KUALA LUMPUR, July 12 — Here’s a riddle: what’s black and white and red all over? The answer is a newspaper (“read all over”, get it?) but some lucky coffee lovers around town can now reply “Royal Post” – KL’s first mobile café.
You can’t miss the truck. Covered completely with rhomboids and thin trapeziums painted from a limited but striking palette (black, white and red, of course), it’s something you’d spot from a mile away.
If its loud-yet-chic colour scheme fails to draw your attention, then surely the queue of folks eager for their midday caffeine fix provides a decent clue.
Today the Royal Post coffee truck has stopped at Damansara Heights and there are happy faces everywhere.
The smiling crew in black inside the truck are busy serving coffee and food to a growing base of loyal customers who have learned to track the truck down. One mans the espresso machine while another finishes sandwiches on their trusty Salamander toaster for hungry office workers and students from a college nearby.
Stockbroker turned “truck driver”
The man behind this mobile café is Sam Lai, a former stockbroker and manager at Artisan Roast, an established indie café. He may well be the most disarming barista I’ve ever met, hitting me with revelations like “I’m not really a big fan of coffee.”
He explains, “What I mean is that I’m not a coffee addict. I like my coffee but honestly, I enjoy making coffee more than simply drinking it.”
No stranger to coffee and the service industry, Lai worked as a barista for two to three years in Brisbane where he studied economics. After returning to Malaysia, he was in banking and market research for two years.
Something was missing from his life though. He rediscovered his old passion one day when he visited the Artisan Roast café at TTDI.
“I was impressed to find Aussie-style coffee here in KL. I never expected to be able to find a decent flat white outside of Australia,” he enthuses.
“Soon I was returning to Artisan Roast every evening after work and started part-timing there as a night barista. I was lucky to learn from head barista Michael Wilson during the early days before they expanded and he had more free time.”
Lai shares how baristas were trained to use all the resources the café had on hand. Wilson had encouraged his crew to learn to foam milk using actual milk whereas other café owners often only allow their baristas to use soap and water to learn.
“We were encouraged to use as much as we needed. The goal was to learn how to make coffee the right way. I also learned that when coffee is not right, the only thing to do is to dump it and start over.”
Lai continues, “He taught me to make a decent cup of coffee. I mean, I already knew how to make coffee, but he helped to further enhance my know-how. My time at Artisan Roast also made me realise how important customer service is, an awareness that guides me every day as a barista.”
The moving café
Eventually the juggling act of being a stockbroker by day and a barista at night got to be a bit too much for Lai. He confesses, “I got fed up being where I’m surrounded with people losing money or chasing it relentlessly. It was such a capitalistic environment.”
As a result, Lai tried to find another way to balance his life. Serendipitously he was at a gathering with some of his old university mates who had heard of his side career as a barista. The idea of opening a café together was mooted and swiftly discussed in earnest.
His two business partners are both from the financial industry and leave most of the day-to-day operations to Lai. But how did they come up with the idea of a coffee truck?
“I have always wanted to have my own café but I wanted to be different from the rest. Honestly, the café scene is starting to get crowded; I wanted to ride on the current coffee wave but didn’t want to imitate or be another ordinary café,” he explains.
“One of my favourite places for coffee in Melbourne is Soul Kitchen, which is a mobile café. What struck me when I returned to KL was that the dearth of coffee-based trucks locally. I thought this could work as there are already plenty of traditional food trucks which served local fare such as lok-lok or tau foo fa. It seemed a really good opportunity.”
A royal cuppa
Lai and his partners decided to name their new venture Royal Post partly as they wanted to deliver to their customers’ doorsteps just like the postman. They also wanted to strike a more exclusive tone, referencing the famous royal pumpkin carriage imagery of the Cinderella fable.
Royal Post also has a stationary, standalone café at Damansara Intan. The ample rental space was originally meant as a central kitchen for the food sold from their coffee truck. (Trivia: His head chef, a former pastry chef from Shangri-la, is also Lai’s secondary school friend. The man has a talent for recruiting from trusted ranks.) On a whim, the team decided to convert the extra area into a sandwich-and-coffee bar.
Operations commenced with the launch of the café in February and the coffee truck a month later. Lai is proud of their coffee truck, a modified Daihatsu Granmax, fully equipped with its own power, gas and water supply. He smiles, announcing “We are ready to go, wherever we go.”
Latte queens & flat white kings
Part of the fun is hunting down the truck. After all, the entire point of a coffee truck is that is moves around, right? Lai admits that the locations where the Royal Post truck hits tend to be where there are office workers and students such as Damansara Heights which offers both market segments.
“It’s not always easy moving around. There are days when even something as simple as getting a parking space can be difficult. There are usually hawkers with their stalls and food trucks; they arrive even earlier than us to get the best slots.”
While it’s a challenge getting a place to park, Lai brightens up at the mention of loyal Royal Post customers: “The trouble is totally worth it when customers say, ‘Hey, you’re back!’ and look forward to their coffee.”
One customer was dubbed the Latte Queen after her habit of ordering two to four lattes a day whenever the Royal Post truck appears in front of Menara Milenium where she works. Jo Huang quips, “The coffee truck idea is nothing short of fantastic – good, reasonably priced coffee right at my doorstep, not to mention the friendly crew.”
Another regular is called the Flat White King after his favourite beverage. Lai takes note of all of them, and returns to areas where the demand is highest.
Their customers mostly come from word-of-mouth and exposure to new audiences. Besides the college and office crowd, Royal Post has been expanding their repertoire to covering events, including the Teen Sports Carnival (held at Sri Emas International School), the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta 2013 and the recent Future Music Festival Asia.
Who knows? One day you might just find a black, white and red truck in your neighbourhood. If that happens, join the line and have some coffee. The caffeine, and the cheerful smiles of these travelling baristas ought to perk up your day instantly.
Café: G02 Ground Floor Block C, Damansara Intan, 47400 Petaling Jaya, Selangor (Tel: 03-7733 9868)
Truck: Check their Facebook page for updates on latest location
Café open Mon – Fri: 7am – 7pm; Truck open Mon – Fri: 7am – 3pm
This story was first published in the print edition of The Malay Mail, July 11, 2013.