For this episode of #BuroAList, we place the spotlight on three prominent players in Malaysia's booming cafe scene—Azlan Khalid of Whisk, Tan Boon Wy of Eight Ounce Coffee Co. and Peter Sehested of Kopenhagen Coffee. Scroll down further to learn about their thoughts on the local coffee industry in the interview feature below.
Azlan Khalid | Whisk
Founded by Azlan along with his sisters Emma and Nora back in 2010, Whisk is one of the early pioneers of the local specialty coffee industry. The excellent coffee and fresh, sweet bakes at their first cafe in Empire Shopping Gallery (Subang) have since propelled them to greater heights—they now run four branches, with Azlan overseeing the operational side of the business, including the quality of coffee as well as staff training.
Tan Boon Wy | Eight Ounce Coffee Co.
Having graduated with an economics degree, Boon Wy ventured into the banking industry in 2008—not the best of times, given the 2008 Financial Crisis. Then he stumbled upon the coffee business, and the rest, as they say, is history. Eight Ounce Coffee Co. took off in 2013, with five outlets under its belt at the moment. Boon Wy now spends most of his time in the R&D department and programming to develop better coordination across their outlets.
Peter Sehested | Kopenhagen Coffee
Kopenhagen Coffee founder Peter Sehested hails from Copenhagen, so trust him with the know-how of the cosy Scandinavian way of life that has translated into the beautiful space in Mont Kiara. While the cafe is fairly new to the scene, it has quickly won hearts over with its minimalist aesthetic, warm service and handcrafted coffee. This isn't Peter's only entrepreneurial venture though—he also heads a software company, and has been based in Malaysia for the past six years.
Tell us about how you got started in the F&B industry.
Azlan: I got started by luck actually. Back then, me and my sister just came back from studying overseas and were figuring what our next step should be. She studied in New York, where the coffee scene is quite established, and when she came back, she missed having good coffee. At that time, we didn't know of a specialty coffee place locally, so that's how the idea of opening up a cafe started.
Boon Wy: Quite like Azlan, I got into the industry because I thought that whatever people did overseas was great, and it would've been awesome to bring it back to Malaysia. I felt like the level of food quality here was good and we should showcase it to the world. That was the real reason why, but also it was me being young and naïve at that time, thinking it wasn't that hard!
Peter: To be honest, I wasn't really planning on starting a cafe, but one day the idea came to me as a hobby that I would like to pursue—I had no clue how to brew a cup of coffee, or setting up a cafe in a foreign country! But coming from Copenhagen where the food scene has been booming over the years, I was very much intrigued to start something on my own and I knew I was able to bring new ideas to the cafe scene in Malaysia, and that's how I got started.
Thoughts on the current cafe scene in Malaysia?
A: I think it has taken Malaysia by storm in a way that I didn't imagine it would at the time I started. In about 8 years, it has gone from a few cafes to like hundreds of like places. I think it's great, and it makes the barista profession more highly regarded as well.
BW: Yes it's way more competitive in the market now than it was a couple of years ago. A large aspect of it is because our talent pool hasn't quite caught up with the amount of cafes opening up, so that has really been a challenge. I would imagine that it is more difficult to sustain a cafe business now than when I first started out.
P: The good thing about the booming scene here is it's offering a great variety of experiences to the customers, and cafe owners are definitely getting more innovative. So it's great for consumers, and also us as cafe owners, as it pushes us to constantly innovate and improve our standards.
What do you think defines a successful cafe?
A: I think the determination to survive is quite important in running a successful cafe. Over the past 8 years, there have been a lot of cafes opening up, but there have also been a lot of them closing down. The ones that survive are the ones that put emphasis on quality products and service, and the ones that keep on learning.
BW: It's completely subjective but I think the answer to that is innovation with the customers. It's all about listening to the customers and what they want, along with innovating together with them. When we talk about the cafe scene 5 years ago, no one was talking about gluten-free, chia seeds, and the like. But now we're seeing a lot of that and evolution with the customers is really important. A lot of people fall in the trap of not innovating nowadays.
