Loyal client base keeps Brunei's indie cafes in the black

Two years ago, Kristy Lim left a lucrative corporate career in Singapore to pursue a lifelong dream of having her own cafe. She travelled to Australia and Europe, savouring cups of espresso crafted by trained baristas.

But while she loved coffee and had the passion for the cafe business, Kristy was also pragmatic. She knew that she didn't have the skills needed to make coffee to the standards demanded by most cafes.

So Kristy took short-term barista and baking courses to learn the tricks of the trades. She also returned to Singapore, got a job in a cafe, and for five months worked as an entry-level barista. She got paid six dollars an hours - a far cry from what she used to earn in her eight-year career as a product manager. But the tiny paycheck was the least of Kristy's concerns.

"I didn't mind the pay because I just wanted to learn (about) coffee and running a cafe," she said.

Once she got the skills and confidence to make it on her own, Kristy went home and opened Piccolo Cafe in September last year.

Located across the Royal Wharf, Piccolo is one of the many independent cafes jumping on the bandwagon with the franchises to claim their piece of the so-called coffee revolution in the Sultanate.

Giant coffee brands such as Starbucks, Gloria Jean's, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and most recently It's A Grind have recently set foot in Brunei, creating a cafe culture which saw consumers willing to splurge on their drinks.

Kristy believes the franchises were instrumental in establishing a consumer base where Bruneians are now fine with spending at least five dollars for a cup of espresso.

"Before the franchises, I don't think that anyone was willing to pay that much but look at where we are now with not just brands but independent cafes opening everywhere," she said.

This, however, comes at a price. The surge of cafes in a short time has forced industry players to clamour for what is already a small pie.

So as the market becomes increasingly saturated with franchises and other competitors, independent cafe owners are left to depend on their own sources: a loyal customer base.

For Perry Lim, owner of Another Cafe, a loyal customer base will allow independent cafes like his to thrive in a small and competitive market as Brunei's.

Since opening in May 2014, about three months after the first Starbucks branch, Perry has received constant updates from friends telling him where new cafes are opening.

"My friends ask me what I'm going to do about it but (really) what else can I do?" he said.

But Perry chose to remain unfazed by the increased presence of franchises and other competitors, believing that customers will continue to flock in his cafe as long as he "does his own thing".

"Very small" coffee market

Statistics from the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) show that Brunei leads in the per capita consumption for coffee in East and Southeast Asia at 4.3 kilogrammes in 2012.

However, the ICO describes the Brunei market as "very small" due to low population with about 30,000 bags of coffee consumed in the same year.

Kristy knows that the effects of a small market is most felt particularly during holidays when most Bruneians go abroad.

"I think that it is a bit unhealthy that the cafe market is growing so fast but there's not enough local spending to support it," she said, noting that there's a need for a "healthy market" that can accommodate both the franchises and independent cafes.

In any industry, competition is part and parcel of a healthy market where customers benefit from enjoying various options at a reasonable price.

Christina Goh, owner of the Kiulap-based 'Ximply Chriz', said that competition keeps her cafe staff attentive but she wondered whether the limited number of consumers can handle the sudden influx of cafes.

"In another light, will our small population be able to sustain all the cafe's that are opening?," she asked.

On top of that, she believes that coffee alone is not enough to sustain the business of a cafe. When Ximply Chriz stated in 2013, the cafe's selling point was its cakes which were made by one of Goh's daughters.

Goh said her cafe enjoys brisk business thanks to regular customers who come to the cafe for meals and coffee.

According to her, Brunei may have a large food and beverage industry but cafes, despite its rapid growth, only account for a small portion of that.

"I do believe that cafes will continue to grab a larger market share but having a great deal of competition means that you cannot simply depend on one product. For us, we are just trying to do our best and improve ourselves," she said.

For his part, Perry Lim of Another Cafe said he feels concerned if a competitor can offer a better product than his. Otherwise, he said that he is not "too worried" about the increasing number of cafes in Brunei.

"The franchises will have their strengths but as long as I have the support from customers, business should be fine," he said.