SINGAPORE, July 25 — After Amanda Toh Steckler opened Killiney Kopitiam’s first branch in the United States in August last year, it quickly became an outlet for Singaporeans from all corners of California to get their home favourites such as kaya toast and half-boiled eggs.
Toh Steckler, 48, a Singaporean who moved to the US in 2014 with her American husband who was there as part of his job in the cyber-security industry, said that American customers who had visited Singapore and “fallen in love” with the food often dropped by to patronise the cafe as well.
During peak hours, the queues can stretch on for three blocks outside, she added. The cafe is open every day, except Monday, and typically attracts about 400 customers a day on weekends and 300 on weekdays.
The outlet in the US is surrounded by the headquarters of technology giants such as Facebook and Apple, since it is located at Palo Alto in Silicon Valley, a 40-minute drive from San Francisco.
For this venture, she has partnered with chef Nora Haron, who is Singaporean and is the director of culinary operations at the branch.
“The excitement and anticipation from the community motivated us,” she said.
On the menu at the cafe are items familiar to Singaporeans such as toast with butter and kaya (a coconut jam), soft-boiled eggs, freshly brewed kopi (coffee), curry chicken, laksa (spicy coconut milk-based noodle soup) and even bak kut teh (peppery pork rib soup).
Killiney Kopitiam was founded in Singapore by Hainanese immigrants from China in 1919. It was only in 1998 that it opened a second branch and then became a franchise chain. In 2001, its first overseas branch was launched in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
It now has 30 branches in Singapore as well as dozens of branches in eight overseas countries, including the US.
Toh Steckler had to apply with the Killiney Kopitiam headquarters in Singapore and succeeded in doing so after ‘extensive dialogue’ with the owner.
She also had to delay the opening of the cafe by three months owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Singaporeans based in the US who could not fly home due to travel restrictions had been heading there to get a taste of home.
“(This) gave them more reason to come to Killiney They were missing Singapore food and I feel that we filled that void for them,” she said.
A kaya toast that costs about S$2.50 in Singapore is US$5.49 (S$7.45) there. A kopi o kosong (black coffee), which is typically S$1.60 at franchised branches here, costs US$3.49 (S$4.75).
Food is kept authentically spicy
Toh Steckler, an entrepreneur and real estate investor, thought of the business venture because she liked the idea of introducing Singaporean food to people who may not have the chance to try it.
She first jumped upon the idea of opening this business when she noticed upon moving to the US in 2014 that there she “simply could not find authentic Singapore food”.
“There are so many Singaporeans in the US that could benefit from this business,” she said. “Not everyone has the luxury to travel, (and food) fills that void,”
She also noticed that the demand for Singapore food in the US has “grown exponentially” over the last 10 years.
For instance, more restaurants offering Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine have opened up in the US. Examples include the Lion Dance Cafe, Dabao Singapore and Satay By The Bay.
However, cooking Singapore dishes in a foreign setting came with its challenges. At first, it was hard to find some ingredients because they were not easily available.
For instance, she had to import curry paste from Singapore.
“Our chefs worked hard in our (cafe’s) opening months on spice levels, textures and plating to constantly improve and respond to feedback while simultaneously maintaining our authenticity,” she said.
“(Our customers) hold us to a very high standard.”
Other than slightly larger portion sizes, there has been no need to pander to American palates or preferences.
For example, Ms Toh Steckler said that she has not found it necessary to reduce spice levels.
“We would like to keep it that way for authenticity.”
Toh Steckler added that constantly training new chefs, tasting the food and relying on the feedback of the customers will be crucial to ensuring the food remains authentic.
Within the next year, she plans to open five other stores in Cupertino, Santa Clara, Mountain View, Livermore and Walnut Creek, all located in the Bay Area in California.
In the longer term, or in the next eight years, she is hoping to expand to 62 locations across the US.
The vision is to “transform the American palette”, she said.
“(Singaporean food) is unique on its own and it connects people from a myriad of cultures,” she said.
“We hope to connect Americans with our kopi and our food.” — TODAY