SINGAPORE - Entrepreneurs looking for spaces to open new food and beverage concepts have hunted everywhere from the West Coast to Bedok.
However, a new crop of them has opened in Toa Payoh, one of Singapore's oldest housing estates. There are no fewer than 16 cafes and bakeries, standing out among the usual heartland shops.
For example, in Toa Payoh Lorong 1, new additions to the stretch housing the popular Creamier cafe are Niche Boulangerie, The Daily Press cafe and frozen yogurt shop Frozen By A Thousand Blessings.
At Toa Payoh Lorong 4, Gratitude Snack Bar joins the likes of bakeries Charlotte Grace Cakeshop and Nineteen Niche.
And over in Toa Payoh Lorong 6, there is Studio Cafe SG and The Little Prince Creamery cafe, which relocated from Somme Road.
One of Toa Payoh's main draws, besides its convenient location, is that rental rates are fairly reasonable, compared with other locations, say cafe owners.
They say rentals range from $5 to just over $10 per sq ft for shop units in the estate. The price goes up to $14 psf for units within a four-minute walk from Toa Payoh MRT station. A 2,500 sq ft space can go for about $35,000 a month because of "high human traffic flow", says Mr Eugene Lim, 48, key executive officer for real estate agency ERA Realty Network.
He adds: "Retail space for F&B, particularly in Toa Payoh Central, is tight. Over time, we have seen some non-F&B spaces converted to F&B outlets, subject to approval from the authorities. Due to low vacancy and high demand, rents have been increasing by an average of 10 per cent a year over the last two years."
And it seems that some are paying even more. The owners of Les Patisseries at Toa Payoh Central pay about $12,000 for their 635 sq ft space.
Most of the cafes and bakeries focus on desserts, but the owners are realising that it is not enough to just serve sweet treats and coffee.
Shrove Tuesday's owner Ronald Tan, 27, plans to introduce more hot items soon to the menu of ice cream, coffee and cakes at his Lorong 4 cafe.
He says: "The cafe scene is changing. People don't just want coffee, they want a solid meal. In addition to new cafes opening, it would be great if there's a mix of cuisines, such as Italian and French, to complement the existing outlets."
A stone's throw away from him is The Daily Press, a three-week-old cafe which took over the premises of a photography shop and hair salon. It features a small menu of grilled sandwiches and dishes for sharing.
Manager Nicholas Chua, 28, says: "We wanted to focus on quality food as that is the next level for the cafe scene. We didn't want to do what everyone else is doing - no Eggs Benedict and truffle fries."
Studio Cafe SG in Lorong 6 is also standing out from the crowd by serving hearty dishes such as nasi ayam penyet and sirloin steak.
Located in the same block as Studio Cafe is The Little Prince Creamery. Its owner Chong Yen Ling, 41, says: "Diners are constantly looking for new places, cafes and restaurants to explore. Thanks to the social media frenzy, people will never be sick of the chase. We need to have quality food and a strong identity to keep up with the competition."
Senior public relations and marketing executive Valencia Poh, 25, who lives in Bishan, goes to cafes such as The Little Prince Creamery, Shrove Tuesday and Creamier, with her friends and is a fan of Creamier's ice cream and waffles.
She says: "Although cafes that serve brunch are opening everywhere around town, they seem to have missed Toa Payoh. We have so many dessert spots, it would be nice to have a place that serves a good quality brunch."
With the mix of old and new in Toa Payoh, the landscape has changed a fair bit.
One of the early birds on the scene in Toa Payoh was popular cafe Creamier, which opened in 2011.
Ms Khoh Wan Chin, 38, one of Creamier's partners, recalls: "There was a slower pace of life with mainly elderly folk hanging around the market and void deck area. By 6pm, the shops would close and the place would be deserted."
But the risk of picking the then quiet spot paid off, as the cafe is now constantly crowded with diners eating waffles and ice cream.
She says: "We felt that the location had a lot of potential given the new housing developments that will rejuvenate the old neighbourhood with young working couples and young families."
Some of the old-time business owners in the area include Ms Kok Kee Fong, 78, owner of Kok Brothers Company, which specialises in garment alteration. The Toa Payoh resident has owned the shop space in Toa Payoh Lorong 4 for more than 40 years.
She says in Mandarin: "We have seen many old businesses go and new ones come in. Our customers are also a mix of regulars and new faces that have moved to Toa Payoh.
"I've gone to try some of the new cafes that are not too far from my shop. So far, I like what they offer."
Some businesses are also considering expansion outside of Toa Payoh, such as seven-month-old Niche Boulangerie.
