Greater Taichung has been rocked by the suicide of Wei Yu-chi (魏郁奇), an heir to one of the city’s biggest family businesses, Sun Cakes (太陽餅).
Wei committed suicide on Dec. 20 last year by burning coal in a car near his family residence in Fengyuan District (豐原).
He was the third-generation owner of the Wei family’s sun cake pastry business.
His grandfather, Wei Ching-hai (魏清海), established the business after claiming to have invented the sun cake, a sweet pastry with malt sugar filling.
After Wei Ching-hai passed away, his son, Wei Chien-san (魏建三), led the family business. It was later passed to his son, Wei Yu-chi, in partnership with Lin Chi-hai (林祺海), an adopted son of Wei Ching-hai.
Wei Yu-chi and Lin’s partnership later ended and six years ago, Wei Yu-chi raised about NT$40 million (US$1.33 million) to start a new store carrying the trademark with his grandfather’s name.
Trying to fight off competition from numerous imitators, many claiming to be the original, Wei Yu-chi received much publicity as he branded his store “the one and only true inheritor of the original sun cake inventor.”
“He was too focused on preserving the reputation of the family pastry business. Management of the store did not run smoothly, and costs continually rose. He came under a lot of pressure and owed large debts to suppliers and creditors. We think it was pressure from his business debts that he was unable to pay that made him end it all,” a relative said.
Greater Taichung’s sun cake business as a whole remains popular and generates good revenues. However, increasing competition and the introduction of other snacks has affected individual firms’ profitability.
A city official said an estimated 500-plus shops sell the cakes and other related pastries in Greater Taichung.
Lin said some figures put Greater Taichung’s annual sun cake market at over NT$1 billion.
“Many businesspeople have opened sun cake stores all over the city. This results in stiff competition. In truth, it is not easy to make a profit in this business,” he said.
Lin said that he has about 80 to 90 employees and added that with the cost of ingredients and other overheads, along with management and marketing expenses, “If daily takings do not reach NT$200,000, then we will not turn a profit.”
Chuang Nai-hui (莊乃慧), another Taichung sun cake store proprietor, said she was shocked to hear of Wei’s death.
“His grandfather was acknowledged as the originator and master chef of sun cakes. Wei was trying to recreate the prosperity his grandfather enjoyed, but now there is too much competition. He was under too much pressure and his ambitions were overtaken by the reality of today’s market,” Chuang said.
“Consumers have also been cutting back on the purchase of cakes, snacks and pastry because of the poor economy and food scandals,” she added. “To ensure that honest and reputable companies will not be affected [by the scandals], we hope the government can approve food safety regulations and grant official licenses.”
Chuang said making sun cakes in the traditional way requires a high degree of technical know-how.
“You need professional pastry chefs, who command higher salaries. Electricity and other overheads are high. In this business, product quality control and intelligent marketing are also very important. So you see, we are always under lots of pressure in this business,” she said.