Malaysians from all walks of life bond over food at Kedai Kopi Otai in Johor

The humble kopitiam in Bandar Penawar serves local food catered to all races.

Founder of Kedai Kopi Otai, Hadibah Sharif (All photos: SooPhye)

After working for years at Petroliam Nasional Bhd as a project engineer, Hadibah Sharif chose to leave corporate life in 2015. “I decided to resign because I wanted to start a business and have my own brand. At the time though, I had yet to discover what kind of business I wanted to venture into. But I heard about the development of resorts in Desaru, Johor. So, I thought Bandar Penawar would be a good place to start as it was not far from the coastal area.”

Driven by support from family members to kick-start her entrepreneurial journey, Hadibah teamed up with her sisters Maslinda and Nadia to brainstorm ideas for their culinary adventure. “Maslinda, a doctor, has a great passion for food. Nadia, who looks after the operations of Kedai Kopi Otai,  was a food technologist at Wisma KFC in Kuala Lumpur but resigned following her husband’s relocation to Johor. I told them, let’s do something here. So, we went around Bandar Penawar looking for inspiration and thought a kopitiam would be the best idea.”

Apart from having a solid foundation on matters related to food, the sisters identified a lack of space in the area for people to hang out with each other over a cup of coffee. “There were restaurants, but there weren’t that many places where people could lepak.”


Hadibah teamed up with her sisters Maslinda and Nadia to brainstorm ideas for their culinary adventure

The humble kopitiam has had a long history in our country, dating back to the 1800s. The Hainanese migrants, who first arrived in then-Malaya, welcomed an opportunity to set up their own restaurants, or kopitiams. The term itself suggests inclusivity and multiculturalism: kopi means coffee in Malay and tiam, shop in Hokkien.

The family recognised that Bandar Penawar was packed with the working class of different races and they wanted to dedicate a space where everyone could come together and eat to their heart’s content.

Hadibah recalls, “When we designed the menu, we had the three main races in mind. We have a bit of Chinese food, the Indians can enjoy different kinds of curry and the Malays can have nasi ambeng, a communal dish originating from Java, Indonesia. Our menu is also pretty big, so customers have a lot of options to choose from.”


The famous nasi ambeng

When thinking about a concept for the eatery, established in June 2016, the family agreed on an old-school idea and that was how the name Kedai Kopi Otai came about. Otai is short for old-timer. Hadibah was very lucky to work with a contractor who translated her vision well. “He knew what I wanted and it was not really a struggle to design the shop. The concept is rather straightforward,” she says.

Upon entering the shop, you are drawn to antique and vintage pieces that you might have seen in a museum or a P Ramlee movie, such as a vintage red bicycle hanging on the wall — Hadibah’s personal favourite — and an old fan placed on a table in front of the huge signboard. Speaking of P Ramlee, be ready to be serenaded by the legend’s iconic songs such as Maafkan Kami and Malam Bulan Dipagar Bintang while you enjoy a plate or two of lempeng sambal or ubi rebus sira.

Another specialty at Kedai Kopi Otai is its roti bakar kaya butter. The family have their own mini bakery at the shop and the bread is now freshly baked every day, while the kaya, or coconut jam, is made daily. “My sister-in-law has a bakery but she lives in Segamat, which is far from here,” says Hadibah. “So I asked her for a special bread recipe. Still it was not easy. She had to try a number of times before she could give me bread with the taste and texture that I wanted. The kaya is made using a recipe we inherited from our mother.”


Singaporeans, who are also regulars at Kedai Kopi Otai, often order the nyonya laksa

The shop not only attracts locals, but also Singaporeans. “Their favourite dishes are laksa nyonya and mee kari. One person can eat more than one bowl and you can see them stacking the empty bowls, like people do at Boat Noodle.”

Customers from around the country will be able to have a taste of Kedai Kopi Otai’s delicious sambal as it will be sold online from next month or early next year. “We currently sell the frozen version, but we want more people to enjoy our products and are in the process of making paste that can be stored at room temperature.”


The storefront decked out with retro grilles and other nostalgic embellishments

Working with family members has its own set of challenges. In the beginning, they did not see eye to eye on certain issues. Some wanted to quit while others did not have enough faith in the business. But the obstacles have brought them closer, she says, and Kedai Kopi Otai has become a tourist attraction in Bandar Penawar.

Hadibah is especially fond of single mothers as she has witnessed her mother-in-law, who was awarded the Anugerah Ibu Tunggal Mithali in 2013, raise 11 children on her own after her husband died. She now employs single mothers to work with her. “We feel obliged to help the local community. I realise business is not just about making money, it is also about giving opportunities to others.”

This article first appeared on Nov 29, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.

Kedai Kopi Otai, 74, Jalan Kempas 2, Taman Desaru Utama. Call 017-700 8798. Closed on Saturday, 8-6pm. 


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