KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 9 — If you love coffee as much as I do, chances are you might be hopping from café to café, in search of the perfect cup. However, did you know that there are two types of café hopping?
The first group of café hoppers could be after incredible coffee, beautiful latte art or even unique café décor — all of which can be carefully snapped and edited for posting on Instagram or Facebook. Few of us know about the second group of café hoppers though: baristas who move from one employer to the next in rapid-fire succession. One barista I know worked at five different cafés in the span of a year!
Why the restlessness? Could it be the draw of a higher salary? Certainly the number of so-called Third Wave coffee bars in the capital has increased dramatically in the past couple of years. Demand for baristas appears to exceed supply.
To find out more, I talk to Li Chan, one of the original founders of RAW Coffee, possibly the first specialty coffee bar in town since they opened in 2008. RAW Coffee recently stopped its operations at Wisma Equity. Chan and her two new business partners have since opened RGB & The Bean Hive in the almost-bucolic neighbourhood of Jalan Damai, a true sanctuary in the heart of the Kuala Lumpur city centre.
“We are both a boutique coffee micro-roastery and a vegetarian and vegan food initiative. Our menu is meat-free; we do have vegan choices too. Of course, most of our customers recognise us for our coffee first. Many of them are loyal and regular followers from our RAW Coffee days,” says Chan.
Before launching RGB & The Bean Hive, Chan and her partners took their staff with them to Melbourne to attend a professional barista course and explore the specialty coffee scene there. She says, “All of our baristas came with us from RAW Coffee so they are working baristas and already know how it works, of course. Still, it helps them to go through the training in an organised fashion.”
The opportunity to café hop in Melbourne also meant the RGB baristas returned to Kuala Lumpur with a valuable understanding of both coffee culture and café operations overseas. According to Chan, this exposure and renewed sense of excitement are key for employee satisfaction.
“Honestly, after five years, our baristas have got the skill sets to run outlets on their own. The question is how do we help them to keep growing? I think part of the reason why baristas hop from job to job is because they don’t have an idea of what to do with their careers. We have to provide them with a realistic career path.”
One of the ways Chan is doing this is by training her baristas to manage teams and to train new baristas in turn. She says, “I strongly believe that once you develop your skills to a certain level, you can’t stay a barista forever. You have to move on to the next level. If you don’t learn how to pass on the skills and train other people so that they become as good as you then your skills are limited to when you are physically behind the bar making coffee.”
Veteran café hoppers know some cafés only serve good coffee when the head or top barista is working; drop by when he or she isn’t around and you may well be disappointed with a mediocre cup or worse.
“It’s terrible when customers enter a café and ask for a specific barista to make their coffee because they know the quality won’t be as good otherwise. This is why we focus on training our staff to manage people, not just coffee. For a lot of baristas, they fail at this because it’s an ego thing where they think ‘I want to make the best coffee, so why should I teach you to become as good as me? Then I’m not so special anymore.’ If that is the case, then that barista will always be stuck where he or she is.”
Chan’s ultimate goal is for her baristas to become managers and see themselves as business owners. She explains, “Our business model is based on our staff eventually managing their own teams and their own outlet or kiosk. This is a real career path, not jumping from one café to the next, looking for a slightly higher pay cheque or the ‘cool’ factor. I’m looking for good attitude, a strong work ethic, and a desire to actually have a career in coffee instead of the ‘I just want to be a barista because it’s cool right now’ mentality.”
As a café owner, Chan is not oblivious to the hipster café trend but she doesn’t believe in trying to keep up with the Joneses. “I’m more about taste. I don’t really care so much about style as opposed to substance. Plus, I’m not really a hipster — I’m too old-lah. I’m in my mid-thirties already!” she laughs.
While it’s still early days for RGB & The Bean Hive, a staunch following of customers from RAW Coffee means Chan and her team aren’t starting entirely from scratch. “We are thankful for our regulars who still come here once they found we moved. But obviously you can’t just walk here and have lunch. It’s different from before. I realise it’s not just the quality of the coffee but the interaction between baristas and customers that keep them coming back time and again.”
Curious customers often ask Chan and her baristas what RGB stands for. “I guess it could mean ‘Rather Good Beans’ — which is what we aim for — or it could also be ‘Roast, Grind, Brew’ — which is what we do. It’s fun to hear the versions our customers come up with,” says Chan.
If you ask me, RGB could well be short for Really Great Baristas; they’re certainly moving in that direction.
RGB & The Bean Hive
35, Jalan Damai, Off Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur
Open Mon-Fri 10:30am-6:30pm; Sat-Sun 10am-6pm
Tel: 03-2181 1329