Embracing the Baba Nyonya or Peranakan heritage, Old Time Kopitiam is full of rich tapestry of traditions, making it one of the frequented coffee shops in Brunei.
As you enter the compound nestled along Jalan Gadong in Menglait, the distinctive blue hue stands out from its neighbours; a workshop, barbershop, boutique, tailor and restaurant.
What makes it unique is the story behind its decoration, menu and overall ambiance.
Its managing director and owner, Lim Yu San told The Bruneian how it all came about.
The beginning of everything
Being stuck at an office job just wasn’t cutting it anymore for Lim, who has been in the telecommunications industry for more than two decades.
Needing a fresh start, he left his corporate job ten years ago and decided to venture into the food business mainly due to his love for food and travel.
“Whenever I travel, I always try out really good local delicacies and have always thought of bringing it all back to Brunei.”
After much consideration and planning, Old Time Kopitiam was born serving the best of Nyonya dishes as well as pastries.
Rough start, fruitful journey
The first few months yielded undesirable results for the coffee shop owner with hardly any customers.
But instead of waiting for customers to come, Lim used his connections to offer catering services to private events.
“Even though I was worried, it wasn’t going to help. After networking and scoring multiple catering events, news about the restaurant spread and it was the beginning of a fruitful journey,” he said.
The shop’s popularity began to grow following his efforts through word of mouth recommendations and the eatery began to fill up regularly with customers to the point that people queued for seats.
“It was great to see people start coming in and eventually becoming my regular customers,” said Lim feeling content.
As sales started to increase, he decided to renovate the restaurant in 2015 with a fresh new look and theme – Baba Nyonya style.
Tribute to his family
Prior to the renovation, Lim already had the theme in mind as several decorations were found around the small restaurant.
After the expansion, he acquired more Baba Nyonya collectibles from Melaka, Penang, Singapore, Myanmar and Thailand that includes old-school porcelains, Chinese Parasol Umbrellas, tiffin boxes, trinkets and batik displays.
The menu and staff uniforms were also assimilated to fit the theme – giving the restaurant a full-on Baba Nyonya aesthetic.
“I chose to deck the shop with the theme to pay homage to my grandmother who was a Peranakan,” he told The Bruneian, as he reminisced fond memories with his grandmother.
“That was the main reason why I wanted to call the shop Old Time Kopitiam; to instill nostalgia and preserve the Baba Nyonya cultural heritage.”
Lim said diners frequently inquire about the decorations and wonder if the items are for sale.
“Some of the items are indeed for sale – I usually tell people to contact me if they are interested in purchasing anything.”
“It’s nice to see people being curious about the pieces – which make for good conversation starters and in turn, brings awareness to the culture,” shared Lim.
Food of Two Cultures
The charming eatery boasts an impressive menu of Nyonya dishes to suit every palate from Nasi Lemak to Sarawak Laksa, Fried Kuey Tiaw and Bittergourd Beehoon.
The flavours were brought back from his travels around Malaysia with some customisations to fit the local taste bud.
“It took a lot of trial and error. Whichever was liked, we kept and what wasn’t, we either scrapped or improved,” said Lim, adding that he also brought in food consultants from Singapore and Malaysia to try the food.
“A few times in a year, I bring my cook for training overseas to gain new skills and enhance his expertise,” said the restaurant owner.
He believes constant improvements are needed to provide customers with the best choices of Nyonya dishes.
“After several changes here and there, we finally have a permanent menu with various sections such as popular favourites to make it easier for people to choose what to eat.”
“I hope everyone will enjoy our dishes – some of which were recipes passed down from my mother.”
Other sought-after dishes include Asam Laksa, Penang Kuey Tiaw, Pie Tee and Beehoon Kampung.
Those looking for afternoon tea delights can try the flavoured buns such as peanut butter, buttermilk, red bean and chicken and Nyonya cakes like Seri Muka, Kueh Talam, Kueh Ubi Manis, Pulut Panggang and Butter cake.
Customers who frequent the café also savour pastries such as curry puffs, chicken pies and egg tarts, among others.
Lim added that the kopitiam is currently working on creating an extensive Nyonya kueh and pastry menu for people to enjoy.
Thriving to deliver
The coffee shop owner acknowledged the risks of starting a business from scratch.
“Despite this, I knew I had to give it a try especially since I learned so much (about running a business) from my previous employees and my strong love for food.”
“The beginning might have been rough, but I gave myself two years and with patience and perseverance, the shop is finally how it is today.”
Lim encourages those eager to start a business to work hard and be patient.
“Use your connections, talk to experienced people, enroll in related courses and most importantly, don’t give up. Keep growing and gaining knowledge.”
He hopes people would feel like home the moment they step into Old Time Kopitiam restaurant and look forward to a charming dining experience.