Thai Day: Oh boy, oh boy

Oh boy, oh boy (ThaiDay, 09/03/06)
The most interesting aspect of my experience at Rotiboy didn’t actually involve eating, but rather, waiting in line. For those of you who don’t know, Rotiboy is a Malaysian bread chain that recently opened two outlets in Bangkok to enormous acclaim. I’m not sure how word spreads here, and didn’t realize that bread was so popular among Thais, but Rotiboy somehow became an instant hit, and initially, waits of 1-2 hours for the chain’s famous coffee-flavored buns were not uncommon.

Rotiboy (“one is never enough… buns to die for!”) began in 1998 as a neighborhood bakery in Penang, Malaysia. Sales of it’s curiously named Mexican bun (now even more curiously branded as the Rotiboy) quickly soared, and after opening its first domestic outlet in 2002, Rotiboy can now be found Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and as of December 2005, Bangkok. The Bangkok branch sells exactly one product, the aforementioned Rotiboy (25 baht), a largish, rather unattractive, coffee flavored bun, and sells it very well (a recent call to Rotiboy

Bangkok to inquire about many buns were sold each day elicited a cold “I’m sorry we cannot reveal this information” from the store’s manager). With excellent international chains such as Le Notre, and up-and-coming domestic bakers such as Visage now making pastries of a very high level available in Bangkok, I find it strange that a largely obscure establishment selling a single product at a relatively high price could generate so much attention. And so, in the interests of investigative journalism, I decided to brave the buzz (and the lines) and taste the bun.

To truly take part in the Rotiboy experience, I decided that I needed to visit the Silom branch of the franchise during its busiest peak, the afternoon rush hour, and do what everybody else buying Rotiboy buns must do: wait. Arriving at 4:38 on a Monday afternoon I was disappointed to learn that things have apparently slowed down a bit in recent weeks. Although an hour’s wait is still the norm, and supplies are still being rationed (a sign behind the counter
reads: “Each customer may purchase no more than 10 buns. We apologize for any inconvenience.”), the only indication that things might possibly get out of control were a few traffic cones to direct the crowds. I stepped into the tail end of a very long and civil line (why can’t people queue like this at ATMs or hospitals?) and began my wait.

After several minutes of waiting, I turned to the woman behind me and asked, “Is the line like this every day?”
“Wow, you can speak Thai,” was her reply, ignoring my question.
“So, don’t you think this is a rather long line?” I attempted again.
“Where did you learn Thai?” she replied. Apparently waiting an hour in line to buy buns was not a particularly unusual experience for this woman, and there were more interesting things to talk about. We continued to inch forward at a tedious rate, which was made somewhat more pleasant (or unbearable?) by the rich scent of coffee wafting out of the bakery. Although I was

initially skeptical about Rotiboy, waiting in line for 20 minutes had actually sharpened my desire to get that bun, and I was already reconsidering how many I wanted to buy. Making customers wait suddenly seemed like a extremely shrewd marketing technique.

Upon finally reaching the counter (time: 5:18) I purchased my solitary Rotiboy (employee: “Only one?”), ran under the BTS escalator, and immediately tore into it. The verdict? Well, it was quite good, actually. Despite my normally high journalistic morals, I was prepared to dislike Rotiboy from the start, seeing it as yet another hyped-up product, but was pleasantly surprised. Less bun-like than it appears, the Rotiboy is actually very similar in taste and texture to an American-style buttermilk pancake. The shell was satisfyingly crispy, and the soft interior was laced with a generous aroma (rather than taste) of coffee and a layer of melted butter. I wolfed down my prize, looked back on the line that had now grown even longer, and reflected on my Rotiboy experience. Was it really worth the wait? Honestly, I would love to write more on this, but unfortunately I need to get in line for my next bun. Sorry.

Rotiboy Bakeshoppe
189 Silom Road
02 632 0897

For those interested in trying the bun, but not willing to brave the lines, there are now several Rotiboy alternatives available in Bangkok. Most of these revolve around Siam Square, home to a popular branch of Rotiboy, and a virtual epicenter of Bangkok's coffee-flavored bun craze.

Crystal Jade My Bread
(Basement, Siam Paragon, 02 610 7581)
My Bread's Mexico Coffee Bun (25 baht) is the least coffee-like but the most buttery of its genre. I bought a bun to go, and the staff recommended that I heat it up before eating. In retrospect this was good advice, as the generous butter filling was solid and overwhelmingly rich.
(Basement, Siam Paragon, 02 610 7588-9)
The Coffi-0 (22 baht) is this Singaporean bread chain's answer to the Rotiboy. Featuring a sweet, green pandanus-flavored filling, in terms of taste, concept, and name, it doesn't get much weirder than this.
Papa Roti
(Siam Square, next to Dr. Maarten's, near the stage)
Papa Roti resembles its popular predecessor in every way, even down to the shop's yellow decor and nearly identical smiling chef logo. The buns (25 baht) are served hot ("always fresh always tasty") and have the proper balance of coffee and butter that one would expect from such an eerily "similar" competitor.