Beyond coffee and sandwiches

SEVEN years ago, indie coffee roasters and cafes were a bourgeois oddity in Singapore's food scene, dominated by kopi-o drinkers or Starbucks devotees sipping caramel frappuccinos. These days, Instagram is replete with photos of latte art next to bizarre brunch offerings such as waffles with otah otah, while more discerning coffee drinkers debate the finer points of light versus dark roasts - ripples of a cafe-obsessed scene that hasn't seen signs of slowing down just yet.

In fact, some of these early F&B entrepreneurs have become coffee chain owners in their own right, while others have built up a formidable portfolio of diverse brands. This doesn't even include those who are looking to represent Singapore's coffee culture on the international scene.

One such pioneer is 32-year-old Jane Hia, who started Kith Cafe in mid-2009 with a small space in Robertson Quay. Now, she runs a total of four outlets, including one at Park Mall, Quayside Isle, and a new three-week-old 3,000 square foot space at Millenia Walk.

Says Ms Hia: "Kith's brand has clout because we were one of the first few, we're still around, we've grown, and yet we're still drawing queues. That says a lot in this competitive environment. Honestly, if the very first Kith Cafe opened in this climate, things would be very different."

Of course she didn't get to where she is today by resting on her laurels. Kith has had to evolve its menu over the years as well, and now they serve hearty pastas and proper mains. "When we first opened, cafes meant a cup of okay-coffee and simple sandwiches. But these days, coffee's a given, food's no longer just a grilled ham and cheese. Everyone's upped their game," she explains.

GOING UPMARKET: Spruce has started serving Italian bistro fare at their Phoenix Park flagship, for example, Brasato di Manzo. Photo: Spruce

Likewise, Spruce's Danny Pang is looking beyond brunch fare to draw diners. Opened in 2009, the brand serves American classics, but has since become known for their weekend brunch menus at both outlets. 2015 saw a change to their approach - Mr Pang whipped out the linen tablecloths and black napkins, and hired chef Mauro Scotto of one-Michelin-starred Ristorante Rocca Bruna (Rapallo, Italy). Their flagship now serves a full-fledged Italian menu.

While brunch remains extremely popular, the revamp has brought a steady increase in business, with an accompanying 20 per cent rise in event takings - probably because patrons now consider the leafy, quiet space at Phoenix Park to be a strong F&B contender.

"Our guests have a deeper appreciation for the venue, but our food is also taken more seriously and is heavily scrutinised," says Mr Pang. "Providing a full dining experience means we are judged more often compared to being a cafe - we need to retain trained staff, there's lots more mise en place to be done, among other extra costs."

Though many cafe owners agree that oversaturation is something that looms over every new entrant, it's no surprise that hopeful cafe-owners are undeterred, since the business is still clearly a lucrative one.

Tian Kee & Co owner Vincent Foo (above) is shopping for real estate after his cafe at Dakota Crescent is evicted; he intends to expand after another year of stabilising the business. Photo: Tian Kee & Co

Take two-year-old Tian Kee & Co for instance. Their cafe at Dakota Crescent will be evicted at the end of this year due to estate redevelopment, and owner Vincent Foo has already turned down multiple offers from shopping malls because he wants to keep the cafe in a neighbourhood setting. There's very high interest from investors, says Mr Foo, who has rejected a S$500,000 offer to acquire the master franchise. However, he insists on sticking to his guns, and is shopping for real estate with the intention to buy, not lease, with a budget of S$4 million. He intends to expand after another year of stabilising the business, and is now serving bar grub to flip the concept to a suburban bar by night.

In fact, cafes make popular F&B acquisitions: rumours swirled last year that TWG was looking to acquire cafe and roaster Dutch Colony, but co-owner Suhaimie Sukiman of the latter says it was just talk. Regardless, he has received offers from both local and foreign quarters, with one player mooting a partnership and asking for 45 per cent equity. But Mr Suhaimie says he's holding onto the company for now: "We're focusing on roasting and distribution, and we are not looking to open a fleet of cafes."

Of course, not every cafe gets their happy ending. Loysel's Toy - a pioneering specialty cafe by Papa Palheta - closed shop in 2015 after five years. Their space at the remote Ture building (next to Kallang Basin) will be replaced by the Kilo group's barbecue joint Camp Kilo Charcoal Club.

Even cafes with a captive audience are not spared. Edmund's at the Singapore Management University closed in 2014 after nine years. Owner Edmund Ng reveals that while revenue rose steadily, profits were squeezed by the Foreign Worker Levy, which he recalls gradually rose from S$80 to over S$300 per worker, starting from 2010. The small-time F&B entrepreneur has since dabbled with other concepts including a food kiosk and noodle house, while keeping his day job in insurance.

Many friends have expressed interest in starting yet another cafe, but Mr Ng advises caution. "It's more than just good food, many cafe concepts here are replaceable or disposable - cafe hoppers visit once, and they strike it off their list."

