THE PLANT STORY -- PHOTOS: LYDIA VASKO
Whatever your hobby, there is a cafe for you. Gardeners can assemble terrariums at The Plant Story in HortPark, pet lovers have a cat and dog cafe each to play with their favourite animal and two bike cafes have sprung up in the past six months selling food along with bicycles.
Owners say they aim to create communal spaces where like- minded people can hang out and bond over shared interests while exchanging tips and insights as they sip coffee and snack on light bites.
Life!Weekend checks out eight such hobby cafes, which are themed to appeal to specific interests.
The slow death of all her plants was what spurred Ms Cath Lim to leave a career in advertising and pursue gardening.
"I was a serial plant killer. I wanted to figure out what I was doing wrong," says the 40-year-old.
So five years ago, she quit her job as a regional business director of an advertising agency, started reading gardening books and planted a small garden at home. The project grew into a small business as she taught other busy urbanites with black thumbs what she had picked up through workshops. She would teach for a fee in community centres and at corporate events and private parties.
Ms Lim, who is married to an oil and gas company executive, expanded her business three years ago when she moved into the 650 sq m open-air workspace in HortPark called The Plant Story (right), where she runs workshops, sells plants and gardening tools, and runs a small cafe.
While The Plant Story is mostly focused on gardening and workshops, which account for 60 per cent of its business, Ms Lim decided to include a cafe as a way to attract customers and introduce them to her gardening workshops and displays. The cafe serves comfort food such as soup ($7.90), mushroom quiche and chicken pie (both $4.90), cakes (about $6) and drinks such as coffee and root beer floats (both $5.90).
Mismatched tables, chairs and a hammock are scattered among the displays of plants, giving the cafe a rustic and laid-back vibe.
It is this verdant, idyllic setting which draws repeat customers such as Ms Joyce Tan, 27, a customer service representative who travels to The Plant Story from her home in Tampines about once a month.
"I go when I need some quiet time to myself. I sit in my favourite chair, read a book or take a nap. It is a very calm, quiet space and I like being surrounded by the garden and all the cafe's plants. It's very comfortable and I often stay for hours," she says.
Terrarium and gardening workshops are run by appointment at the back of the store. The hour-long workshops can be arranged on an individual or group basis, depending on Ms Lim's availability. They cost $10 a person, excluding the cost of the DIY garden kit the participant picks.
Ms Lim offers four types of gardening kits - terrariums, air gardens, desert gardens and water gardens - priced from $35 to about $300.
She says that 90 per cent of her customers would not have touched soil before. "They're clueless about plants," she says.
The goal of the workshops is to get people to explore their creativity as they design their own gardens, and to learn about plants, how to care for plants and help them grow.
"It's really about the experience, not the product," she says. "You are here in an idyllic setting where you can have food and drink and learn at the same time."
THE PLANT STORY
Where: 01-01 HortPark, 33 Hyderabad Road
When: 10am to 7pm daily, closed on Wednesday and some public holidays
Info: Go to theplantstory.com
A store selling camping equipment seems an unlikely location for a cafe, but it suits travel and adventure junkies such as mountain climber Trixie Tan just fine. Ms Tan, 50, has been visiting Camper's Corner, an outdoor outfitter store, since it opened in 1989. It was located in Peace Centre on Selegie Road then.
When it moved to its current location on Waterloo Street in 2010, it found enough space to open a 20-seat cafe next to rows of anoraks, hiking boots and sleeping bags. Outdoor seating can fit another 25 diners.
Store owner Calvin Tay, 50, says the cafe section, which takes up about a fifth of the store, was a natural progression as the community of campers grew.
"People would come in to buy supplies and while they were shopping, they would talk about an upcoming trip. Another customer or staff member would overhear and soon they would start giving advice, sharing stories and planning future trips together," he says.
Ms Tan, for example, has gone from being
Mr Tay's customer to being his travel buddy. They have been on about 10 group trips together in the last 25 years, to places such as Mount Kinabalu and Gunung Tahan in Taman Negara national park in Malaysia. "We're all friends here. We sit around in the cafe, catch up and meet other travellers. It's a community," she says.
The cafe offers mostly breakfast food, such as French toast, egg and toast and ham and cheese sandwiches (all $5 each). It also serves pizzas ($8 to $10) and coffee ($2.50 to $4.50).
There is free Wi-Fi so groups can gather to plan their trips on their laptops. There is also a projector screen on the wall so folks can present upcoming trip itineraries or talk about trips they had recently taken.
Presentations and interest group meetings are held a few times a month and are not confined to travel groups. Photographers, tree climbers, kite flyers and bird watchers regularly meet and give presentations in the cafe as well.
Most of the events are open to the public and are posted on the store's website and Facebook page.
"Anyone can come in and share his trip. People love to talk about their journeys," says Mr Tay.
STATION 51 AT CAMPER'S CORNER
Where: 51 Waterloo Street 01-01
When: 11am to 8pm daily
Info: Go to www.camperscorner.com.sg
Play with cats and dogs
What can animal lovers do when they cannot have pets of their own? Head to one of Singapore's two pet cafes.
