Covid-19: How does a café in Johor Baru survive when coffee sales hit rock bottom?

Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters expanded their café last year, before the lockdown — Pictures by CK Lim
Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters expanded their café last year, before the lockdown — Pictures by CK Lim

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JOHOR BARU, June 23 — Imagine your coffee business is booming. More customers are visiting. You decide to expand, taking over the unit next door to your café. After years of roasting, regulars are buying your beans consistently and raving about their home brews.

Then comes the novel coronavirus. Then comes the nationwide movement control order (MCO). Coffee sales dwindle to a trickle overnight. What do you do?

This is the story of Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary, this August.

Its 27-year-old owner, Ang Yeesiang, has seen many ups and downs in his almost 10-year career in the coffee business so while he's rightly concerned, he also sees an opportunity.

From joining the food-and-beverage (F&B) industry after finishing high school in Penang to learning the intricacies of specialty coffee by apprenticing under Japanese barista trainer Masahiro Aoki in KL, Ang has come a long way.

He has been in Johor Baru since 2014, first with a pop-up café in historical Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, before opening Sweet Blossom’s full-sized outlet in the mature neighbourhood of Taman Pelangi.

Ang Yeesiang is a perfectionist, from extracting the perfect espresso shot to roasting coffee beans
Ang Yeesiang is a perfectionist, from extracting the perfect espresso shot to roasting coffee beans

After six years down south, Ang still sees plenty of room to improve and grow, even with the immediate challenge posed by the worldwide pandemic. It is a good time to take stock and review. Time to launch a new website and reach out in other ways.

That idealism is inspiring but the reality, at least initially, was sobering. Ang recalls, “At first our coffee sales dropped down to almost zero. It was scary. Then it slowly increased and stayed around 15 per cent of our previous sales.”

To bolster sales during the lockdown, Ang experimented with a variety of promotions. The idea was to quickly test different approaches, see what sticks, then build on the more successful strategies.

There was no room to just sit back and wait for things to improve on their own; Ang knew from his past experiences that hope alone without action produced no results.

“First we tried to encourage takeaway coffee or let customers ‘drink in the car, with a ceramic cup’, not unlike a drive through but with us serving them while they sat safely in their vehicles. The sales went up a little bit after that.”

Ang began roasting coffee in order to get the flavour profiles he wanted
Ang began roasting coffee in order to get the flavour profiles he wanted

Another unexpected win was the sales of drip coffee bags. This wasn’t particularly a focus prior to the MCO but as it turned out, Sweet Blossom’s customers in Johor Baru took to this while they were quarantined at home with the rest of the nation.

Ang continues: “We reopened for dine-in these past few days. Given the reduced shop capacity due to social distancing protocols, sales have only returned to about 45 per cent of what it was before. But that’s an improvement already, so we’re grateful for that.”

One advantage Ang has is his six-year head start in roasting his own coffee beans and testing the local market. He began roasting in 2014 but only started selling bags of coffee beans three years later when he felt his results were satisfactory.

Last November he began selling his beans online. This young man is no stranger to taking it slow and steady, showcasing more patience and prudence than many years older than him.

Perhaps the biggest change for Sweet Blossom is the launch of a new e-commerce website. Previously, like so many other small businesses, Ang had relied on social media such as their Facebook and Instagram pages.

Sweet Blossom has come a long way from a small café to becoming a full-blown small-batch coffee roaster
Sweet Blossom has come a long way from a small café to becoming a full-blown small-batch coffee roaster

He shares, “Online coffee sales is very important to our business now. It’s another source of revenue that isn’t limited by our business hours or the number of seats we have in our shop. Of course, we are still learning about online marketing and how to increase customer reach via our website.”

Sweet Blossom now sells a variety of coffee beans but never more than two or three selections at any one time. Ang explains, “This way we can give more focus on developing the character and flavour profile of the beans we roast. It’s worth it because this approach ensures that we know we are doing it the right way and to master the art of roasting.”

After nearly a decade in the coffee business, Ang feels that the current challenging climate has helped clarify his direction. He says, “Of course, I will still offer food and the always popular 3D latte art hot chocolate, as before. But now I know that if I want to continue in this industry, I have to focus more on coffee, not how much I can earn from food or other things.”

Moving on, Ang plans to re-centre Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters so that his business will align itself with coffee-centric streams of revenue, be it selling more cups of coffee, bags of their freshly roasted coffee beans or even activities related to coffee education.

Where specialty coffee is concerned, the urge to go in a million directions is tempting. However, the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing downwards trend in spending have made Ang realise he can’t afford to lose sight of his original goals.

Partners — whether customers such as KL’s Kita Café (left) or cake suppliers such as Johor Baru’s KimKim (right) — are important to Sweet Blossom’s success
Partners — whether customers such as KL’s Kita Café (left) or cake suppliers such as Johor Baru’s KimKim (right) — are important to Sweet Blossom’s success

He says, “I’m super excited. During this lockdown period, I have been learning a lot. Also, I had some time to rest my mind to re-plan our strategy. Even after all these years, I still stay curious about discovering more amazing single origin beans but at the same time we need a bigger customer base to enjoy our coffee if we’re going to up our production.”

Partners are important to Sweet Blossom’s success. Part of expanding their reach is to collaborate with those who share a common philosophy and where synergy exists.

When local cake suppliers KimKim hosted a pop-up in Sweet Blossom last year, it drew customers who were new to the coffee shop. Though the shop itself is very much a neighbourhood affair, through selling their beans online and through clients such as KL’s Kita Café, Ang is sharing his style of coffee roasting far and wide.

The young entrepreneur feels lucky that he can do what he loves for a living, something he acknowledges not everyone can. So even if the living is tough, it’s worth it for him.

Smiling, he adds, “I’m still drinking a lot of coffee in our shop every day, to try new profiles. To be honest, I just want to drink coffee — our flavour profiles are very stable with my roasting method!”

Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters

28, Jalan Maju, Taman Pelangi, Johor Baru, Johor

Open daily (except Thu closed) 8am-6pm

Tel: 016-2351393

To buy their beans, visit sweetblossomcoffee.com. For more coffee stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com/coffee/.

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