KOTA KINABALU, Feb 10 ― In a city where being laidback and close to Nature is a lifestyle, it’s hard to imagine people getting excited over a cup of expensive coffee.
A stroll around the centre of Borneo’s most lively city still sees the neighbourhood coffee shops reigning supreme with the odd Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf as the go-to coffee fix options.
But a closer look ― and with the help of Google map ― will show that a specialty coffee culture is emerging in the capital of Sabah, as more and more cafes are offering city dwellers something more than just the run-of-the-mill cup of Joe.
In the past year or so, indie cafes have been sprouting up in the city; many are owned by entrepreneurs who have some experience abroad and are looking for a new venture that ties in with their coffee passion.
The unbeaten path
The first to boldly venture into the specialty coffee business here is former publishing manager Janice Leong with her Hong-Kong branded Pregio by Barista Caffe.
Leong, who spent part of her childhood in Sabah but had been living in Hong Kong for most of her life, said she wanted to bring to her hometown her passion for coffee which for most people extended to just the local kopi-o and international coffee chains.
“The specialty coffee culture did not exist yet and many wondered why I was doing it when the market was saturated with other shops. But I wanted to bring in a new kind of awareness and appreciation for coffee,” she said.
Leong left her husband and son in Hong Kong when she returned to Kota Kinabalu to set up the business two and a half years ago with her mentor Chester Tam who owns the café franchise brand in Hong Kong.
“You couldn’t hire baristas then so we started from scratch, training people who had the aptitude and passion to love coffee,” she said.
Back when ristretto and single origin were alien terms to the average coffee drinker, Pregio was offering flat whites and brewing methods like drip, syphon, French press, Aeropress and more.
Leong will tell you that almost everyone then had no idea what specialty coffee was or the many different options of brewing available.
With most customers, explaining the different tasting notes in the coffee, brewing methods and even the concept of specialty coffee was the norm.
“Even now, most people still will not be able to identify the different notes. No matter how specialty and how unique, at the end of the day, most just want a good, tasty cup of coffee and we have had to find that balance,” said Roy Chiew, owner of one of the latest cafes in town, Adelphi & Co.
Chiew said that although people are embracing the café culture, coffee appreciation is something that most people in the city will not delve into yet.
Perhaps one of reasons why Third Wave coffee has not taken over yet is because operators have opted for lower-profile suburban and residential areas where more affluent customers are potentials. This means leaving out tourists and passers-by.
At these out-of-the-way cafes, you’ll find a broad spectrum of customers, ranging from the expected teen hipsters, young professionals, families and even an odd retiree or two.
“It’s really hard to say who our customers are. It really is anybody who enjoys coffee. Some people are curious and want to try, some just want a place to meet and chat with their friends,” says Inch coffee café owner David Lee.
“Others though, like us, are hardcore coffee lovers who would go anywhere for a perfect cup of coffee,” he said.
Inch first opened at an obscure old warehouse building in Jesselton waterfront, with few retailers and even fewer passers-by. It gained a following which saw them progress to the more family-friendly Perdana Park in Tanjung Aru.
“But customers continue to come anyway, and even more now as they appreciate the coffee and the atmosphere,” he said.
The Korean-owned October Café, which opened up a few months after Pregio, is located at Peak Vista, an affluent neighbourhood just outside the city while Pregio is located at a new commercial centre outside the city in Metrotown, closer to the industrial part of town which caters to nearby businesses.
“We were still one of the first outlets to open in this neighbourhood when it was first set up two and half years ago. The fact that we have maintained business where many other restaurants have closed speaks for itself.
“I think everyone enjoys good coffee and the experience, so people keep coming back,” said Leong.
A close community bound by shared passion
The burgeoning coffee lovers community is helped by the close relationship between the café owners in the city.
“We visit each other during our free time and off days, we have good chats about the latest happenings and discuss coffee. We don’t see each other as just competition because coffee is so subjective,” said Lee.
Being a relatively small but growing community of coffee lovers, the cafes owners and their regulars often keep in touch and share the latest offerings and talk shop whenever they get the chance.
“I’m not even sure we are competitors as we are located in different parts of the city, and in KK, a 20-minute drive is considered far,” said The B Side café owner Howard Ng.
“But we have the same intention ― everyone wants to build and educate the market. So everyone does their part and directly or indirectly create more awareness. Eventually the market gets bigger, and everyone benefits from this,” he said.
“We are in the same business. So we respect each other’s work. Coffee is so subjective anyway.”
Here are some specialty coffee places to check out:
PREGIO by Barista Caffe
Metro Town, Block J-0-1, Ground Floor Corner Unit, Jalan Bunga Ulam Raja, Kota Kinabalu
Open : 9.30am-6pm. Closed on Wednesdays
Tel: 088-382 579
1B, Perdana Park, 88100 Kota Kinabalu
Open : 2pm-10pm daily. Closed on Mondays
Tel : 0166393807
24, Block C, Damai Plaza, Luyang
Open : 10am-10pm
The B Side
21, Ground floor, Lido Plaza, Jalan Nosoob Hungab, Penampang
Open: Tuesday to Thursday, 10am-11pm, Friday, 10am-12am, Saturday, 9am-12am
Tel : 088 - 715453
The Peak Vista, Lorong Puncak 1, Tanjung Lipat
Open : 10am-10pm daily except the last Wednesday of every month