Kneading Out Killer Business
Is baking only for dropouts? Taking part in international competitions, pursuing apprenticeships abroad and prizing innovation, Taiwan's new generation of bread makers is putting creativity to work.
Kneading Out Killer BusinessBy Ming-Ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 503 )
"The liquid fermentation process is a very traditional Japanese method for making dough," says Japanese master baker Tomohiro Nogami, deftly slicing through the dough with a few knife strokes as he speaks, preparing to make braided raisin bread. From behind the podium, oven times periodically sound as the aroma of hot goodies wafts through the air.
In front of the podium, more than 90 students sit at rapt attention, with their heads buried in notebooks, furiously scribbling or recording the proceedings on camera.
"There's really a strong desire to learn among bakers now," observes Nogami, who is a frequent paid lecturer at such teaching events.
Nogami arrived in Taiwan 21 years ago as the Japanese bakery chain Boulangerie Donq Francaise expanded its market here. When he struck out on his own and opened Boulangerie Nogami in 2000, his bread would simply fly off the shelves, and he'd be forced to temporarily shut his shop doors, opening and closing periodically throughout the day.
Last year, he led a team of Taiwanese bakers to a bronze medal at the Bakery World Cup in Paris.
Over the past few years Nogami has discovered an increasing number of master bakers and hobbyists in Taiwan. No longer is baking considered a skill to be learned by those who can't hack it in academics.
Another venue wafting similarly delicious aromas of baked goods is the China Grain Products Research and Development Institute in New Taipei City's Bali District.
During a special four-day course, the guest lecturer was the dean of the Japan School of Pastry and Confection. In attendance were professors of food and beverage departments of local universities, teppanyaki chefs feeling the heat in an increasingly saturated market and looking to learn a new skill, and Taiwanese businessmen back from China and looking for a fresh start.
"As I see it, it (bread making) should have some possibilities in China," says You Ken-hsing, who spent 20 years in the shoe manufacturing business in China.
NT$23.9 Billion Output Value
Bread has become Taiwan's hottest business over the past few years.
It started with Wu Pao-chun taking top honors for bread at the 2008 Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris. It accelerated as Taiwan's 85°C swept China, catching the eye of venture capitalists, upon which the company triumphantly returned to Taiwan to launch an initial public offering at the end of 2010. And Top Pot Bakery, established just a year ago has now expanded to eight outlets, each packed to the rafters, and there are rumors of a serious injection of heavyweight investment capital in the fledgling operation.
Wave upon wave, Taiwan is being inundated by a chorus of rising voices singing the praises of its bakery business.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the output value for business in the "baked and steamed foods manufacturing sector" reached around NT$23.9 billion last year, around three times the revenue generated by Wowprime Group, the leader in Taiwan's food and beverage sector.
"Baking is fashionable right now," observes Huang Lijuan, marketing manager for Tanhou Foods, with more and more people talking about bread, seeking out bakeries, and savoring and critiquing their produce.
Customers Picky, Keen on DIY
In Taiwan, baking now comprises a mature sector, having undergone both quantitative and, more importantly, qualitative change.
Hsieh Cheng-yi, the 36 year-old lead chef at Tanhou Foods' Baked Goods Division, has been making bread for 13 years. Recently, he has found himself out from behind the counter fielding questions from consumers.
Questions he often hears include: How is your flour milled? And how is it leavened? Sometimes people even bring in their own homemade bread and ask him why it's no good. He has begun to offer lectures on baking, and each session is packed.
"Customers understand enough to be picky and know enough to demand quality," he says. The pressure on aspiring bakers is much higher these days. "[People] are increasingly particular about the flour and other ingredients and more cognizant of the basic methodology."
In this mature market, supply houses are now also willing to bring in new ingredients and open new facilities.
For instance, La Terre Boulangerie near the Renai roundabout in Taipei was opened a year ago by Food Fashion Co., Ltd., a raw materials importer.
Food Fashion started out as a dairy goods supplier. Three or four years ago, looking to expand on its dairy goods line, it began importing ovens, followed by imports of flour about a year ago.
The Japanese-made Tsuji-Kikai ovens used at La Terre Boulangerie are unlike any ordinary oven. The cooking chamber is lined with stone slabs for even heat distribution and each unit costs upward of NT$5 million. And each 25-kg sack of organic flour they import from France would set you back NT$3,000-NT$4,000, around five or six times the price of flours traditionally used in Taiwan.
"More than just making bread, we hope we can convey basic knowledge," says Food Fashion vice president Chih-Hao Chu.
A veteran of the IT business formerly involved in fiber optic communications, five years ago Chu got into raw materials importation. The most interesting part about the food and baking business is that it doesn't have the protocols associated with the technology business and is full of unlimited possibilities, Chu says.
The New Face of Entrepreneurship
There has now emerged a finer distinction in the character of the retail outlets in the marketplace. The faces of today's entrepreneurs are unlike those of the past.
They are different from those bakers in the past who rose up from apprenticeship after graduating from school. Many start-ups are founded by veterans of international competitions who have often done work-study abroad and are bent on local innovation. These are people who start businesses upon graduation in pursuit of an ideal.
"Taiwan lacks the materials and lacks the equipment, but we have the knowledge and the skills," says Shin Lu, president of the China Grain Products Research and Development Institute.
Boulangerie Shakespeare & Co. in Kaohsiung is a prime example.
Its lead baker, 25 year-old Wang Peng-chieh, was originally involved in gang activity in Jhanghua. After seeing a friend beaten to death before his eyes as part of a vendetta, he decided to leave gang life behind. He enrolled in National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism and discovered a love of baking.
He took part in competitions and traveled abroad, gaining new experiences, refining his tastes and acquiring an innovative new outlook. He discovered that German black rye bread, although acidic, was a delightful accompaniment to seafood, reducing the feeling of greasiness in the mouth.
Two years ago, he and fellow student Wu Tzu-ching each took out a loan for NT$2.5 million, and opened a bakery. A stampede has ensued, particularly each afternoon when their "beehive loaves" come out of the oven. All 150 loaves are inevitably sold out within a half hour.
The two entrepreneurs are sticklers about raw ingredients and innovation. They've taste-tested various Japanese and French flours and experimented with making northern Italian slipper bread with dried guava grown and processed in nearby Yanchao, as well as "beehive loaves" made with honey from Siaogangshan in Kaohsiung.
Their meticulous application of ingredients and manpower has meant that their profit margin is only one-third that of a conventional bakery. Wang, however, remains unmoved.
"Making bread is simple. This is about being true to yourself," he says. His dream is to spread the gospel of true European-style bread.
From talent and ingredients to market and investment capital, Taiwan's bread craze has only just begun.
As Tomohiro Nogami sees it, there's still room in the Taiwan market, and there's plenty of world-class bread that has yet to arrive here.
"Taiwan's bread market will definitely keep getting bigger and bigger," says Nogami, laughing with self-assurance.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy