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.
Ms Yvette Chua, 30, owner of the 13-month-old Hatter Street Bakehouse & Cafe, is keeping her fingers crossed.
"I am concerned as my lease ends in eight months and my industry friends have warned me that rent may increase," she says.
Mr Lee believes that rising rental is inevitable as the area becomes more popular. He says: "Hopefully, the landlords will be reasonable and increase the rent in line with business growth."
Real estate agents say they are receiving inquiries about commercial properties in Kovan. Rental rates can range from around $8 per sq ft for a shop unit in Yio Chu Kang road near Serangoon Stadium to more than $15 per sq ft for a shop unit at Heartland Mall near Kovan MRT station.
Mr Jason Tan, 54, senior associate director at OrangeTee real estate agency, has seen a 30 per cent increase in interest to open food businesses in Kovan over the past two years.
He says: "Demand for renting food premises is much greater than supply, so much so that some office spaces have been converted to food and beverage units."
Mr Gary Lim, 33, group director of PropNex Realty, notes that he has received around five queries a week from Thai and steamboat restaurants looking to rent retail spaces in a mixed development property near Kovan Road.
He says: "The potential tenants are drawn to the versatile customer pool, which can come from the nearby private estates and Serangoon Garden."
Kovan residents welcome the more diverse dining options in their estate.
Madam Gina Tan, 48, who works in accounting, says: "I eat out every day, so having new cafes provides more dinner choices, aside from eating at coffee shops."
Bank relationship manager Danielle Soh dines once a month at eateries such as Lola's Cafe and Nakhon Kitchen.
The 24-year-old says: "It is more convenient to cafe-hop around the neighbourhood. Hopefully, this will be a pull factor for more people to visit Kovan, so more cafes can be set up here."
Real estate agent Joezer Liu, 25, says: "It is good to have more dining choices here, but I do not know how long this new wave can last as competition is tough and parking in this area is rather limited."
What: This 45-seat cafe serves all-day brunch made with halal-certified ingredients, such as pancakes drizzled with salted caramel sauce and bananas ($11) and Machamp's Breakfast ($18), with onion marmalade toast, scrambled eggs and caramel-glazed chicken bratwurst.
Where: Block 121 Hougang Avenue 1, 01-1348
Open: 11am to 9pm daily, except Tuesday
Info: Call 6286-0051 or go to www.facebook.com/flavourflings
YORIJORI KOREAN BBQ & CHICKEN CUISINE
What: This two-month-old casual Korea eatery serves 30 barbecue dishes and stir-fried ones. Offerings include stir-fried spicy chicken ribs and spicy roasted pork and squid (both $15 per person).
Where: Paya Lebar Kovan Community Club, 207 Hougang Street 21, level 1
Open: 3 to 11pm daily
Info: Call 6288-6651 or go to www.facebook.com/yorijorikovan
THE BREAD TABLE
What: This artisan bakery offers more than 10 breads such as cinnamon walnut raisin bread ($3.90) and sourdough ($8.90) in cheese, walnut, olives and plain flavours. It also sells sandwiches such as Eggs Benedict Sourdough ($15) and pizzas such as BBQ chicken and Meat Lover (both $6.50).
Where: 1010 Upper Serangoon Road
Open: 10am to 10pm, Tuesday to Friday; 8.30am to 10pm on weekends, closed on Monday
Info: Call 6282-3546 or go to www.thebreadtable.com
STAY HOME MUM CAFE
What: This blink-and-you-miss-it takeaway booth sells about 20 kinds of cakes in 90ml and 200ml jars. Flavours include Oreo ($6.50), durian ($6.90) and Baileys tiramisu ($7.90).
Where: Heartland Mall, Level 2
Open: 11am to 9.30pm daily
Info: Call 9696-6215 or go to www.shmcafe.com.sg
ISKINA CEBU SINGAPORE
What: Dig into its signature lechon, Filipino-style suckling pig (from $10) which is infused with lemongrass and roasted for four hours. The pig is usually ready at 5.30pm. It also sells pork belly and roast chicken (both from $6).
Where: 973 Upper Serangoon Road
Open: 12.30 to 9.30pm (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday
Info: Call 6728-0765 or 9326-2920 or visit iskinacebu.com.sg
This article was first published on Jan 11, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.