KUALA LUMPUR, May 25 — When is a café not a café? Singaporean-based coffee company Papa Palheta is trying to solve this riddle by doing it all — sourcing and roasting beans; serving coffee in its own outlets; selling espresso machines and brewing equipment; conducting coffee appreciation classes and workshops; and even running an online coffee subscription service.
Founder Leon Foo, 31, started the company as a coffee-roasting and wholesale business from the back of a little shophouse in Bukit Timah in 2009. Today the brand also includes a trio of cafés — Loysel’s Toy and Chye Seng Huat Hardware in Singapore, and the newly-opened Pulp in Bangsar.
The company’s curious name comes from the legend of Portuguese diplomat Francisco de Melo Palheta who planted the first coffee bush in Brazil with seeds smuggled from neighbouring French Guiana in 1727. Palheta was said to have accomplished this act of cross-border intrigue by seducing the French Guianese governor’s wife.
By contrast, Foo has a less amorous strategy of propagating his meticulously roasted beans across the Causeway. The former banker says, “I’ve always wanted to create a Singaporean-Malaysian brand but it was a matter of timing. The Singaporean market was ready first so we started there. For Pulp, our Kuala Lumpur entry, I wanted to collaborate with local partners hence we have Bangsar-based Art Printing Works as our landlord.”
The avid locavore reasons that as Singapore is only four hours away from Kuala Lumpur by land, the two cities are still close enough for Papa Palheta’s coffee to be considered local. He says, “What we are trying to do is build our brand identity within this stretch of the peninsula. Roasted coffee does not travel well so we’re keeping operations within these two countries.”
While other coffee companies are busy exporting their beans overseas or building franchises, Foo insists that he’s not interested in aggressive expansion. “Not only are we a café operator but we are more known as coffee roasters. We sell beans to home users and also source good coffee based on the principles of transparency, traceability and quality. This is the foundation of our relationship with the coffee farmers and importers-exporters whom we work with.”
Though Papa Palheta began as a coffee-roasting company, Foo soon realised the need for a place to showcase the coffee he was selling. He says, “We had to present coffee in a way that no one was doing at the time. Therefore we decided to open a café for this reason, which is where Loysel’s Toy came in.”
Opened in 2011, the cosy café located along the Kallang Riverside Park is named after Edward Loysel de Santais, the engineer who created the world’s first commercial coffee machine. Debuting at the 1855 Paris Exposition, the machine made over 1,000 cups of coffee an hour, a feat unheard of in the day. (One of the bespoke blends at Loysel’s Toy is called 1,000 Cups in honour of that achievement.)
The inventor’s “toy” subsequently became the basis for modern-day espresso machines. Some might argue that Foo occupies the same pioneer status in Singapore as a specialty coffee purveyor since his entry into the competitive market five years ago.
“From Loysel’s we learned that we are not a café or an F&B (food and beverage) business but a coffee company. Papa Palheta is built from a coffee roasting, machines, service, education and sourcing standpoint.”
While the community-driven Loysel’s Toy has a bucolic feel (there are even commuter bicycles available for rental), Chye Seng Huat Hardware draws a more urban, hipster crowd with its industrial décor. Foo explains, “Chye Seng Huat Hardware is our headquarters and flagship outlet. It’s set up to be a true coffee bar where everyone mingles, unlike other cafés where you just sit down. Often customers — and baristas too — want to know more but dare not ask. We break down the barrier between baristas and customers here so both are learning at the same time.”
At Chye Seng Huat Hardware, which opened two years ago, an eye-catching island-bar offers a 360-degree view of the baristas at their craft. Their signature cold brew coffee, served in vintage-looking medicine bottles, is steeped for 10-12 hours to produce a smoother, less acidic brew. They also launched a coffee subscription service called ‘Must. Drink. Coffee.’ that delivers 500 grams of freshly roasted beans to customers’ doorsteps each month.
Foo has also gotten the Singapore government to help subsidise classes for coffee lovers.
Then came Pulp housed on the grounds of a Bangsar printing company. Unlike their earlier cafés where raw, almost-bare furnishings reigned, here almost every surface is finished; expect of a lot of laminated wood and glass. A very big portion of the space is dedicated to the back-of-house that includes the cupping room, the C-Platform training area, the warehouse to store the beans and an office upstairs. By contrast, the café portion is quite small.
Foo explains, “We deliberately did this so that we come across as a support centre. If you notice, the espresso and brew bars are designed in such a way so they can be rotated to showcase our equipment and the openness of how we do things. We are trying to create that curiosity of ‘Hey, they are cupping coffee inside. Maybe I should go have a look since I’m interested?’”
For coffee enthusiasts, the C-Platform is a space where they can play with various coffee paraphernalia and machines with the guidance of a professional, whether it’s the dedicated staff on hand to answer their every query or by attending small group classes.
As Foo puts it, “Education is key to bridging the gap between our customers and our staff, as well as bringing up the standard of good coffee. For example, if our staff is calibrating the espresso machine, you can ask him to show you the features of the different machines. You can even open the cabinet doors to see how the drainage is done. This is a great way to connect with and understand what our customers need whether they are a home brewer or someone who wants to open a café.”
Given Papa Palheta’s strong focus on customer service, it’s no surprise every member of staff at Pulp will welcome you with a merry greeting the moment you step into the coffee boutique (followed by your name, after a visit or two).
Foo says, “Instead of hiring baristas, we hire people who are good with people. Interest in coffee is a plus. Whether it’s Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, many young people are going through a quarter-life crisis and require more than just job satisfaction. You have to offer them more, from training to creating a shared culture.”
It’s clear that Papa Palheta is in a different class even as they reach out to share their passion for good coffee with others. From the meticulous way they roast beans to the cheerful, committed staff helping customers select suitable brewing equipment; they know when a café is not a café — when it’s so much more.
Pulp by Papa Palheta
29-01, Jalan Riong, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur
Open Tue-Fri 9am-7pm; Sat-Sun 9am-10pm; Mon closed
66 Kampong Bugis #01-01, Singapore
Open Tue-Fri 9am-6pm; Sat-Sun 9am-7:30pm; Mon closed
Chye Seng Huat Hardware
150 Tyrwhitt Road, Singapore
Tue-Fri: 9am-7pm; Sat-Sun 9am-10pm; Mon closed