Owner Melvin Tang, 39, operates his bakery from a 280 sq ft space, serving cakes and quiches.
He says: "We have a mix of residents in the area and people who come here from other parts of Singapore to buy our cakes. I would like to have a bigger space for more diners, perhaps nearer to the Tanglin area."
Indeed, the growing cafe enclave is fast attracting non-Toa Payoh residents to the area.
Engineer Sean Tay, 26, and his "coffee kaki" friends visit the area at least twice a week, coming from Bukit Merah.
He says: "We have lunch at the food centre before going to The Daily Press for coffee. We will then hop over to Creamier for ice cream. We haven't checked out the other cafes yet, but it's interesting that these new places are among the old shops.
"It helps that the area has lots of parking too."
THE DAILY PRESS
What: People have been flocking to this three-week-old cafe that specialises in grilled sandwiches with a twist. Think Babi Pongteh ($12) with pork belly slices between ciabatta and beetroot-cured salmon sandwich ($15) with a walnut crumble on rye sourdough.
Three dishes ($9 each) are available for sharing or you may want it as a meal for one. They are roasted brussel sprouts, baked egg with polenta fritters and mixed quinoa salad with edamame. Coffee (from $3.50 for an espresso) is made from local roaster Liberty Coffee's beans and the cafe also serves smoothies, juices and Allerines tea.
Where: Block 126 Toa Payoh Lorong 1, 01-561
Open: 10.30am to 9.30pm (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday
Info: Call 6258-0167 or go to www.facebook.com/thedailypresssg
STUDIO CAFE SG
What: Head to this two-week-old cafe for local fare and Western cuisine. Local dishes include Nasi Goreng Kampong Special ($6.50), which comes with satay, sunny side up egg and crackers, Maggi goreng Pattaya ($5.50) and nasi ayam penyet ($6).
Western-style items include Studio Oglio ($14.90) with calamari, mussels and prawns and That Bleu Mussell ($11.90), mussels cooked in saffron sauce or spicy arrabiatta sauce.
If you are lucky, you might spot Suria star Nurul Aini Abdul Rahim, who owns the place with three other Suria artistes.
Where: Block 47 Toa Payoh Lorong 6, 01-131
Open: 9am to 11pm (Tuesday to Sunday), noon to 10pm (Monday, sandwich and drinks only)
Info: Go to www.facebook.com/studiocafesg or e-mail studiocafesg@ gmail.com
THE LITTLE PRINCE CREAMERY
What: Fans of the Little Prince Cafe in Somme Road which closed in September last year can now go to its new home in Toa Payoh.
Surrounded by the whimsical, hand-drawn illustrations from the children's book, diners can tuck into waffles topped with home- made gelato (from $6.50). Flavours include avocado gula melaka and Sawadee (Thai milk tea).
Where: Block 47 Toa Payoh Lorong 6, 01-134
Open: Noon to 10pm (Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday), noon to 11pm (Friday and Saturday), closed on Tuesday
FROZEN BY A THOUSAND BLESSINGS
What: Instead of ice cream and waffles, have frozen yogurt at this Melbourne franchise's first outlet in Singapore. Flavours include green tea, pomegranate, coconut, and mango and soya. Fill your cup and add toppings such as fresh fruit, nuts and Turkish delight. Prices are by weight ($3.80 per 100g).
Where: Block 126 Toa Payoh Lorong 1, 01-551
Open: 11.30am to 10pm (Sunday to Thursday), 11.30am to 11pm (Friday and Saturday)
Info: Call 6259-8028
What: The four-month-old cafe has a mix of both savoury and sweet. Main dishes include truffle baked mushroom pasta ($9.90), club sandwich ($11.90) and smoked salmon avocado set ($10.90).
Waffle fans can opt for Horffles ($8.90, with two scoops of ice cream), waffles and a sauce made with Horlicks. Cakes include apple mousse cake and chestnut and pear. Coffee, tea, milkshakes and smoothies are also available.
Where: Block 186 Toa Payoh Central, 01-428
Open: 10am to 10pm daily
RAMEN BAR SUZUKI
What: This ramen joint opened at Boat Quay in 2013 to snaking queues during lunchtime. Now, it has opened in a coffee shop, offering the same tonkotsu ramen items.
Prices start from $9 for the Pure White ramen and $10 for the Cardinal Red (spicy) ramen, Jet Black (squid ink) ramen and Emerald Green (cheese and basil) ramen.
Where: Block 203 Toa Payoh North
Open: 11am to 3pm, 5 to 9pm daily, except public holidays
This article was first published on Jan 11, 2015.
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