Coffee for the Well Mannered

Interview by Luo Jingmei
Photography by Jovian Lim

Opened in 2010, The Plain is one of the pioneers of the third-wave coffee culture in Singapore. While many establishments bucking the trend have closed and left the building, The Plain thrives on, with customers lured back daily by its laid-back interiors, lovingly brewed drinks and familial vibe. Vincent has since gone on to set up two other cafés—the rough luxe café, The Bravery (now solely run by his partner Shak) in Jalan Besar and and the ever-inviting Ronin in Hong Kong Street. Here in his first ever interview, he shares with us his deep-set philosophy and well-mannered thoughts.

Coffee for the well mannered ronin the bravery

Ronin, Hong Kong Street

Hi Vincent, what are some of your earliest memories of coffee?

Interesting question. I never used to like coffee. It started when I was living overseas in Melbourne. Whenever my girlfriend—now my wife—visited me in Melbourne from Sydney, she would always café hop. I used to wonder why we had to go to three or four cafés a day. That was when I started to drink lattes and cappuccinos.

And now?

Yes, now coffee is my all-time favourite drink.

So would you say it was more the ambience of a café that attracted you rather than the drink?

Not really. I wasn’t paying much attention to that. It was more for love that I followed along. (laughs) But I think what happened was I was shown that coffee shouldn’t be a luxurious item. For me, it’s more a way of life, a lifestyle where it is common to wake up, have a coffee, breakfast and then start your day.

Coffee for the well mannered ronin the bravery

When The Plain opened, there were only a handful of cafés selling speciality coffee. Now there are over 300. Do you feel this explosion is sustainable and do you feel the heat of the competition?

I think everybody needs coffee. If the pricing is reasonable and the coffee is good I don’t see why it cannot be sustainable. I don’t think about the competition. I only think of providing for my staff and the community of regulars that we serve. I think a lot of people come into the industry because it is not too expensive to open a café, but how many coffee owners are working in them right now? I’m on roster everyday, 10 hours a day.

So it has been profitable since you started?

It has been profitable. But you don’t open a café chasing money. It becomes stressful. If you do what you do really well, people will notice and that’s when they want to come back.

Coffee for the well mannered ronin the bravery

The Bravery, Jalan Besar

What were you doing before opening The Plain?

I’m a civil engineer by training. I started working in cafés in Melbourne when I was a student because I needed to earn money for rent and living expenses. Before I came back to Singapore I worked a bit more in cafés and also did some construction project management. I returned, did a bit of civil engineering work. I didn’t like it. I actually also worked in Toast Box as an area operations manager for 10 months. I’ve been told that I’m probably the only person in Singapore who can make local coffee and operate a coffee machine. (Laughs)

And now you have your establishments, there’s no turning back.

Yes I’m living my dream. Nothing beats that. Every morning when I open the door and look at my spaces I’m so thankful I have these cafés.

Read more in The U Press N˚9 (Singapore edition).