KUALA LUMPUR, July 2 — Remember when visiting a café was reserved for a special occasion, when you were having a Sunday brunch with family and friends or when you just wanted to enjoy some really good hand-brewed coffee on your own?
No? I don’t blame you; I can barely remember a time when there wasn’t a café or two around every corner, each trying to outdo the other in Instagram worthiness.
Yet many of these cafés seem to disappear just as fast. Crowds may come during the early days of opening but keeping them as regulars is a trickier enterprise.
Which is why when an independent café manages to not only survive for five years and more, but also thrive, one wonders how they made it work.
One such example is Await Café, a second-floor coffee shop in the quiet neighbourhood of Taman Desa. Spearheaded by veteran barista Jane Lee, the café sees a steady flow of residents dropping by for drip coffee and comfort food.
“When we opened in 2012, I wanted a hand-brewed, black coffee concept,” says Lee, “but I also knew food would be important. Because I didn’t have the cooking skills, my then business partner, a former colleague who was a foodie, took care of that.
“The idea was to have simple, light-tasting food so as not to overpower the subtle flavour profiles of the coffee.”
Unfortunately, customers felt the food was tasteless and unattractive. Lee recalls, “This was quite a blow because we believed starting the business was about sharing a dream and seeing what we can do together. However, we didn’t fully understand our customer base then. My first lesson was good intentions alone won’t sustain a business.”
Disheartened, Lee’s first partner left and was replaced with a former barista friend whom she met working at another café. While her second partner eventually left to start her own café, she left behind a very organised set of standard operating procedures, recipes and cleaned up the accounting.
Lee says, “My second partner taught me that I couldn’t focus on what I loved — which was coffee — alone but that I had to immerse myself in all aspects of the café operations if I wanted Await to succeed.
“It’s my business so I had to be fully accountable. I also realised anyone could leave at any time. It’s the nature of the business; it’s nothing personal so I have to ensure that no one is indispensable.”
This is where Nicholas Cheah, Lee’s third partner, entered the picture. A career in coffee wasn’t originally part of his plans. He was in the second-hand mobile phone business when he first visited Await Café as a customer in 2014.
He says, “My ex-wife had wanted to open a café. As she focused on espresso coffee, it made sense for me to learn about hand-brewed or filter coffee.”
Serendipitously, Lee was looking for part-time baristas then and hired Cheah. He says, “As Jane kept pushing me to improve, I eventually got curious about coffee.
“Previously it was just to please my ex. When we broke up, I went on a soul-searching trip to Taiwan. I wasn’t outgoing by nature but this trip made me more assertive and confident when I returned.”
When Cheah expanded his role as a café partner, Lee discovered to her delight that third time’s the charm. She explains, “He’s calmer and more mature. I believe his prior business experience also helped as he knew how to resolve any conflicts professionally. He also, surprisingly, added a creative touch to Await!”
While the menu was run-of-the-mill sandwiches before, Cheah introduced hot dishes — many with a Taiwanese/Japanese element — that draws diners from the neighbourhood.
He says, “I love food and I like thinking outside the box. Definitely no eggs Benedict — that’s available in every other café in town! I thought, ‘Why not something I’d enjoy eating like a donburi (Japanese rice bowl) or lu rou fan (Taiwanese minced pork rice)?’”
Today, customers head to Await Café to sip on siphon-brewed black coffee while they wait for their made-to-order meals. Popular dishes include their saba (grilled mackerel) rice, Japanese curry rice with siew yoke (roast pork belly) and the curiously-named October Spaghetti (so named after the shiyue jiecai or mustard greens that grow best in October).
With their small but well-trained team in tow, Lee and Cheah are now considering expanding but in an organic fashion. Cheah says, “One option is to open a bookstore with an attached coffee bar, rather than a café outright.
“We are also offering coffee appreciation classes now on the weekends at Await; helping our participants first learn how to taste and judge the flavours of coffee before brewing it.”
What a long way they’ve come! Lee recalls, “Initially our only goal at Day One was simply to survive three years. Anything further seemed unthinkable: five years is a lifetime in the café business. Now that we’ve just celebrated our fifth anniversary two months back, anything seems possible.”
Given all the extra work involved with building a café from scratch, such as with Await Café, one would think taking over an existing business would be an easier option. To some extent, this is true.
When Tray Café’s Allison Wong, Dinesh Rao and Victor Yap took over the premises of popular brunch café Haute Food Co. in Plaza Damas about five years ago, the idea was to capitalise on a dependable pool of customers.
“The previous café was doing very well, actually, but the owner wanted to start a family,” says Dinesh. “We were regulars so she offered the business to us first. We bought it lock, stock and barrel – she only kept the name and her recipes. Luckily we inherited the staff, the space and the customers.”
Even with that opportune beginning, the Tray Café team were kept on their toes. Wong recalls, “Being fancy back then wasn’t an option; we didn’t have the budget. We spruced up the place as best we could and opened for business in two days. No luxury of months of renovation.”
None of them had been in the food and beverage (F&B) industry before: Wong was a banking executive, Dinesh was in human resources while Yap had been a civil engineer for 11 years. What they did have was a shared love for food.
Wong’s mother was a home baker so she helped in the kitchen growing up; Dinesh said he enjoyed the process of cooking more than the finished dishes themselves; and Yap had slowly developed a passion for fine food while dining out when he worked in London.
“We didn’t want to rock the boat too much,” says Dinesh. “We changed the menu slowly so the kitchen crew could adapt. It was challenging learning to communicate with the staff as well as keeping food quality consistent and cost of operations low.”
What they discovered though was old Haute customers still came up to them to say they preferred Haute! “That’s when we realised there was no point trying to please the legacy customers... so we slowly revamped, not caring whether the regulars would buy in to what we believed in,” adds Dinesh.
It took about six months to turn the café into what they wanted. Today, Tray Café is a warm, welcoming space where frequent diners know exactly what to expect.
Entering, a wall of witty, food-related quotes teases one’s appetite. Indeed, making the mouths (and eyes) of customers water is a key ingredient to their success.
While there are scrumptious cakes in the chiller, the countertop next to the cashier is positively groaning under the weight of all manner of baked treats. Squares of brownies stacked up high, scones, small loaves of burnt butter cakes... your eyes will want to eat everything up!
Most return for Tray Café classics such as their sinful Mocha Gâteau or their individual pavlovas topped generously with fresh fruits. Other signature treats include their sticky fig pudding, apple-blackberry crumble, croissant bread-and-butter pudding, and classic carrot cake.
But this is not a cake house although there are certainly a lot of those. Tray serves up sandwiches, salads and daily specials written up every day on a blackboard.
Yap observes, “When we took over, we knew our concept would be different. We wanted to play with a wider variety of food. People recognise this as the ‘Tray style’ of food nowadays.
“Let’s not make it too complicated. Give customers what we ourselves want.”
And by the looks of things, that is the winning formula.
9-1-5, Jalan 3/109F, Taman Danau Desa, KL
Open Sun-Thu 11am-8pm & Fri-Sat 11am-11:30pm
Tel: 03-7971 0978
H-0-2 Block H, Plaza Damas, 60 Jalan Sri Hartamas 1, Sri Hartamas, KL
Open Wed-Mon 11am-6pm; closed Tue
Tel: 03-2303 1742