P: For me, it's a few things: 1) Having regular customers, which allows you to create your own community within the vicinity; 2) making the cafe a place that is part of the routine to these regulars to stop over for coffee to kick start their day; and 3) profit and sales, of course.
In the sea of cafes that are now out there, how do you distinguish your space from the others?
A: By just simply being ourselves. We were in a mall because we wanted foot traffic, but at the same time we didn't want to be commercialised. We wanted it to be a personal experience for the customers, for the people behind the counter to be human beings with their own personality and not just a coffee shop worker who's there to serve you. So we set ourselves apart by encouraging our crew members to be more personal and approachable.
BW: For Eight Ounce, we tend to hire people who are skillful in other aspects—apart from just baristas. For instance, we're hiring more programmers now as we're trying to move to a more tech-backed company. We knew we needed to innovate and use technology to improve business to a larger extent. It's easier to coordinate with smaller groups of people but when it comes to larger organisations (we've got five outlets all around and we aspire to be bigger than that), you really have to know how to front the business properly. One of it was innovation in tech.
P: I think it's all about concept and staying true to the idea in which how the business started out in the first place. At Kopenhagen, we focus on our Scandinavian heritage, which gives us a different approach on everything from design to how we source our beans.
What were some of the major considerations when it came to setting up your cafe?
A: We kind of went with our gut feeling, but we roughly know what we wanted, which were foot traffic and security, and that's why we are in a mall. Also, Empire Shopping Gallery was very new at the time. Location was great, and we got a small lot, which is perfect because we didn't know if the business was going to be sustainable at that time, but I'm glad everything worked out.
P: Yes, location is really quite key. Preferably with ample parking space, which is something I've taken note of—big consideration point for my future endeavours!
BW: I actually kind of stumbled upon the coffee business and started learning stuff on YouTube. I've since learnt that what makes a good cup of coffee or barista is really perseverance and dedication.
What were some of the challenges you came across in running your own cafe?
A: Learning everything from scratch was the main challenge. We didn't come from F&B backgrounds, but between my two sisters and I, we took up different areas of expertise—finance, marketing, HR—and just went with it. Working with people can also be quite unpredictable. We have to learn to work with and understand different personalities, both in terms of staff and customers.
P: Agreed, and good level of service staff is always a tough nut to crack. The team spends a lot of time training, but still it is often a challenge.
BW: The challenge for me back then was finding a mentor who would work well with us and guide us at the same time. I was fortunate as I had a very good mentor to look up to. He was actually also from the finance industry and seeded and groomed us to what we are now.
And what do you enjoy most about running your own cafe?
A: Everything coffee related. I love drinking coffee. I also love educating on coffee, and to see how the baristas become so technically developed and proud of their work. Someone I know once told me "coffee connects people", and I think that is very true.
P: Being at the cafe, working with my team of baristas and making coffee for our customers.
BW: I actually spend time more at the R&D department in the office now. My job is to get new products out in line, and I've also been spending a lot of time in programming—from email scripting to developing end-of-day sales reports.
If you could go back to the beginning of your career and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?
P: I think I'm still at the beginning of my career, in particular when it comes to F&B, so maybe I can learn something or two from these guys right here.
A: Have more fun. Relax, experiment a bit more, and be confident.
BW: Stay focused on your job. A lot of times we forget about what's important—family, loved ones and the like. So stay focused on what you want to do and you'll naturally guide yourself down the path.
What advice would you give to people aspiring to open a cafe of their own?
A: Study everything in detail. Do your best—if you're stressed out and stuff like that, you should relax, and know that you're already doing everything you can. Always try your best and strive to move forward continuously.
BW: Don't open a cafe! Jokes aside, find a mentor who you can talk to and have that good relationship with. Join us at Eight Ounce first! We'll go through all the hardships together and learn from each other. We're here to groom people and teach them right and wrong. Don't do this on your own.
P: Adding to that, always have some extra cash for operations, and spend time on being a nerd around your products.
Stay tuned for more Buro A-List in the next few weeks.
Videography: Octopost Studio
Art direction: Rachel Au, Loh Wei Yeen
Interview: Tan Su Fen
Hair and makeup: Taisu
Location: Common Man Coffee Roasters, TTDI