PETALING JAYA, Sept 7 — The soft afternoon light suffuses the monochromatic walls of the coffee shop; a tender flow both warm and cool.
The concrete surfaces offer a neutral backdrop to the cups of matcha latte and piccolos. Hues of grassy lawns and of café au lait.
Enter spacegrey (stylised with a lowercase "s"), and you enter a pirate’s secret hideaway... if the pirate in question was a philosophy-spewing minimalist Renaissance Man.
Also known as Terrence Goh, the café owner in question would be just as happy to whip up some soft chocolate cookies with molten matcha hearts, hot and fresh from the oven, as he would debate with you the merits of Montaigne over Nietzsche.
A space for coffee and conversations, then. The former, quietly spectacular; the latter (not during the various lockdowns, of course), deeper and longer than you dare hope for, and before long, half the day is gone.
This wasn’t the affable barista’s first round in the ring. The 30-year-old has had a colourful journey from when he graduated with an economics degree from University of Adelaide in 2012 to returning home just as the specialty coffee scene was taking off.
Goh says, “In 2013, I started working at a coffee shop just as the Third Wave coffee scene started to catch wind in Malaysia.”
He found himself truly taken by the culture behind an industry that was then in its very early iteration: “It was but a simple commodity, yet it comprised such a unique make up, shrouded in the combination of both mystique and science.”
While it was the culture – and catching that initial wave of what has since become an entrenched part of our food and beverage (F&B) scene today – that got Goh through the door, the thing that truly kept him around was what specialty coffee created: a community of like-minded people.
He shares, “I came to realise that the communal aspect, and the relationship and trust gained from barista-to-customer, really spoke to me as a young person, and that’s when I knew I wanted to be a barista.”
As with many ambitious baristas, Goh dreamed of segueing from being an employee to running his own café. That aspiration wasn’t born out of fame chasing but a far more practical concern:
“It was something that I childishly thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind doing this for free’ but alas, that wasn’t going to sustain as a career. After about six months of working up to 16 hours in a day at two different cafés, I knew then that I had to step outside the safety zone and work for myself if I was going to continue my journey in the coffee world.”
In 2014, Goh started Wallflower Coffee Co. in Wisma Standard Chartered, Bukit Jalil. While continuing to learn about the craft of coffee, he had to – rather swiftly – pick up the ropes of running his first business.
It wasn’t easy, but it was rewarding.
Then, as with many young entrepreneurs, Goh hit a huge roadblock and had to decide whether to pivot or call it a day. He recalls, “Before long, 70 great months had passed, and when the pandemic hit and a fallout happened between myself and the landlords, I decided to hang up the gloves.”
After months without income in 2020, Goh’s brother suggested that he move into the empty space in a shop lot that Goh’s sister-in-law had taken up to set up her florist business, Floralreef, in SS2, PJ.
The colour scheme means many things to Goh, who shares, “Grey – as a colour is the intermediary of black and white, suggesting openness to change, as well as the ability to adapt – signifies a clean slate for myself at the time. I then incorporated the term ‘spacegrey’, a default colour option on one’s iPhone into that thought process.”
The décor of spacegrey – a blend of Wong Kar-Wai retro cool with a touch of neon and a sparse, clean palette – as well as its limited but distinct menu have helped the shop stand out from the other cafés.
This is far from intentional, Goh assures me.
“If there was one word to describe my ‘style’ at work, it’d be – pragmatic. As an untrained chef and an uncertified barista, my approach is simply one that I’ve come up with over the course of self-taught traits discovered whilst behind the bar.”
Goh is fastidious about efficiency and tidiness, and as such, focuses on “recipes that are well-rounded, simple and repeatable; to ensure standards are kept even on my worst day at the office, and that has become the basis of every item that I put out on spacegrey’s menu. It’s all about striking the right balance between taste, preparation, affordability and service.”
In the early stages, Goh notes that spacegrey was but another café popping up in the busy neighbourhood of SS2, PJ: “Only it was worse, because I was operating out of a space that was initially designed for a small office! Everything was merely experimental and done on a small scale as I looked to find my place in the red ocean.”
Fortunately, the café slowly gained exposure via assorted social media outlets and from there, the attention of the public over time. From then onwards, Goh has seen spacegrey’s Instagram following growing organically while the shop has welcomed many returning customers from all walks of life.
“The multiple lockdowns we’ve encountered over the months have served as a double-edged sword, to say the least,” he adds. “On one end, yes – as an industry, we drew the short-stick as F&B went from not being allowed to open, to not allowing for any form of dine-ins for months on end.”
However, Goh reiterates that the extra time that he was awarded by the lockdowns and restrictions also meant he was offered a rare opportunity that a typically busy F&B schedule wouldn’t have allowed.
“I took it upon myself to come up with a new upgrade with each passing lockdown, whether it be in the form of a new recipe, or an expansion process. It started with cookies, then the ramen noodles alongside a new seating area, and most recently the daifuku!”
Ah yes. The soft and chewy daifuku — be it the classic version with its “QQ” mochi texture or the ones dusted with matcha powder – are each rolled by hand and filled with subtly sweet adzuki red bean paste.
The way Goh practises his craft, from making a Dirty to order when we asked him if he could (though it wasn’t on the menu) to his limited offering of “cyberpunk” ramen (noodles meant to be slurped in a postmodern Japan, he’d wax lyrical, perhaps as a nod to Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 or its predecessor, Blade Runner by Ridley Scott).
But lyricism aside, spacegrey is still a business and like most F&B businesses, it has pivoted from being traditional over-the-counter to taking pre-orders over WhatsApp for most of the menu items. The latter has proven to be particularly time efficient for Goh in terms of preparation.
He explains, “Instead of conversing over the counter, we now do our level best to reply to all the messages with the same level of empathy and care.”
Moving forward, as the country gradually eases on various restrictions, Goh is prioritising the integration of spacegrey’s operations and processes from the pre-lockdown times to the current recovery-plan period.
He says, “Whilst the transition back into a care-free dining-in experience might still be a far cry for now, I look forward to a once again full-capacity spacegrey – where customers can experience everything that we have to offer through great drinks, food, desserts and laughter.”
Where other small F&B businesses have explored “A x B” style collabs during the various lockdowns as a means of customer engagement and cross-promotion, Goh has thus far eschewed such team-ups... for now.
He explains, “Given the current social climate, there isn’t a plan to form any sort of collaboration – but as a young businessperson, I look forward to learning and growing from the creatives within and outside the industry, so I am definitely open to ideas!”
It has been many months since I last stepped foot into spacegrey, given the interstate travel restriction still in effect. But I look forward to safer days for all of us.
When those days come, I will be able to grab a seat in Goh’s cyberpunk café and be transported to 2046 (to the neo-noir realm of Wong Kar-Wai’s feverish dreams) or 2049 (where replicants slurp ramen next to ordinary non-androids, you know, humans?).
Let’s have a flat white to start, before we begin debating about Montaigne and Nietzsche again.
149, Jalan SS 2/24, SS 2, Petaling Jaya
Open daily (except Tue closed) 10am-6:30pm