They are Neko No Niwa cat cafe in Boat Quay and We Are The Furballs dog cafe on East Coast Road. Another, called The Cat Cafe, is expected to open in the Bugis area within the next month.
The cafes charge admission fees and patrons can play with the animals while sipping coffee or enjoying light bites.
Ms Tan Sue Lynn, 37, who owns Neko No Niwa, modelled her eatery on cat cafes she visited in Japan. The 120 sq m cafe, which opened last December, is home to 13 resident cats, all of which are former strays or adopted.
Customers pay $12 for the first hour and $5 for every subsequent half an hour to sit in a clean, brightly lit room centred around a multi-storey cat house. Food, which is mostly desserts like apple crumble ($5.50) and strawberry shortcake ($5.90), and drinks like coffee ($2.50 to $3.50) and fruit juice ($2.80), can be consumed inside the cat play area, which is about 50 sq m.
Some cats lounge lazily on chairs, counter tops and pillows, while others play, darting around delighted customers. Most of the patrons pre-book their slots, as the cafe is often full on weeknights and weekends.
Only 25 people are allowed in the cat area at a time. Children must be aged above seven and supervised by an adult.
For the comfort and safety of the cats, customers are asked to speak quietly, remove their shoes and wash their hands before entering the cats' living space and are not allowed to wake sleeping cats.
"It is a calm, quiet space where people can enjoy a bit of cat therapy and de-stress," says Ms Tan. "Cats have a very calming affect on me and I wanted to share that with others, as well as educate people about cats."
For first-time visitor Shi Ying, 18, the serene atmosphere in the cafe is a welcome respite. The National University of Singapore arts undergraduate says: "The cats are quite cute and playful and not aggressive at all. In an hour, I've played with six cats and it's quite comfortable. There's plenty of space for cats and humans."
Customers of We Are The Furballs dog cafe stop by for similar reasons.
The cafe charges $8.50 on weekdays and $9.50 on weekends per entry to the dog area, where there are typically five dogs - including Lu Lu the toy poodle and Duchess the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel - running freely around customers who sit on the ground to feed and play with them.
Included in the cost of entry is one drink, which customers can bring into the dog play area. Any food ordered from the cafe's limited menu, such as tom yum maggie mee ($5.90) and cream of mushroom soup ($3.90), must be eaten in a separate seating area.
Mr Gerald Koh, 20, visits the cafe for about four to five hours once a week to sit with the dogs and watch them play.
"I don't have a dog and this is the closest I can get to one till I can get my own," says the national serviceman, whose parents do not want pets in the house.
"I have met other regular customers. We talk about the dogs, their behaviour and sometimes about our own lives. I'm primarily there to spend time with the dogs but you can also make friends."
NEKO NO NIWA CAT CAFE
Where: 54A Boat Quay (Level 2)
When: 11am to 10pm on Monday and Wednesday to Friday; 10am to 10pm on Saturday, Sunday and public holidays; closed on Tuesday
Info: Go to www.catcafe.com.sg
WE ARE THE FURBALLS DOG CAFE
Where: 45 East Coast Road (Level 2)
When: 2.30pm to 9.30pm from Tuesday to Thursday; 2.30pm to 10.30pm on Friday and Saturday; 1.30pm to 9.30pm on Sunday; Closed on Monday
Info: Go to www.facebook.com/wearethefurballs
Wheels and meals
After a gruelling bike ride through the streets of Singapore, there are few things that a cyclist wants more than water and a safe place to park his bicycle.
Luckily, there is plenty of both at Wheeler's Yard and Coast And Company, cyclist-centric cafes off Balestier and Siglap roads respectively.
Coast And Company is the newer of the two, having opened just two weeks ago. But it is already doing brisk business.
The cosy cafe, which can seat about 15, has been full over the past two weekends, attracting cyclists and non-cyclists alike. This is thanks in part to its coffee, which is provided by local coffee roasters Papa Palheta, and a menu of light bites such as almond peanut butter toast ($7) or more substantial fare like beef rendang hot dog ($14) put together by chef Willin Low of Wild Rocket.
Owner Jansen Tan, 33, who is an ex-national cyclist, wants the cafe to be a place where cyclists can get together.
"I want it to be a quiet space for cyclists to hang out, come together to talk about bikes, share ideas, talk about their rides," he says.
Riders can even order a "Pamper Your Ride" special from the menu, which includes bike servicing and a coffee for $28. The bikes are serviced in a workshop behind the cafe, and the second floor houses a showroom and bike shop for Mr Tan's bike brand Coast Cycle, which costs from $1,500.
Mr Tommy Ong, 61, owner of Wheeler's Yard, a bicycle-themed cafe in a converted warehouse, also hopes to encourage cycling through his cafe.
Bicycle racks, frames, helmets and chic bicycles decorate the 650 sq m space located along a park connector. There is also a bike shop in the warehouse which sells bike accessories such as helmets, lights and gears, as well as bicycles, which start at about $1,000.
