughter.
While the business provided a comfortable life for his family, the sacrifices that came with it were also great.
“I don’t have the opportunity to spend a lot of time with my daughter. Over time, I changed the way I operate so that she doesn’t have to grow up without a father most of the time, like I experienced as a child, ”recalls Mervyn.
“She will make her own choices in life. If she’s going to take on YK’s ownership role in the coming time, that’s fine. But if she decides otherwise, that’s fine with me too.
- You can read more about Yut Kee here.
- You can read more F&B articles than we’ve written here.
Featured Image Credit: Mervyn Lee, Current Owner of Yut Kee
Our sincere thanks to