My life in 7 years
Disclaimer: This is a personal reflection of the owner - the 'I' in the article - and does not express the official views of the business.
We are small in this very complex business environment with so many factors working against the business, but we survived. 7 years ago on 11th Dec 2010, we did a soft launch for our family and friends. One week later 0n 17th Dec 2010, we opened our doors to the public. Four months later, we took over the adjacent space when the ex-tenant shifted out, which then become our pet-friendly side, and started our pet-friendly business. We often read from blogs that we are one of the earliest and longest lasting pet-friendly cafes in Singapore. We are not sure about that, as there has never been official statistics - this industry is too unprofitable to warrant separate reporting by the government. But when people asked us how we lasted so many years, our standard reply was always, crudely and succinctly, "ah buay si" (hokkien for "have not died yet"). And when customers or interviewers ask me, the owner, why I started this cafe, my answer was always "stupidity".
Here is our story, peppered with episodes of how we struggled, what we learnt and our curious findings about the Singapore consumer behavior. I have written it down so that there is more than me who knew the Sun Ray story.
So in Dec 2010, we started our journey at 79 Brighton Crescent. To create a hype, we printed ZoCard that were well-designed postcards available for free at various locations around the island. We offered a 79% discount if you showed up with the card during opening month, and took pictures with our first customers.
We had a big logo on our wall and a metal sculpture of a series of increasingly more defined shapes of cyclists mounted slanted across the logo. This display epitomised our journey these seven years, from a formless and soulless establishment to a clearer shape of what we wanted to do. As a reminder of how we evolved, we retained it through our series of four renovations, at the same position. Our two swing chairs, blue one from Ikea at the non-pet side and rattan one from Johor Bahru at the pet side, were iconic, and remained with us until our 2013 renovation.
The main reason for our selection of this space was purely coincidental and somewhat ridiculous. Story goes that I brought my pet to a pet clinic, named "Pet Clinic" and noticed the difference in address on their name cards. I found out that they were shifting soon and asked for the owner's contact since I was looking for a space to set up a cafe. That was 79 Brighton Crescent and where we are today. Without experience, without training, without analysis, and being a vegetarian, I signed the contract for this 150 square metre space to set up a cafe. Like most F&B owners, I thought how wonderful and romantic it would be to own a cafe, and how easy it would be since "who doesn't know how to cook and make a drink?" What stupidity!
Everything started sweet and exciting! Our first menu, printed and laminated on one page, with separate food and drinks menus, had the usual fare - mushroom soup, aglio olio, carbonara, you name it - food that perhaps most people could cook at home themselves. In other words, it was nothing special. And in the hurting words of an online comment, "I am not impressed." In fact, I already had a taste of this sourness during one of our internal tasting session when one of the invited friends said unreservedly, "This kind of food... you will be closing very soon." True to the curse, we never saw our first customers. In fact, after five or six years, customers starting telling us that they had in fact visited us during our initial months, and expected us to close anytime soon then.
There is indeed a secret and unspoken neighbourhood betting among Serangoon "Gardeners". It is like fun to to watch, but super disheartening when you are the one being watched. When we see a new shop open, we will visit just to place a bet in our hearts how long it could sustain, especially when they are located at "cursed" positions that always saw shops closing prematurely. After that first visit, if they deemed it doomed, they will not visit again, but will observe the shop from afar just to test the bet. "Three months? Half a year? At most one year?" Sun Ray Cafe belongs to this cursed group.
Neighbours and customers alike looked down on us. This was when I learnt an important lesson in the business: Bad food cannot be forgiven. Nevermind we were very sincere and trying very hard; nobody wanted to give us a chance. Bad business is an eyesore, a good riddance to bad rubbish. On one particular night, I knew that one particular table of new customers was very unhappy with our food. In an attempt to save the situation, I opened a bottle of Moscato d'Asti and offered it to the table. While I introduced myself to be the boss and offered the glasses, the table of three adults did not even want to look at me, and continued talking amongst themselves as if I was transparent. I have to resort to placing the wine glasses on the table since nobody wanted to receive the glasses from me. I was an outright beggar living a deplorable existence. I tried to be friendly and asked again when they were footing the bill whether everything was ok. One of them replied, "Yes, it's ok." True to typical keyboard warrior style, early next morning when I was doing my daily purchase at Sheng Siong Serangoon, I was shocked to read from a particular review site that we had two one-star reviews, both coming from that table, and both were their first reviews on that site. This means the two customers (and subsequently I found out that they were husband and wife) hated us so much they have to create two new accounts to trash us twice on that site, so as to whack the greatest possible impact on our very new and fragile rating. (And Singaporeans depended heavily on ratings to decide dining choices.) I learnt the very harsh reality that if we gave bad food, we became enemies - public enemies. But credit was still given when due. In both their reviews of about 50 words each, a line stood out: "The drinks were nice though." I guessed they were referring to the free wine.
