From Can to Company – Swee Heng’s Coffee Journey
Imagine a tired junior college student: Exhausted but attempting to study, flipping through his notes but struggling to stay awake. He then grabs his first ever can of Nescafe, and gulps down the caffeinated beverage, in a desperate effort to stay awake. Little did he know that that moment of utility would become a strong acquaintance for years to come.
That poor student was me, Swee Heng, and I still fondly remember how the coffee tasted. That first taste sparked an interest in me to try other local coffees like those at Ya Kun, Toast Box and the coffee shop near my house. From merely an interest, coffee became a lifestyle, and I eventually became acquainted with gourmet coffee. Initially, it was just conversation based – hanging out in the presence of coffee – but slowly I began to appreciate the production and the steps of making coffee.
From Coffee Fan to Cafe Owner
It has always been my childhood dream to do something related to business, so it was very natural for the coffee lover in me to want to do something in this industry. But there is a huge gap between going from a coffee lover to being a cafe owner.
It was also at that point in time when my mother was considering a change in career, and as we discussed more over coffee, we decided to take a leap of faith to try something really adventurous and ambitious.
It took us three full months to incorporate the company and plan for our cafe launch, on the 4th of February 2014 at International Plaza. I was excited all the way until 3rd February, as after that day, the feeling of being in the grind really started to kick in.
Before I started the cafe, I had good expectations: We will serve good coffee, people are going to keep coming back, but the reality is in fact much more complex than what I had imagined.
If you thought sales would be bustling in International Plaza, that was clearly not the case. Business was very slow at the start and everyday was faced with disappointment. Even during our peak days, we only had about 80-100 cups sold. Beyond the cafe operations, there were still a lot of things to be done, such as administration work and improving our coffee skills.
But we refused to dilute our vision. Instead, we kept working on ourselves – day to day, we had a mission and that was to become better than we were yesterday. Eventually we started to have a growing number of regular customers: a true testament to our hard work.
In fact, I do not think that they are just our customers, but they are more like our friends. When they step out from the office to come and buy coffee from us, a simple five minute conversation could make a difference in their day. This showed the value that we created for our community at International Plaza.
We believe that we are not just a coffee seller, we are a friend. We do not just sell, we create conversations.
From International (Plaza) to National (University of Singapore)
We eventually came to the decision that the future of The Coffee Roaster could no longer be in International Plaza. 2 years after starting the business there, we closed shop in December 2015.
When we closed in International Plaza, we had no backup plan, so we kept all our equipment and put it in a storage. It was only a month later that we received the fantastic news from the National University of Singapore (NUS) that we received the tender at the new AS8 building!
During the eight months between the closing of International Plaza and the opening at NUS, we asked ourselves the fundamental question: “Why we were doing, what we were doing?”. Using our lessons learned in International Plaza, we applied them to NUS and brought the cafe to greater heights.
In NUS, we did not want to be just a coffee seller. We wanted to be a hub where students and staff can come and converse over coffee. At the end of the day, we believe that coffee is simply a medium for our conversations and relationship building.
About a year into the cafe business at NUS, we started to reflect and ponder: “What it is that we want to do?” These reflections eventually helped us to condense the thoughts we had into three simple words, to create “Amazing Coffee Experiences”, with an emphasis on the word ‘Experiences’.
This was when Gleneagles Hospital approached us to do a corporate workshop for them. Prior to our days in NUS, we actually conducted a few smaller scale latte art workshops. Based on their requirements, we increased our capacity to 20 people and this sparked our foray into the workshop scene in Singapore – a story for another day!