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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

A coffee experience with a difference

Since it opened about two months ago, the all-in-one Chye Seng Huat coffee stop has been attracting legions of young coffee drinkers.
The Straits Times - September 28, 2012
By: Geoffrey Eu
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A coffee experience with a difference Mr Foo: His rise up the coffee culture ranks began innocuously enough. He studied accountancy at NTU and worked as an auditor before joining a foreign bank as a researcher. He already had vague plans to branch out, but fate conspired to give him a little

GOURMET coffee drinkers of Singapore, rejoice. They have seen the Promised Land, and its name is Chye Seng Huat Hardware.

Since it opened about two months ago, this all-in-one coffee stop, located in a three-storey building in an unfashionable part of town and tucked away among hardware shops and funeral homes, has been attracting legions of young coffee drinkers, eager to spend a couple of hours worshipping at the latest altar of a fast-growing lifestyle trend. On a recent weekday afternoon, Chye Seng Huat was buzzing with people in search of a coffee experience with a difference.

Chye Seng Huat and its predecessors Papa Palheta and Loysel's Toy were created by Leon Foo, who has been spreading the good word about quality coffee and riding the trend - a global movement known as The Third Wave - for the past few years. In the world of the obsessive gourmet coffee drinker, everything matters - from the origin of the beans and the roasting, grinding and brewing methods to the quality of the water, the equipment used and the barista who makes the coffee.

That's where Mr Foo, 30, comes in. He likes a good cuppa just as much as the next person but it was only when he was sifting through potential business ideas in 2008 - while working in an investment bank during the height of the global financial crisis - that he seriously began to consider the coffee business.

While Mr Foo has safely sealed his place among Third Wave pioneers in Singapore, his rise up the coffee culture ranks began innocuously enough. He studied accountancy at Nanyang Technological University and worked as an auditor before joining a foreign bank as a researcher in its private equity department. He already had vague plans to branch out, but fate conspired to give him a little nudge.

"It was a bad period in banking, people were leaving left and right, security was escorting people out of their offices," says Mr Foo. "It was the wrong time for banking and the right time for coffee - that's when I decided to start a business." Rather than simply open a café offering good coffee, he decided to explore a more comprehensive concept.

"In my research work I learnt about business models and how companies worked," says Mr Foo. "Coffee came up when my uncle asked me if I had considered coffee - there are only a few ways to build a business around coffee." He adds: "I love the product, I love the culture, and I wanted to do something where I could give back to the community."

Coffee is one of the few products where it's possible to be involved every step of the way, from the farm to the consumer, says Mr Foo. "It's something to do with lifestyle and interacting with people upstream."

In the past, Mr Foo had merely been a casual coffee drinker, but the coffee project had been percolating in his head for some time. In early 2009, he made a research trip to Melbourne, where he soaked up the Third Wave coffee culture. He also went to Nepal, to the region near Mount Everest's Base Camp 1.

"It was stressful at work so I went on a trip to consolidate my thoughts and conceptualise my plans," he says. He was broke and slightly in debt and the retrenchments in the banking industry had a major impact on him, but he was determined to change the way he lived. Staked to $50,000 in seed money by a relative, Mr Foo started Papa Palheta in the back of a shophouse near Newton Circus. It was September 19, 2009, 19 days after he left his banking job.

Papa Palheta was primarily a coffee-roasting and wholesale business but it also had a boutique retail-like component where aficionados could drop in for a freshly roasted cup of coffee. "I felt that roasting was more sustainable, whereas a café is only as good as its lease," says Mr Foo. "From the start, I decided to focus on the supply of coffee, secure the agencies to machines and build a core team, rather than just open a café."

He started with a $25,000 roaster, a few sacks of raw coffee from local suppliers and some invaluable roasting lessons from coffee guru Tan Tiong Hoe, a major supplier of coffee to kopi tiams. "I was young and hungry, my learning curve was very steep," says Mr Foo. "I kept asking questions, some of which Mr Tan couldn't answer - so I looked and learnt elsewhere. Now, we repair and modify our own roaster in the search for a better roast."

Mr Foo was making coffee in the day, roasting at night and packing in the early morning. He would take a short nap before going back to work, making deliveries when he had some spare time. He now supplies coffee to about 30 establishments and also exports to Malaysia. Since he started, different partnerships were formed with like-minded people, and then dissolved when they eventually left to do their own coffee-related businesses. "We had the same goal but different styles," says Mr Foo.

Papa Palheta helped to redefine coffee as a destination item where previously it was a convenience item, found near hospitals and libraries or below offices, says Mr Foo. By contrast, his outlets have all been destinations with quirky charm, located far from the mainstream. "It wasn't deliberate but it just turned out that way," he says.

Loysel's Toy opened in January 2011 and together with Papa Palheta and Chye Soon Huat, make for a formidable coffee triumvirate, attracting a clientele that is young, well-educated, well-travelled and Internet-savvy - a demographic that has plenty of growth potential.

Mr Foo started in the wholesale coffee business but is now involved in F & B and retail, with a coffee academy to complete the picture. "There are different challenges for each category," he says.

The fruits of his labour are evident in a visit to Chye Seng Huat - where visitors cannot help but be impressed with Mr Foo's single-minded mission to create the best coffee shop in town - but it hasn't always been easy going.

"F and B hours are not funny, and roasting is not easy either," says Mr Foo, who admits to getting frustrated when he runs into a roadblock. "Sometimes I wish I wasn't doing this, but doing something else instead. It's gotten to be less fun and I went through a lot of partnerships, dealt with people who are older and more experienced - you learn and move on."

He adds: "I feel that I have this huge responsibility to my staff - they're not here for me, they're here for a bigger calling. They believe in the cause."

Many young people are going through a quarter-life crisis these days, says Mr Foo of the steady proliferation of gourmet coffee businesses here. "A lot of them don't need to work but for me, I really wanted to do this. Some have the luxury of taking time off - I didn't, I had a huge mortgage and loans to pay."

He adds that the coffee lifestyle business has become fashionable for some people. "They get inspired for the wrong reasons and for some it's a phase rather than a true calling - you worry for some of them," he says. "I had everything to lose and because of that I had to make it work."

Mr Foo is fully invested in the business and although it appears there aren't enough hours in the day to accommodate his current workload, he has more ideas in the pipeline - such as Suite 12, a sort of concierge service for coffee that includes warehousing and sourcing rare coffees for clients. "We want people to experience coffee in a different setting and redefine how people in Singapore drink coffee," he says.

It's only been three years since he started and he has no regrets, especially since the good days have outnumbered the bad ones. "There are mornings I wake up, look in the mirror, smile and say to myself: "Let's make coffee," says Mr Foo. "We try to push limits with coffee."

The competition is steep but Mr Foo is quietly confident that he is on the right track. With coffee culture on the upswing, he says he's not too worried about the short term future. "I've never gone out to secure business, the customers have always come to us - what happens after the next two years is important though," he says.

He adds, "I'm confident of our product. There have been ups and downs but the team is trying its best and it will only get better."

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