Black Gold Mining
Interview by Syaheedah Iskandar
Illustrations by Amaris Chen
A coffee invitation within the context of our cultural landscape today gestures a positive notion or a friendly nod towards the intended companion. Coffee is quite the effective icebreaker, be it in a casual reunion or a new relationship. It is also the starting point where many great ideas have been conceived. The possibilities of what can happen over coffee are endless, depending on what one makes of it. It is no surprise then, that coffee lovers and café dwellers have become more discerning about the type of places they visit and the coffee they put their money into, with most opting for independent houses over big chains.
New coffee house start-ups have also taken the route of opening at obscure places—partly due to the high cost of rental in popular premises—and they possess a curious power to turn old and tired neighbourhoods into charming new places. In this feature, we dissect various coffee houses and discover the values they subscribe to. Be it their bravery towards independence, the every bit of care and responsibility that they instill into the choices they make, or simply the awareness that they can make a difference to the lives of farmers—these are the thought processes that follow the journey from bean to cup.
—Maison Ikkoku on building an experiential space through team effort, and taking the time to properly educate the customer on the work that goes behind every cup of coffee.
Portrait by Gwee Jensen
Images courtesy of Maison Ikkoku
How did the multi-concept behind Maison Ikkoku come about?
It came from our frequent trips to Tokyo, Japan, where we found many quaint cafés mixing F&B concepts with a retail element. One of the cafés that attracted us was The Contemporary Fix, located in Omotesando, Tokyo, where you can find a full fledged café on the ground floor and a multi-label boutique on the second floor.
The idea behind the three-in-one concept is to create a place where customers can enjoy a cup of nicely brewed artisanal coffee and do some retail shopping for hard-to-find Japanese labels. They can then chill out at the bar afterwards, making it a whole day or at least a half-day affair at our store.
What is the story behind the name Maison Ikkoku?
Maison Ikkoku can be loosely translated as “House of The Moment”. Our philosophy revolves around a notion that here at Maison Ikkoku, time can be frozen, or at a standstill, where one can feel at home and enjoy the food, drinks and goods that we put out for them to want to stay longer.
—Dennis Tang, co-founder of Nylon Coffee Roasters on going back to basics and taking care of every detail, from building long-term relationships with farmers to striking up conversations with customers.
Images courtesy of Skinnydiver & Nylon Coffee Roasters
Tell us the story behind Nylon Coffee Roasters. How did it all come about?
We had known each other for a long time since our varsity days. We have been drinking coffee since young, but really started drinking more espresso-based coffees when we were living and working in London. Jia Min moved to New York after London and we spent most of our weekends visiting cafés in each city whenever possible. So you can say our coffee epiphany came about from the few years we spent in New York and London, hence “NY-LON”.
Where did you learn how to run a coffeeshop?
When we got back to Singapore in 2009, there wasn’t really a café where we could get a decent cup of coffee, so we toyed with the idea of opening one. We took on part-time jobs in other cafés for months to learn more about the operations and experience needed to run an F&B outlet. In 2010, we got involved as partners of a young local coffee roaster instead. Being the new kid on the block at that time, we had to learn everything on the job and fast. It was through this experience that we realised the importance of sourcing for good beans and roasting them well for anyone to enjoy the cup.
This passion for better coffees inherently pushed us to set up Nylon Coffee Roasters in 2012. We stayed away from starting a café as we wanted to focus on the beans. Our philosophy is to source for our beans directly from farms as much as we can and to use only fresh harvests. We spend a significant amount of time and resources travelling to coffee origins to achieve this, so that we can provide quality coffee to consumers in Singapore and around the region.
—Highlander’s founder, Phil Ho, on starting a journey from ground zero with no prior experience or knowledge but perseverance and a hunger to fulfil his dreams.
Image courtesy of Highlander Coffee
Hi Phil, please share with us how Highlander Coffee started.
I was a corporate man who really wanted to start my own business and tried gourmet coffee in Indonesia with some coffee experts, and then I decided to leave my comfort zone and started this business of importing coffee.
So Indonesia played an important role.
I had quite regular business trips to Jakarta where I met with somebody there, a distributer from my previous job, and she introduced me to gourmet coffee and Arabica beans. She introduced to me something very different to what I had been drinking all this while, because I drink a lot of coffee, especially local coffee. I enjoyed it and thought that it was fascinating so I went back a few times and decided to do the unthinkable—to bring back the coffee.
It was more difficult than I had imagined. Even though you bring in a product that you think is nice, it doesn’t mean it can sell. You need a lot of marketing so we were in for a shock, thinking we could just sell it to cafés. People looked at me and said, ‘Look, why must I change my coffee beans? And who are you? How good is this?’ It was a nightmare.
It is never easy to start something new.
We didn’t come from a rich family, everything was from our own savings so we didn’t depend on anybody, so if you ask me, our biggest obstacle was money. We went to Italy with whatever money we had, learnt as much as we could, and brought back some machines. Investing all our time and energy was fine, but I still remember when we were left with a couple of thousand dollars after our first year, and we had to find ways to survive.
—Leon Foo, founder of Chye Seng Huat Hardware, Loysel’s Toy and Papa Palheta, on building a coffee community and contributing towards a greater good.
Photography by Kenerf Sim
What is the story behind Chye Seng Huat Hardware? What made you decide to set it up in Jalan Besar?
Well, Papa Palheta was looking for a place, a house, a HQ where we could really house everything together, with the roastery, coffee school and coffee bar.
The site was attractive to us because it had a lot of history, and it was along the heritage trail. The building itself had a history of being located along a district of old hardware shops. This tradition and heritage was something we wanted to retain, so we conceptualised the name and a meaning that could commemorate the building and the district, hence the name Chye Seng Huat Hardware. This is where we house the Chye Seng Huat Coffee Bar, Papa Palheta’s roastery, our coffee class which is the C-Platform on the second floor and our small office on the third floor.
Chye Seng Huat Hardware, in Mandarin, is zai cheng fa wu jing, which in English means ‘flourish again hardware’. We wanted it to represent the hardware industry, to commemorate all the shops within this district of Jalan Besar.
What is the history of the building?
We came up with the name with the landlord as it held more meaning to him. He had lived in that building since he was very young so it had a lot of history for him. And all this while, since 1950, it has always been a hardware shop.
Please share with us Chye Seng Huat’s design philosophy.
Well, the word hardware in mandarin is wu jing, which means five metals. With that in mind, we wanted to create something very honest, in terms of the materials that we used. The material palette consists of brass, steel and copper. We had this concept to show it in its purest form, where it’s kind of raw but also very clean and refined. We also wanted to retain the old school charm of the shophouse, which was very hard to ignore.
Read more in The U Press N˚5 (Singapore edition).