From $100 in his pocket to a sprawling bun empire
Now they're really baking ... Breadtop founders Simon and Kenneth Ip. Photo: Wayne Taylor
When Simon Ip arrived in Australia 20 years ago as a pastry chef from Hong Kong, all he had was $100 in his pocket and a French certificate in patisserie. Two decades later, he and his brother Kenneth are running a sprawling bun empire across Australia, posting $50 million in sales last year.
The duo opened their first Breadtop bakery in Box Hill in 2002 and have since opened 60 stores - most of them franchises - across the country. However, it hasn't always been plain sailing.
When they opened their first cafe in Swanston Street in 1994, they were losing money for months and Simon Ip had to get his waitresses to go home early so he could clean the floor and the toilet himself to save money.
A bank refused his application for a $10,000 business loan. Every family member had to reach deep into their pockets to help out. Ip's sister mortgaged her house for 10 years to raise enough funds for her brothers.
"We only had $400 in takings on the first day and had to throw out several garbage bags of bread," says Ip. "We didn't know anything about marketing and had very little business experience."
Ip's wife Julie Ho says: " When they ordered 45 trays of cakes from us, we thought it was a mistake and had to call back to confirm the order. Simon didn't sleep for 36 hours and he had to call his pastry chef friends to help out after work."
Their marathon baking sessions earned them the continued business of Crown Casino and turned their struggling business into a flourishing venture. They opened four more cafes before Breadtop began.
The brothers' bakeries largely cater for Australia's large and growing Asian communities with their offerings of red bean, green tea cakes and pork buns. However, Danish pastries, black forest cakes, and croissants are also becoming part of the staple menu.
"A lot of people think Breadtop is an Asian bakery, but we can do a lot of other things like croissants and Danish," says Simon Ip. "In the past, we outsourced that to other bakeries, but we were not happy with their quality. Now, our own croissants are better than others.
"We want to change our image as an Asian bakery. Depending on locations, we have a lot of local shoppers of non-Asian background. For example, 95 per cent of our clients in Canberra are non-Asian and we have expanded into regional Australia as well."
The Ip brothers attribute their success to emphasis on quality and hygiene. Says Kenneth Ip: " We have built laboratories attached to our factories to test for bacteria levels and nutritional value. We even imported Japanese flour for some of our cakes because of their low protein level."
Simon Ip started his lifelong love affair with pastry in Hong Kong when he was 15. He was trained in Hong Kong, Japan and France, where he attended the renowned training school Ecole Nationale Superieure de la Patisserie, Confiserie, Glacerie, Chocolaterie in Lyon.
The brothers are expecting a tough time ahead after breakneck expansion in the past two years.
"This year is very tough and it will get tougher after July 1, when the carbon tax comes on board. It will impact on small businesses and shoppers," says Kenneth Ip.
"With electricity prices going up, fuel prices going up, we have just installed a solar system at our new Brisbane factory to compensate for the rising costs."
The brothers also harbour bigger ambitions, including expansion of their franchise overseas. Kenneth said Breadtop had already registered their trademark in Vietnam and was doing the same in the United States and New Zealand.