Salute to an O-utstanding brand
HE is a man who deserves to be saluted.
When Datuk Seri Choot Ching Khoon left Hainan Island for Penang in 1938, he never imagined he would build a ubiquitous coffee brand that is still going strong.
Ching Khoon, who turned 90 recently, decided to escape his homeland a year after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in China in 1937.
Through perseverance and sheer grit, Ching Khoon transformed Kun Kee Food Industries Sdn Bhd, the company he established in 1952, into a major producer of coffee powder products in Malaysia and overseas. The brand Salute Kopi O went on to become a raging success.
Besides coffee powder, Kun Kee is also now involved in property development, oil palm plantation and IT business.
“The war with Japan was slowly spreading to Hainan, a hotbed of anti-Japanese activities,” said his son Datuk Seri Choot Ewe Seng, 62.
“My father was 12 when he left in 1938, a year before the Japanese occupation of Hainan, which saw a third of the male population in Hainan killed by the Japanese.”
In Penang, Ching Khoon worked in a coffeeshop and subsequently at a coffee factory roasting coffee.
“His initial pay was RM3 per month and the working hours were from dawn to dusk, 18 hours per day,” said Ewe Seng, who is also Kun Kee’s managing director.
As a result of his hardworking ways, Ching Khoon was promoted to head coffee roaster and his salary was raised to RM30 per month.
“When his boss retired, my father took over the business, using whatever money he had saved since 1938 as capital to keep the company in operation,” Ewe Seng added.
“My father renamed the company Koon Kee Tea and Coffee Powder Factory in 1952. It was later changed to the current name.
“It was essentially a one-man show. He was the chief coffee roaster, marketing agent and distributor who also provided after-sales services.
“He rode his bicycle, which he bought for RM37 in 1947, from George Town to Balik Pulau and Air Itam carrying tins of coffee powder for sale and to attend to the needs of his customers.”
It was around the early 1950s that Ching Khoon formulated his own coffee powder recipe to create his own Kopi O, probably the most popular beverage of that period.
“The Salute brand Kopi O powder is made from Robusta coffee beans imported from Indonesia.
“Sugar, margarine, sesame seed and salt were added to give the coffee its special aroma and taste.
“The unique blend of ingredients was a hit among coffee drinkers in Malaysia and Singapore, making Salute a household brand name synonymous with Kopi O.
“In the late 1950s, my father set up a Kopi O factory in Kelantan to cater to the local market.
“The factory is still running today,” said Ewe Seng, adding that it was his father’s after-sales service that drove the business forward.
“My father allocated more time to be with customers, especially those who operated coffeeshops.
“Once they ran out of our coffee powder, my father would replenish their stock immediately lest they source elsewhere for supplies.
“In the 1980s, we branched into property development and investment, oil palm and rubber plantations and a computer company.”
In 2000, Ewe Seng said the company began exporting to South-East Asian countries and China.
“We have also come up with new products such as the three-in-one (coffee, sugar, and creamer), teh tarik and white coffee for the local and overseas market.
“We have also reduced the use of sugar in our recipe as people have become more health conscious.”
On why the saluting navy officer was chosen to be the logo for the Salute brandname, Ewe Seng said the picture was used for many successful cigarette brand names in the 1950s.
“Seeing how the logo helped popularise the cigarette brands then, my father adopted it and used the name Salute because the navy officer is saluting.”
In the 1980s, the Salute brand also became known as “Kopi Towkay” as the late philanthropist Tan Sri Loh Boon Siew frequently patronised two coffeeshops – one at Hutton Lane and the other at Pulau Tikus – which used the Salute brand.
“Other tycoons such as Tan Sri Robert Kuok also visited the Hutton Lane coffeeshop to buy our Salute brand Kopi O powder,” Ewe Seng said.
In recognition of Ching Khoon’s achievements, plans are afoot to set up a coffee museum by 2018 at Cheong Fatt Tze Road.