Entering the Tan Ek Tjoan bakery in Jalan Cikini Raya, Central Jakarta, is like stepping back in time, as the aroma of freshly baked bread and cakes fills the air. It is not the same sweet smell that comes from the open kitchen when one passes a modern bakery such as Bread Talk in a shopping mall.
It is a more savory fragrance that takes one back decades to when Tan Ek Tjoan’s bread was the town’s most famous, long before newer bakeries penetrated local markets.
First opening its doors in Bogor during the 1920s, the bakery was founded and owned by the late Tan Ek Tjoan, a Chinese-Indonesian entrepreneur. In 1958, Tan’s son, Kim Tamara, opened a second bakery on Jalan Cikini Raya. Both outlets have survived to this day.
“Now that Pak Kim has died, his Dutch wife Betty and their two children continue the business,” said Sinyoh, the manager of the Cikini bakery. “But none of Pak Kim’s family live in Jakarta. They all moved to the Netherlands after he died.
“Although Bu Betty only comes and looks at the shop three to four times a year, but I regularly report to her, even when she is in the Netherlands.”
Every day the Cikini bakery sees the production of more than a 25,000 loaves, cakes and sweet breads per year which are sold in front of the kitchen and on the streets of Greater Jakarta as far as the outskirts of Tangerang and Bekasi. The bread is transported using between 200 and 250 pedal-powered carts, Sinyoh said.
On weekdays, baking starts as early as 3 a.m. and usually finishes at around 9 a.m. or 10 a.m., though on Sundays the bakers only work from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. The sellers with carts come around midday everyday, except Saturday, to pay for the bread they took the day before and to pick up fresh loaves, Sinyoh said.
“We don’t make bread on Saturdays,” she explained. “It’s a day off for everyone in the kitchen.”
Sinyoh also said the volume of production depends on the time of year.
“We produce less than the normal daily 2,500 kilograms of goods during school holidays and Ramadan when customers don’t buy bread in the mornings like they do on other days,” she said.
Daily profit for the company is about Rp 4 million to Rp 5 million ($436 to $545) from the shop and around Rp 25 million from carts sales, Sinyoh said.
Among the 30 kinds of breads Tan Ek Tjoan bakes, two varieties have become icons for the bakery, she said. “[Customers] love our roti gambang and roti jagorawi .”
Roti gambang is a sweet brownish bread sprinkled with sesame seeds, while roti jagorawi is a chocolate and peanut filled bread.
Civil servant Nur Hilal said that he has been a Tan Ek Tjoan regular for years.
“I’ve come here for so long that I’ve known almost all the shop workers since before they were married,” the 39-year-old said.
Nur said although his current office is no longer close to the bakery, he still places orders for family celebrations.
“When I got married in 1992, I ordered roti buaya from here,” he said.
A pair of roti buaya, traditional crocodile-shaped bread, is required in most weddings of Jakarta-natives as a symbol of loyalty. A male crocodile mates with the same female for life and is very protective toward their eggs.
When she saw newer bakeries gaining success with new kinds of breads, Sinyoh suggested to the owner they bake similar products.
“So we made buns topped with shredded meat,” she said, “but it only lasted for two weeks because customers didn’t like it. They said it’s not classic and it’s definitely not Tan Ek Tjoan.”
So the company decided to stick to their own vintage creations.
One long time customer is Lili, 50, who first tasted the bread when she was 10.
“[The texture] is not as soft as modern breads sold in malls, but I know it is healthier,” she said. “My family prefers this, too.”
Sinyoh said the bakery only uses a small amount of preservative in the dough, which makes the texture of the bread more firm.
“That is also why our sweet breads only keep for a maximum of two to three days,” she said. “And chicken or minced meat-filled breads are no longer good the day after they are made.”
But while dense, firm bread is valued in some parts of the world, that’s not necessarily what draws customers to Tan Ek Tjoan.
“I admit that Bread Talk products taste better, but I prefer Tan Ek Tjoan’s which I’ve known since I was a child,” said 49-year-old Yuli, a regular customer.
“I think its the classical and nostalgic values that keep me coming back here.”
Tan Ek Tjoan
Jalan Cikini Raya No. 61, Menteng, Central Jakarta
Tel. 021 314 2570
Monday to Friday: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Saturday: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.