How indie cafes are staying afloat (or not) in tough times

Standing Theory cafe during its early days. ― Picture by CK Lim
Standing Theory cafe during its early days. ― Picture by CK Lim

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 2 ― Independent cafés and specialty coffee bars seemed to appear out of nowhere a couple of years ago, bolstered in part by the Third Wave Coffee culture as well as high-profile barista competitions.

Lately, however, the scenario has been less rosy with a spate of indie cafés such as Standing Theory and The Brew Culture closing down.

How do such establishments, whose owners may not have the depth of industry experience other food-and-beverage (F&B) outlets have, decide whether to close or stay open (and take necessary measures to remedy the situation) in these increasingly harsh economic times?

For Standing Theory’s Lim Yi Perng, the decision to close came when a few key staff put in their resignations. He explains, “It wasn’t a case of disloyalty or anything like that. Just that there’s just a very low ceiling on earning potential for people in F&B so my older staff had to move on.

“The effort, money and time that would take to rebuild a team wasn’t commensurate with sales levels in this strained economy. I told customers in our final weeks that it would be difficult to upkeep quality.”

While reduced spending among café-goers is one of the challenges faced by café owners, some also raised the issue of customers using their outlets as an alternative office space.

This could entail utilising the café’s complimentary WiFi and sitting for hours but only ordering a single beverage ― or in some cases, not ordering anything at all ― and thus taking up valuable table space that could be turned over for other customers.

In Taiwan and Japan, cafés have long dealt with this situation by imposing policies such as time limits or minimum order of food and/or beverages for customers.

Littlepeople cafe now has a minimum order per customer policy.
Littlepeople cafe now has a minimum order per customer policy.

In Kuala Lumpur, some cafés are beginning to follow suit. Littlepeople, for example, recently began implementing a minimum order policy of one drink or one food item or one dessert for every customer.

Co-owner and barista Ang Bo Ling says, “We as customers need to spend on something ― whether food or drinks ― in order to enjoy the facilities and ambience of a restaurant, café or mamak stall. It’s a basic courtesy. I don’t know when people got the mindset that it is okay to sit in a café for free just to enjoy its ambience.”

Specialty coffee lover and veteran café hopper Jocelyn Poo supports the policy of minimum orders, noting that she’s encountered it in Taipei where it’s commonplace.

She adds, “However, I also have concerns about groups such as families. How would they pay in such a situation? Maybe there could be exceptions for families who bring their kids? I do understand it’s very difficult to make exceptions and give different customers different treatment though.”

This need for flexibility has already been foreseen by Ang who offers an example: “Say a family of four came in and ordered three drinks and a slice of cake for the dad, son and daughter. The mom doesn’t order anything. We are okay with this because it’s four people, four items.

“Also when the café is not busy, it is okay to sit and do your thing. But when the café is busy, those who need our WiFi to do their work need to understand that we have to do business.”

For Ang, there is a need to carefully implement such a policy to suit the local culture, to balance business needs and customer service.

He says, “Otherwise we will have a huge bounce back from our customers. We are doing this to prevent being taken advantage of by the customers, not to educate them.

“People think that we are forcing our customers to spend more, but it is actually not the case. Fortunately our regulars have been supportive all this while.”

Spacebar Coffee’s Joachim Leong believes that cafe owners will naturally take a number of measures to avoid having to close down.
Spacebar Coffee’s Joachim Leong believes that cafe owners will naturally take a number of measures to avoid having to close down.

Spacebar Coffee’s Joachim Leong feels it’s natural, with a number of indie cafés closing, that the remaining ones will do what they can to stem the tide. He says, “Some maintain quality while having to increase prices or reduce portions, some are having to implement rules to hopefully increase spending and others reduce costs to stay afloat.”

Leong explains that such policies are a form of crowd control, especially in overcrowded cafés, as every person who doesn’t order something is a potential loss of sales.

He adds, “In these times, every single sale matters to businesses. That said, two questions we really need to ask ourselves: Is there a better area we can apply our energy, talents and time on rather than imposing those rules? Also, if we have those rules, would people still come back because what we offer is so unique and rare?”

Understandably, the minimum order policy will still be a surprise to most consumers, such as Chai Chi Wei who finds a café’s ambience often conducive for work. He says, “I have not seen or heard the results of such an idea after it has been executed before. It wouldn't be much or a concern to me since I would usually be ordering something. But it may make me think twice of patronising if I’m bringing a group of friends.”

Chai also feels the success of such a policy will be determined by the individual café’s situation and target market. He says, “From a business perspective, the market would decide the success of such an idea.

“After all, if you have under-utilised capacity, wouldn’t you prefer to use it even marginally? If it is targeted to the higher income consumer range, it probably would not have much of an impact. After all, it's a café. It is a place for people to convene and chill.”

Would customers be more amenable to such changes if the café stands out in other areas, such as better service? This leads to yet another perennial challenge ― that of staffing.

Leong observes many baristas are leaving Kuala Lumpur for greener pastures such as Singapore. He says, “Maybe this has to do with pay. If this move generates more revenue to pay baristas better, then we have a better argument to implement such policies.”

Wild Sheep Chase curtails employee attrition by investing in staff training.
Wild Sheep Chase curtails employee attrition by investing in staff training.

Wild Sheep Chase’s Chris Yap and Sujian Khor have tried to curtail employee attrition by investing more in staff training and compensation. By doing so, they are able to offer table service to customers ― unlike many independent cafés that employ a counter order model.

Yap says, “Offering table service from the very beginning helped to minimise a lot of misunderstanding. Many younger café owners may be able to make fantastic this and that but they lack people skills ― the soft skills to handle customers. They need a certain level of social experience to see it through.”

While making changes can be challenging, having to close a café one has built from scratch can be more so; a bittersweet affair at best. Standing Theory’s Lim recalls, “The moment the decision was made the first thing I felt was a strong sense of relief, followed by sadness upon closing.

“But that doesn’t last long ― after which I just focused on what’s next. While running the place I see all the problems, closing means I can do it all over armed with the experience that I’ve gained. I can’t see it as anything but a good outcome, really.”

So how does a café owner know when to pivot ― to do what it takes to survive, unpopular as actions may be in the short term ― or when to cease operations, and look forward with hard-earned lessons in hand?

Clearly there are no easy answers but as the proverb goes: When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.


G-01, Avantas Residences, Jalan Klang Lama, Kuala Lumpur

Bar: Open Wed 10am-6:30pm; Thu-Mon 10am-11pm; Tue closed

Kitchen: Open Thu-Mon 11am-3pm (lunch) & 6:30am-9pm (dinner); Tue & Wed closed

Tel: 03-7971-9209

Spacebar Coffee

Wild Sheep Chase

6-1, Jalan 1/109E, Off Old Klang Road, Desa Business Park, Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur

Open Tue-Wed 12pm-8pm; Thu-Sun 12pm-10pm; Mon closed

Tel: 012-312 1203

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