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Published: Friday February 22, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday April 20, 2013 MYT 3:41:18 PM

Gambian baker introduces bagel production to Malaysia

SULAYMAN Cham is trying to build a business model out of offering Malaysians a healthier food alternatinve.

When asked what bread product is shaped like a wheel, goes well with coffee and is the breakfast of choice for millions of Americans, most people would answer “doughnuts”.

But Sulayman, a baker, is trying to move Malaysian mindsets to bagels, a healthier alternative bread that is boiled then baked and no oil or frying is required.

While the doughnut doppelgänger has been available here for some years now in supermarkets and cafes, including San Francisco Coffee and the Bagel N’ Coffee Station, Sulayman says Cham’s Bagel Bakery is the first and only bakery in town to make fresh bagels from scratch.

“Most of the places I’ve seen here (in the Klang Valley) seem to serve the same imported frozen bagels. Sure, you can keep a bagel indefinitely if it’s frozen in an airtight container, but nothing beats a fresh bagel,” said the 44-year-old.

“When starting the bakery, I thought I could depend on the student population in SS15, Subang Jaya, near the campus of Taylor’s University, but that market is too seasonal,” Sulayman said.

As word of mouth spread, customers beyond Subang started pouring in, lured by the promise of fresh bagels.

“Most of my regular customers are those who have travelled abroad and know what a bagel is, usually older people with families that buy dozens, unlike walk-ins who usually go for a bagel sandwich,” he said.

Sulayman, a native of Gambia, West Africa, is no stranger to travel. He migrated to New York in 1989, where a friend helped him get a job at a bagel bakery.

“That was the plan, but it turned out the bakery had no vacancies so I ended up working in a food court. One day, the owner of the bagel shop saw me working, saw that I was fast and good with my hands, and ended up hiring me,” Sulayman recalled with a laugh.

“It was hot, hard work then and it still is now. You’re boiling and baking bread in an oven in a kitchen, of course it’s going to be hot,” said the simply dressed baker.

That marked the start of Sulayman’s 20-year career making New York-style bagels. What defines the New York bagel is how it is made with salt and malt, and boiled in water prior to baking in an oven, resulting in the bread’s denseness.

Because of their similarity to doughnuts, but with a much tougher, chewier texture, bagels are sometimes jokingly referred to as “doughnuts with rigor mortis”.

Sulayman went on to work in several more bagel bakeries. In one of these, he met Dennis Alloy, his one-time boss and now his partner in the Malaysian venture.

Sulayman described his move to Malaysia as a combination of chance and opportunity.

In 2005, he hung up his apron and travelled home to Gambia. However, a friend talked him out of retirement, again with an offer of making bagels, this time in New Zealand. On his way to New Zealand, Sulayman stayed in Malaysia while waiting for his immigration paperwork to clear.

“I was in Malaysia in 2008, and coming back to the country six years later, I was surprised to hear there still wasn’t anyone making bagels here,” he said.

When legal issues stopped him from starting a business in New Zealand, he took it as a sign to introduce bagels here with partner Alloy.

Sulayman theorises that the lack of a familiar market stopped other brands from setting up a local production line.

He notes that dense, savoury bagels are a far cry from the light fluffy breads or heavy, sweet cakes available at local bakers.

A baker with two decades of experience in the bagel business, Sulayman said the US$60,000 to US$70,000 (RM185,000 to RM216,000) cost of setting up a bagel production line is a questionable investment, considering the local market could take years to develop. In the meantime, large scale production would actually lose money.

He said while there are independent bagel bakeries in America, even those were expected to produce thousands of bagels a day to a very hungry, mature market.

The American Institute of Baking says the country’s top 10 suppliers recorded US$626.9mil (RM1.95bil) in sales of fresh bagels last year, up from US$618 in 2011,

Sulayman says he has developed a way to scale down the production system to a point it can be run by a single person and cut initial costs by half, using equipment readily available in Malaysia.

“The American way requires mass production, while this is more suitable for a growing market. That said, this method has no drawbacks; it’s smaller and more streamlined,” explained Sulayman.

In addition to bagels, he also roasts the chicken and beef used in the sandwiches, on site.

Sulayman estimates that his production line can easily put out about 1,000 bagels a day, or even double that if necessary.

“When I had a promotion with Groupon (a group-buying website), I got around 10,000 orders in the span of a week,” he said, adding that though the promo attracted many curious new customers, it led to few repeat customers.

While rather secretive about the workings of his production line, letting this writer see it on condition of secrecy, Sulayman declares that he would be willing to sell the shop and its concept lock stock and barrel for the right price.

“Though the bagel and I may not be Malaysian, the fact that I developed the method here makes me feel it belongs here, so I ought to do my best to get it known here,” he said, beaming with pride.

Sulayman notes that there had been some misconceptions about bagels among local customers, who assume the bread is African because he is. He clarified that bagels are actually an East-European recipe, while his are the modernised American version.

“Bagels are a lot healthier than many local breads; there’s no butter or frying in the making. Eating bagels makes you healthy, cooking bagels makes you Bruce Lee,” joked the wiry, muscular baker.

Sulayman says that he has about 30 bagel recipes, and makes about 15 varieties per day. While he currently sticks to classic variations such as plain, poppy, garlic, everything-seed and apple cinnamon, he is also considering branching into local flavours like kaya and sambal.

“The popular flavours are cheese, cheese-chocolate, onion and garlic. Garlic is quite pungent so I wasn’t sure if Malaysians would like it, but I was pleasantly surprised that they do,” he says.

Sulayman admits that he has not done much marketing so far, depending mostly on word of mouth and media coverage.

As luck would have it, some of his customers included cafe owners who were eager to add Sulayman’s offerings to their line-up.

Some of the cafes now offering bagels include Espresso Lab and Momentum Cafe.

While not massive chains like San Francisco Coffee or Starbucks, these local cafes each have steadily opened new locations, and with their growth, rides Sulayman’s fortunes.

“Wholesale orders now make up about 20% of my bagel sales. That’s how the bakeries I used to work in used to hit 10,000 orders a day,” said Sulayman, who predicts wholesale orders will soon overtake his retail sales that have started to plateau since the store’s opening in May 2011. He currently sells an average of 5,000 bagels a month.

After comparing the prices set by other local bakeries, Sulayman has also increased the price of his bagels from RM1.50 to RM2.50 a piece.

“I am optimistic that I’m going in the right direction with more wholesale orders, plus there’s still no direct competition,” he said, adding that he would consider moving to a location with cheaper rent if wholesale orders overtake retail sales, negating the need for a prime location.

In the meantime, he prefers to maintain the bakery in Subang Jaya as his regular customers are familiar with it.

“I get first-time customers asking ‘can you survive here?’ and they come back months laters saying ‘thank god you’re still here’,” laughed Sulayman, saying he feels the same way sometimes.

For now, it looks like Sulayman may yet reach his goal of making bagels a Malaysian essential.

Tags / Keywords: Community, News, Business, Bagel, Subang Jaya


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