Ms Wendy Yap, 42, a judicial officer and president of the Joy Riders Racing Team, a group of close to 20 cyclists who train for bike races together, has been riding to Wheeler's Yard almost every weekend since it opened in January.
"I go with my group but I always see other cycling friends, and it's fun. It's a chance to catch up and talk with other riders as well as one of the owners, Daniel Ong, who used to be a rider," she says.
Non-cyclists make up the bulk of diners there and more than 60 per cent arrive on foot to enjoy a coffee ($4 to $5) and a bite. The menu includes items such as cheese fries ($9.90), Wheeler's Yard big breakfast ($19.90), spaghetti carbonara ($18.90) and burgers (from $15.90).
COAST AND COMPANY
Where: 54 Siglap Drive
When: 9am to 7pm from Tuesday to Thursday; 9am to 10pm from Friday to Sunday
Info: Go to www.facebook.com/CoastCycles
Where: 28 Lorong Ampas
When: 11am to 8pm from Tuesday to Friday; 10am to 8pm on Saturday and Sunday
Info: Go to www.facebook.com/wheelersyard
True to its name, Eat Play Love is where customers can go to eat, play and share their love of craft work and do-it-yourself projects. The 160 sq m eatery in Kampong Glam, which can seat about 65 people, lets craft enthusiasts of all ages gather to work using supplies provided by or bought at the store.
Owner Gale Tan, 33, says she wanted to create a space where people could have a proper meal while doing crafts together. A mother of three children aged six, four and two, she also wanted a place where she could entertain her kids.
"Too often, parents have to take their children to a place like a playground where adults do not have much to do but sit and watch. Here, children and adults of all ages can come together and do something creative in a nice, air-conditioned environment," she says of the cafe, which opened in June last year and cost about $200,000 to set up.
The menu offers Western fare such as macaroni and cheese ($8.50), burgers ($12.50) and chicken nuggets ($7.50), as well as Thai favourites such as basil chicken ($8) and tom yum noodle soup ($9.50).
Ms Pua Jia Hui, 31, who runs an online business, chose the cafe for her daughter's first birthday party a few weeks ago because it appeals to all ages. "My one-year-old, her 10-year-old cousins and the adults can all find something fun to do," she says.
The cafe has two craft corners with free supplies such as dried coloured macaroni, ribbons, cardboard, markers and crepe paper. For $5, customers can buy a basic craft kit with additional materials such as paper, pom poms, googly eyes and glue.
The more adept crafter can pick more advanced crafting kits, including a fabric doll kit ($25), a monster plush toy ($15) and a canvas bag ($15), which they can decorate using fabric markers ($8.50).
EAT PLAY LOVE
Where: 28 Aliwal Street 01-07
When: Open daily from noon to 10pm except Tuesday. Kitchen is closed from 3 to 6pm on weekdays
Info: Go to www.eatplaylove.com.sg
A lifelong Lego fan, Mr Andy Tay had dreamt about opening a cafe for years. The 37-year-old technical director wanted to create a space where he could share his love of the building bricks and hang out with other Lego enthusiasts.
So last July, banking on what he felt was a renewed interest in Lego here following the opening of the Legoland theme park in Malaysia in 2012, he opened Bricks'N'Cubes Cafe in The Cathay in Handy Road. It cost him about $200,000 to set up and broke even after about seven months.
Mr Tay employs an 18-strong staff and his wife, Ms Fenny Goh, 33, runs it when he is at work.
The brightly coloured cafe, which is about 125 sq m, serves mostly Western fare such as pizzas ($10.90), pastas ($10.90 to $12,90) and cakes ($6). It seats about 55 people. More than 200 Lego figurines line the walls, along with posters, dining tables built in booths designed to look like Lego bricks and a Lego corner where patrons can sit and play with the bricks while waiting for their food. Each table comes with an iPad that features about 20 Lego games.
The decor come from Mr Tay's collection of more than 1,000 Lego sets and figurines. The father of one has been building and collecting Lego since he was eight. All the buildings on display were made by him and his six-year-old son Bryant, who shares his love of Lego and spends hours playing with the bricks every day when he gets home from school.
"It's the idea of taking simple building blocks and making anything you want, anything you can imagine, that makes Lego so appealing," Mr Tay says.
"Lego is a bonding activity for me and my son, and we can come to the cafe and spend time together," he adds.
It is not just kids who are drawn to the cafe. The wife of marketing executive Ng Chrong Meng threw a surprise 30th birthday party for him at Bricks'N'Cubes in March. An on-off collector since his childhood, Mr Ng rekindled his love for Lego about two years ago.
"The cafe is a great place for a Lego fan as it brings us closer to the Lego world. There are lots of hard-to-find or rare Lego sets on display. It's quite a special treat for Lego hobbyist," he says.
Where: 02-12/14 The Cathay, 2 Handy Road
When: Noon to 11pm from Sunday to Thursday; noon to midnight on Friday and Saturday
Info: Go to www.bricksncubes.sg