Straits Times cafe in London

LONDON - Sandwiched between one of London's newest financial districts and its rambling Bangladeshi quarter is a little shop with a name best appreciated by a Singaporean.

At 66A Whitechapel Road, a new signboard went up last month; and it says: Kopitiam Straits Times.

Does it sell laksa or Hainanese chicken rice? Or maybe it has something to do with this newspaper? Does it even have a Singaporean connection?

Turns out, the answer to the last question is the only "yes".

When Mrs Vanessa Low Occhipinti, 39, and Ms Janet Loo, 51, decided to open a cafe last December, they wanted a name that reminded them of home.

"Straits Times just came to mind, because the Singapore Strait was such an important trade route, and it brought in lots of business," said Mrs Occhipinti, a London resident for the past 15 years and married to an Italian who works in a bank.

"Plus, we just wanted a piece of Singapore."

As for "Kopitiam", well, there is a certain exotic ring to the name to non-Singaporean ears.

"For it to be in a language other than English, that's very trendy," reasoned the former accountant who studied at Kensington and Chelsea College.

Some curious Singaporeans have popped in, asking if they sell laksa or chicken rice.

Londoners will ask them what "kopitiam" means. And one or two customers have inquired if this paper has a stake in the business.

Despite originally wanting the cafe to serve traditional hawker fare, the pair decided on healthy sandwiches and salads over satay and seafood hor fun, since they could not find a chef who could whip up those familiar favourites.

On the chalkboard menu spanning the entire wall of the cosy coffeeshop - big enough for just two tables with six chairs each - are a dizzying assortment of subs, salads and smoothies; more than 70 different options.

There is a hint of hometown - Teh Alia (ginger tea) and Milo Dinosaur feature among the latte, cappuccino and mocha.

Oriental Crayfish with sliced red chilli stands out in the greens menu, while Hoisin Duck competes with chicken Caesar, roast beef and salami for betweenthe-buns space.

Even so, Mrs Occhipinti has had to tweak some of those flavours to suit the British palate, such as making the Teh Alia less spicy.

Milo Dinosaur may be marketed as "hot chocolate of the Far East", but not many are adventurous enough to try it.

Friends for 22 years, Mrs Occhipinti and Ms Loo quit their jobs last year to set up Kopitiam Straits Times.

Mrs Occhipinti was an accountant at the London Zoo, while Ms Loo was running a cafe in Edinburgh.

"We both had enough of working for other people. We were working 10 hours a day, so we'd rather put that effort into our own business," said Mrs Occhipinti, who manages the business while Ms Loo, a former manager at McDonald's in Singapore for 10 years, takes care of food operations.

Setting up shop took just two months. They knew they wanted to be in the area, which is witnessing a boom as new offices and homes spring up.

In the next few years, 15,000 people will move in, as Aldgate becomes the city's newest financial hub.

Budget was tight, so the duo did their own interior design. There was not enough money for a signboard until recently.

The two Singaporeans dream of opening more outlets and even franchises. "Maybe I should get into a partnership with The Straits Times," said Mrs Occhinpinti with a laugh.

stlife@sph.com.sg

Kopitiam Straits Times is at 66A Whitechapel Road, E1 7PL, London, United Kingdom. Follow it on twitter.com/straitstimesuk

This article was first published on Nov 16, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.