'Kopi kia' to stay but, but you may have to pay for service

Madam Tan Guan Lee carrying a drink to serve to a customer at the Toa Payoh North coffee shop where she works.

SINGAPORE - Coffee-shop operators may be facing a labour crunch, but the traditional kopi kia are here to stay for now.

All of the 10 coffee-shop operators who spoke to The Straits Times said that they cannot do without the workers, whose name is Hokkien for coffee boy.

This is despite a proposal made six months ago by two prominent coffee associations to do away with them.

The kopi kia shuttle between drink stalls and customers' tables to take orders and serve drinks. For this reason, they are also known as "runners". In the competitive coffee shop business, runners are seen as providing an "additional service" for customers.

"It's true that we can save a lot on the labour side if we implement self-service," said Mr Kelvin Ling, who operates two coffee shops in Hougang and Toa Payoh.

He estimated that he can save between $6,000 and $8,000 a month at each coffee shop if he does away with drink stall runners. "But we also realised that if you don't have a waiter or a waitress to ask you about it, some won't buy a drink. We still think customers prefer to be served," the 34-year-old added.

Drink stall runners typically work eight to 12 hours a day, and are paid between $900 and $1,200 a month.

Other coffee shop operators said that they could lose business to competitors unless the move to self-service is implemented across the board.

"Even if I have self-service, it doesn't mean that all the other coffee shops nearby will," said Mr Sai Tow Loong, 69, who operates a coffee shop near Toa Payoh HDB Hub. "Customers will go to other places for drinks."

The no-kopi kia plan was first mooted by the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association and the Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurant and Bar Owners Association, which represent more than half of the 1,300 coffee shops here.

Despite their pronouncements six months ago, they have been reluctant to force their members to implement self-service.

"This is not something that we can push through quickly," said Mr Hong Poh Hin, chairman of the Foochow association. "We will have to look at the circumstances - some elderly customers may not be used to it."

Mr Thomas Foo, chairman of the other association, agreed that these changes were "very difficult" to make.

"We have encouraged our members to put up self-service signs, but sometimes it's not convenient for certain customers to do so."

He added that they were considering implementing a dual-price system under which drinks served by runners would cost more. Some customers, however, seem unconvinced either way.

"If they don't ask me to buy drinks, I would just eat my food and go," said Mr Koh Ben Son, 52. "I don't always buy drinks now either - it's already too expensive."


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.