Bethnal Green’s Hong Kong and Malaysian bakery and dim sum cafe pop-up Ong Ong Buns has extended its stay in the area while co-owners Aaron and Icy Mo seek a long-term permanent home for their raved-about East and South East Asian sweet buns; curry puffs; and technicolour desserts.
With its initial lease running until 28 February, Aaron Mo has agreed an extension to the end of July with its landlord at 122 Bethnal Green Road, but says that the process has illuminated the difficulties of surviving as a new, small business with designs on growth.
After first opening in July 2021, Aaron Mo told Eater at the bakery in February, “there was a lot of organic spread on social media and word of mouth — the Chinese population started talking about us on Instagram, in Facebook groups, in group chats.” It spread on the strength of an offer that Mo likens to “the Hong Kong version of Greggs — somewhere you can grab a bite on the way to and from somewhere, or just in a busy area. And the Malaysian stuff — the kuihs, the curry puffs — was a response to the area. We saw there were many vegan customers, so the kuihs filled out our vegan offer.”
This iterative testing and research is a cornerstone of the Mos’ approach to building out Ong Ong Buns. And it’s hardly a surprise: Aaron’s background is in policy research. “We had a few very intense months of test and learn ... Learn not to be too defensive, but also sometimes to push back.” Over those months, Aaron and Icy Mo, together with Aaron’s mother Yuk Ying, have been wowing locals and the city at large with Hong Kong and Malaysian bakes: 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.
Those intensive few months have brought outstanding bakes, a captive audience, and a reputation for hilariously straightforward copy on its delivery channels. But they’ve also brought real struggle for the Mos, as they attempt to translate those things into security for their business in an environment — both local and financial — that has so far ranged from awkward to actively inhospitable. Despite having been one of several London bakery businesses to grow under COVID-19 conditions, Mo is now concerned that “without a new site to move into, we will lose all the momentum.”
“Shoreditch and this area, landlords like to pretend they are ‘for independent businesses’ ... And I noticed especially in November / December 2021 (when the Omicron variant of COVID-19 forced many restaurants to temporarily close despite no government mandate to do so) that that fairytale was out of the window. There were queues at all the chains in the area, while I was looking pleadingly at people from inside hoping they would come in. It was bleak,” Mo said.
“For example, looking at Truman Brewery [...] (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,” Mo added. “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.”
Some of the difficulties are those familiar to many new businesses: convincing financial powers to take a chance on a vision, and not charge so much that realising it will be prohibitive. The pop-up in Bethnal Green — whose landlord Mo lauds as incredibly supportive — has become a shop window for the future as much as a hub for the present. But when it came to negotiating a new site close by, they only had six months’s trading to go on. The landlord wanted to see revenue, just when that revenue had been decimated by Omicron at the end of 2021. Then the landlord wanted a commercial guarantor. “Investors want a confirmed location; locations want a confirmed investor. But they’re still talking to us, even after I’ve said all these things are currently impossible,” Mo said.
Still, he remains optimistic that the rising popularity of Icy and Yuk Ying’s baking and customer goodwill can convince someone to back Ong Ong Bun. Mo, who was brought up in Ealing, is convinced that it — and the baking traditions it deals in — can become a key part of London’s bakery fabric. “I always bought baked goods in Chinatown growing up with my family, as a treat for myself, and it’s the kind of grab-and-go baked goods that Britain seems to love. I think it has the potential.”
Midway through conversation, the first customer of the day arrives and verifies nearly all of the points Mo has made. “I heard about you on social media, and thought I had to try..,” before ordering a barbecue pork bun and enquiring about the technicolour softness of the kuih lapis. “I’ll try one of those too,” she said. As he boxed up the order, he explained the precarious position and how they may soon have to vacate the site. The customer understood: Her dad had a takeaway thirty years ago, she says; she know how hard it was to raise funds to develop the bare bones. It’s still an uncertain future for Mo: “Nothing’s finalised ... We’ll have to wait and see.” The customer leaves, the door clacks. The day goes on.
Now, Ong Ong Buns has at least a few days more.