Brew brouhaha

Singapore's coffee culture used to centre on the kopi tiam, or neighbourhood coffee shop. But this local institution has come under increasing pressure, especially from the rise of foreign coffee chains during the past decade.

The city now has more than 200 western-style cafes that attract younger customers as much for being trendy hangouts as for their brews. Recent contests to find Singapore's top barista, or professional coffee maker, attest to this invasion. It's enough to have the neighbourhood coffee-shop operator sputtering in his brew.

Nevertheless, enterprising kopi-tiam operators continue to thrive, some even building their businesses into chain operations. These include Killiney Kopi Tiam, Ah Mei Toast and Wang Jiao House of Kaya Toast.

Adrin Loi, 53, presides over Ya Kun, a home-grown chain of 25 outlets. The youngest son of a Hainanese migrant who ran a coffee stall in the historic Lau Pa Sat food complex, he reinvented the family business after his father died in 1998. Fusing tradition with modern management, Loi hopes to build Ya Kun into a brand along the lines of western chains such as Starbucks. The motto on its website reads: 'The toast that binds kinship, friendship and partnership'.

'All the family members, my older brothers and sisters, helped out in our flagship shop,' says Loi. 'But most have retired. My sister- in-law looked after the making of the kaya [a coconut custard] until recently, when we started a factory. Everything was put in place for someone to take over the business properly. My father passed this business to me. It was easy, as he had built up a reputable name.'

The chain still serves affordable fare, with a set order of two eggs, two slices of toast and coffee for S$3 (HK$15), but its menu features more inventive combinations such as French toast with cheese, toast with ice-cream and flavoured ice smoothies

'Everything we serve is localised,' says Loi. 'Everybody eats egg and cake, and bread is a staple. It's part and parcel of everyday life. Nowadays, there's more spending power and we aim at a target market. We're between the western cafe and the traditional kopi tiam. We think that we have a better image than the kopi tiam.'

Adopting a similar marketing strategy as western chains, Ya Kun sells its own merchandise such as jars of kaya and limited-edition mass-transit cards, and has extended its franchise to Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

The kopi tiams began as drinks stalls catering to the thousands of labourers who left China's coastal provinces since the mid-19th century to work in the Straits Settlements in Malaya and Singapore. They went on to take over traditional terrace shop-houses, often on busy streets near temples and marketplaces.

The drinks business was run mainly by migrants from Hainan and Fuzhou because most other trades were dominated by Fujian, Chaozhou and other dialect groups, says Hong Poh Hin, chairman of the Foo Chow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants' Association. At its peak after the war, the association had about 1,200 members, and its Hainanese counterpart counted more than 500.

Kopi tiams became not only places to drink coffee and eat soft-boiled eggs and toast slathered with kaya, they became social institutions - gathering places for everyone from retirees and students to office workers and tradesmen.

But numbers began to decline in the 1970s, when the government demolished many of the shop-houses for development and the lifting of rent controls on pre- war buildings meant an end to cheap premises.

The emergence of cafes serving speciality coffee further cut into their patronage. First, there were independent operators such as the Coffee Club, which opened in 1991 in the fashionable Holland Village area, followed a decade ago by big American chains such as Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

While kopi tiam businesses such Ya Kun have succeeded by incorporating modern marketing and management, other owners such as Tong Tai Teck, an honorary secretary of Foochow association, are also adept at re-inventing their food and beverage business. As the traditional shop houses were swallowed up by public housing blocks, they were quick to sign up retail space in the estates, combining several lots to create food courts.

'Environment-wise, it has changed,' says Tong. 'We paid S$300,000 to S$400,000 for renovations 10 years ago to convert the space into food outlets. We retain the drinks business and rent out stalls to caterers. The operation has changed. Our main source of income now is rental.'

Kopi tiams are also smartening up. Staff are being taught to mix coffees and other drinks, dress in smart uniforms and provide service with a smile.

Some forward-minded owners have installed large-screen televisions and signed up to cable sports channels to attract crowds at night. With the added advantage of being licensed to sell beer and cigarettes, they've become a pub substitute for the budget-conscious.

But maintaining profits remains a challenge. A standard kopi tiam brew goes for just 80 cents compared with S$3 for a small cup of percolated coffee and S$6 for a patented iced tea or blended coffee charged by western-style cafes. Yet a recent 10-cent increase on a standard kopi-tiam cup sparked a public outcry.

Prohibited from roasting their own beans in backyard premises since the 70s, kopi tiam operators are keeping costs down by sourcing cheaper beans and shifting suppliers from Brazil to Indonesia and Vietnam. Much depends on the quality of the selection provided by the roasters.

With greater affluence, travel and exposure, local coffee drinkers have become more discerning, distinguishing between flavours and blends of different producers, says Victor Mah, chairman of the Singapore Coffee Association, whose 33 members include bean suppliers, roasters and retailers. The wider availability of gourmet beans and coffee-making equipment also means those who don't want their fix in a cafe can brew their own.

Still, kopi tiams fare OK. 'They have a base in the HDB heartlanders,' Mah says, referring to the 80 per cent of Singaporeans living in high-rise public housing. 'The markets are different and will always be there. Each caters to different sectors of population.'

With the added advantage of being licensed to sell beer and cigarettes, they've become a pub substitute