A Chinese and Malaysian bakery on the rise has been forced into crowdfunding for survival, after an investor abruptly pulled out of its growth plans. Ong Ong Buns, co-founded by Aaron and Icy Mo and Aaron’s mother Yuk Ying, had sites in Bethnal Green and Seven Dials Market, but is now on the verge of going out of business without further funding.
The Mos secured the Covent Garden unit on the back of a financial injection from investor Terry Lin on 29 March — though one that at that time was only secured by a verbal agreement. The initial investment was £20,000 for April to June, to be followed by a further £35,000 in July, which allowed the Mos to hire new bakers and buy new equipment, in order to fulfil the new scope of orders required by operating two sites. Lin declined to comment on the investment and its particulars.
Aaron says that on 29 April Lin informed him that he would be pulling out, having previously asked him to sacrifice his own salary, as well as that of Icy and his mother. At that point, he says, around £13,000 of the initial £20,000 investment had been spent, which was predicated on Lin having a 50 percent stake in the business.
“He said I need to tell our landlord (at the Bethnal Green site) that we would be stopping trading. He later said that it was because they wanted to talk about the future, but the initial message did not read that way,” Aaron said.
The shortfall forced Ong Ong Buns to lose perishable stock, lay off bakers just two weeks into their contracts, and abruptly close both locations. The loss has cost them at least £30,000 for which they are raising money, a figure that will only rise as time passes without further investment — despite things having been going well.
“The investor was very hands-on, which I needed, and I was confident that they would support our growth.” But no longer having the money has left the family in a precarious position, with all of them no longer receiving salaries having committed to one business. As a result both Aaron and Icy have sought new employment temporarily. Meanwhile, the experience of being fired at two weeks’ notice has understandably left staff — particularly experienced Cantonese and Hong Kong bakers — unwilling to return when Ong Ong reopens. With no staff to work at either unit, the business is on an abruptly imposed hiatus.
The news is a sudden reversal of Ong Ong Buns’s swift success, built on the back of Hong Kong and Malaysian bakes and desserts: kuihs lapis and talam; curry puffs; and its eponymous “ong ong nom,” which mashes up a bo lo bao and a gai mei bao to entrancing effect, heady with coconut and rich with custard. But Aaron has maintained a wary stoicism about the challenges of investment and who gets it in the London restaurant world, both in general — “investors want a confirmed location; locations want a confirmed investor” — and in his own business’s specific offers for expansion:
For example, looking at Truman Brewery [in Shoreditch, near Ong Ong Buns’s first site] (whose redevelopment is set to bulldoze the Bengali communities that have called the area home since the start of the 20th century) ... Public policy says it wants to help existing businesses by getting units in the new development for ‘small businesses’ that turn under £1 million a year and employ under 50 people.
You compare those parameters to a business like us [...] That’s a crazy range and you know who they’re going to pick [...] They’re going to pick businesses like us in five years time, if we hit all of our objectives. And this is what I find a lot when looking for a new place: we’ve built up a good reputation, and yet we still find it really difficult.
Aaron says both the landlord in Bethnal Green and Kerb have offered Ong Ong Buns respite for the coming months, giving chance to pull money together via the crowdfund and time to approach other investors. “The good thing that’s come from this is that people who care are coming to us. It’s not just the possible new investors — it’s the messages of support that mean a lot.”