Despite the over saturated scene, even F&B groups are jumping on board. The Millennium Hotels and Resorts group is known for Chinese restaurant Hua Ting, but started cafe Mon Bijou since mid 2015, with executive pastry chef Nicolas Maugard at the helm. It's touted as an alternative to hotel brunches, and there are plans for regional expansion.

Communications director Amy Ang adds that the group has many acclaimed chefs in its stable, which puts them "in good stead to tap the expertise of its culinary team". That advantage is reflected in the extensive menu, which includes bistro fare such as beef cheek ragout and salmon and seafood stew with bouillabaisse.

Others such as the Spa Esprit Group, which has been around since the beginning, have added colour to the scene with their own cafe brands. The group started with House in 2007, followed by Forty Hands, Tiong Bahru Bakery, and then Common Man Coffee Roasters.

CEO Cynthia Chua says: "I think we have the best of both worlds - the strong indie feel reflected in the design, music, and little touches that showcase the soul of the brand, yet it is complemented with team structure and experience of running a business . . . The coffee, food and ambience are all equally important. Those that have a strong differentiating factor will continue to cash in and win crowds."

Even the international chains are innovating: UK brand Costa Coffee (eight outlets since 2013) are differentiating themselves by engaging with the local creative community. They started the "Costa Coffee With" programme, a series of talks and workshops with artists such as singer-songwriter Gentle Bones, and poet Marc Nair. Come April, they will also host a Shakespeare session led by Pangdemonium's Adrian Pang and Singapore Repertory Theatre's Gaurav Kripalani. Such programmes are a way to "contribute to the local creative community by bringing the best of London and Singapore together", says Cindy Poh, marketing manager of South-east Asia and India.

So in order to stand out in the harsh environment, indie players have been getting creative to expand and stay competitive.

NEW CONCEPTS: Joe & Dough founder Damien Koh (above with co-owner Dawn Wee) believes that getting creative to expand and stay competitive is key as 'the scene in Singapore is beyond the point of saturation'. (Right) Joe & Dough's Salted Egg Yolk Hot Cross Bun. Photos: Joe & Dough

Homegrown chain Joe & Dough for instance is known for their airy, loungey cafes rivalling the likes of Starbucks, but they are sharing a space at their tenth outlet - opened since January - with The Soup Spoon Union at Punggol Waterway Point. The space is managed by their partner, so the coffee bar has some freedom to experiment and roll out new offerings, such as cold brew coffees, says founder Damien Koh. "We're a homegrown brand, we're up against the big boys, and the scene in Singapore is beyond the point of saturation."

While they are planning to open an 11th standalone outlet at International Plaza later this year, they are staying flexible by looking to overseas markets, while also branding themselves as a coffee solutions provider - which means expanding via smaller kiosks or collaborations.

Similarly, Andrew Lek (of Department of Caffeine, now on hiatus) recently took over a larger two-storey lot which will act as the flagship for his wholesale specialty coffee roaster, 2degrees North Coffee Co. The basement of four-month-old The Populus will serve as a central kitchen for their upcoming takeaway coffee and grain bowl kiosk Senate Coffee, which opens at 1 Pickering Street in early May.

Brawns & Brain are looking to retail their own roasts and blends by the end of this month. Photo: Brawns & Brain

Brawns & Brain along Guillemard Road are looking to retail their own roasts and blends by the end of this month. This project has been two years in the making: to accommodate a larger roaster, they shifted from their tiny 20-seater to a 1,050 sq ft space in 2014. Total investment for the expansion and retail project comes to over S$300,000, projected to be recouped within two years.

Expansions and revamps are not just about increasing revenue - they inspire and challenge jaded staff, says The Plain's Vincent Teng. He explains that his new concept Punch was a move in restructuring the company, and giving his staff a chance to grow. "If the industry had stayed at where The Plain was in 2010, and everyone was just happy with poached eggs and sandwiches, I might not even have started Punch," says the 40-year-old. He has since opened a second outlet Ronin (2013), followed by Punch (2016) which carries a range of mains such as grilled seabass and Tsukune chicken burger.

STAYING THE COURSE: 'The scene is certainly more competitive, but also much more vibrant as well,' says Hatched owner Henry Tan (above) who believes the future bodes well for prospective cafe owners in Singapore. Photo: Hatched

Henry Tan - owner of pioneering brunch spot Hatched (2009) - believes the future bodes well for prospective cafe owners in Singapore. "Now with government grants and incentives to starting a business, coupled with exposure of new concepts to the audiences via travel and media proliferation, we are seeing more full service cafes," he says.

"The distinction between cafes and restaurants is in somewhat of a grey area - that's a good thing. The scene is certainly more competitive, but also much more vibrant as well."

This article was first published on March 19, 2016. Get The Business Times for more stories.