SINGAPORE - When cafe owner Chara Lum was scouting for a location to start Ciel Patisserie two years ago, a void deck shop unit in Hougang Avenue 1 ticked all the right boxes.
The 25-year-old, who sells French-style cakes and pastries, says: "As I did not have much experience, I was looking for a test-bed location. The rental rates here were about four times lower than those in town and there was no competition in the area."
Fast forward two years and the dining scene in the Kovan area has changed a great deal.
It is now buzzing with more than 10 cafes, bakeries and restaurants within a 15-minute walk from Kovan MRT station.
At least five of them opened in the past nine months. They include Flavour Flings in Hougang Avenue 1, Iskina Cebu Singapore and The Bread Table, both in Upper Serangoon Road.
The owners tell SundayLife! that they hope to tap on the huge catchment of residents living in the condominiums nearby.
There are more than six in the area, including Kovan Melody and The Minton. At least five more are slated to be completed in the next three years.
Mr Joseph Lee, 50, owner of The Bread Table, which sells artisanal breads and pastries, believes that Kovan is an "up-and-coming area" with a cosmopolitan crowd. He says that about 10 per cent of his customers are expatriates from countries such as France and Australia.
"It is exciting that the area is transforming and there is more demand for variety, without the need to travel all the way to town or Bukit Timah," he says.
He adds that the bulk of his customers are Punggol and Sengkang residents, who have limited dining options where they live.
Some eateries are riding on Kovan's reputation as a supper haunt, with stalwarts such as Punggol Nasi Lemak Centre in Upper Serangoon Road doing roaring business and people flocking to Serangoon Garden for food at all times of the day.
Cebu-born Chris Calledo, 33, owner of Iskina Cebu Singapore, which sells Filipino-style roast meats, says: "Kovan is a pillar of good food with a smorgasbord of flavours and I want a piece of this to showcase Cebuano food culture."
The heartland location also gives his stall easy access to Singaporeans, who form half his customer pool.
"Some of them would pair lechon (suckling pig) with the hot pot from another stall," he adds.
Ms Putri Delfina Neo, 30, invested $10,000 in her brunch cafe, Flavour Flings, which opened three months ago.
She says: "Choosing to be in Kovan was something close to my heart, as I grew up in this area and lived here for more than 20 years."
She hopes to attract diners who are looking for brunch dishes made with halal-certified ingredients, such as chicken chipolata and turkey breakfast ham. About half her customers are Muslims.
With cafe-hopping in vogue these days, most of the owners SundayLife! interviewed hope that Kovan can be the next Tiong Bahru or Holland Village, which are popular clusters of dining spots.
However, older businesses are already bracing themselves for impending hikes in rents.
Cafes that SundayLife! spoke to say that their monthly rent ranges from $3,000 to $5,000 for a 800 sq ft space.