Our cafe started with two chefs. It was unfortunate that I had to fire them on New Year's Eve 2010. That night, the PM was invited to come to Serangoon Gardens for a countdown, as 2011 was election year and this GRC was risky ground. This was the first time we saw so many potential customers passing by our shop, on foot, which meant they need not worry about parking lots (a perpetual complaint about visiting our cafe). We needed to 'net' them and tell them our offerings. So we did, and the cafe was full house for the first time. It was past midnight and people were looking for a drink more than food. The bar was very busy and the kitchen had no order. I asked the two chefs whether they could help by washing the plates (which was done by floor staff) so that everyone could knock off early together. They refused adamantly, saying, "chefs do not wash plates." So off they go immediately that night.
That was an inauspicious start to the new year, which gave an inkling to the subsequent fate of the cafe and of myself. Just 17 days after opening, we were left without chefs. There was no way we could open on New Year's Day 2011, a big loss to us as holidays always brought good business. Fortunately, we had recipes and menus (which described the ingredients). I closed the cafe that day, went into the kitchen and turned on the stove. Spurred on by my rotten character that I shall not be played out or beaten, I cooked my first Aglio Olio which was the easiest dish. Pampered by years of domestic help at home, cooking was an electric shock to me. Honestly, I did not even know how to cook a soft boiled egg. It was decades of karma coming down on me all at once. And so I became the chef, the only chef, and a vegetarian one, cooking meat for our customers.
Steak was the last dish I served, and it remained as 'item 86' (kitchen lingo for 'Out of Stock') until I understood about doneness. I have never tasted beef in my life, so I drew a chart with information from Google about cooking time and cooking temperature, and tested it with my friends. I have no idea whether I cooked correctly, and it was always nerve-wracking to watch customers' reaction. The mental stress further weakened my already exhausted body. More than once, customers have caught me peeping at them from my kitchen window. When customers asked me about the taste of the meats, I gave them Google answers. Nobody knew I was vegetarian then. Seven years later, the truth is out. For survivability, I had put my head on the chopping board.
Our business volume did not justify for bulk delivery. We could not meet any suppliers' minimum ordering quantity (MOQ) for delivery. So I decided to go to the nearby Serangoon market to buy the raw ingredients instead, in small quantities, daily. Maybe that would be fresher and food would taste nicer? Nevermind I was again loading on myself to wake up early to do this, as long as the cafe can survive. Then I found out that the Pasir Panjang vegetable wholesale market sold vegetables at cheaper rates and it opened after midnight. It suited our needs, and I could go after the cafe closed, although the further extension to my working hours were not exactly what my overworked body could handle. Nevertheless, I persevered and purchased vegetables from there, at least once a week, driving a 25 minutes' distance after the cafe closed for the day.
When the fresh vegetables came back to the cafe, I had to keep them in the fridge so that they stayed fresh. However, FIFO (First In First Out) principle dictated that I have to first take out the old vegetables, remove the new vegetables from the carton boxes and put them into tupperwares (because carton boxes are dirty and should not go into the fridge), and then put them behind the tupperwares of old vegetables. I was already squeezing my last ounce of energy to do this, often alone, and by the time this was done, it was usually 3 to 4 am. Sometimes by then, my adrenaline would have pumped up so much I continued to clear the grease trap. Yes, as the boss, I cleared the grease trap (a $2,000 metal box of nauseating and fermenting matter under the kitchen sink which separated the oil and waste from the wastewater entering the public sewerage) because I cannot risk driving away my young part timers by asking them to do this dirty job when I already found great difficulty employing them in the first place. When I first cleared it, I took 45 minutes. After seven months in the kitchen, I got so numb but proficient I could clear it in 15 minutes.
I saved money by reducing staff. There was only one staff in the day - me - running both inside the kitchen and outside on the floor, and I had a part timer who came to work at night after her day job. In the day, I relied on customers to tell me other customers have entered the shop. How I managed to survive was a mystery, and I would have despised my own shop if I were those customer. At night when the part timer came, a relative who frequented the cafe unfortunately did not like her and complained non-stop to me at every possible opportunity, when what I needed was peace and quiet, after back-breaking work and heart wrenching sales results. But I had to hear non-stop senseless complaint once I stepped out of the kitchen hoping to breathe fresh air, so much so I went to the back lane to hide instead. I could only cry inner tears.
That was 2011, and we were losing money. I needed to find a unique selling point. We tried to capitalise on any available holidays and offered special set dinners, in our usual very amateurish style. We also did buffet events, and I still remembered sitting outside the cafe with two other friends discussing our first big event, what to offer, the price, whether I could cook that amount, the way to layout the buffet line, the seating arrangement and the disposable wares to buy. It sort of overwhelmed me, but because my mind could take a lot of abuse and torture, I learnt fast and before long, we did quite a few buffets, even had set buffet menus and did out-catering. Till today, I could not believe I did all those events.
Since nobody came in the day, maybe they would visit us at night! And so I decided to close when the last guest leaves. What an absurd business strategy! It was pure stupidity that drove me to keep resorting to my own effort to sustain the cafe. We took other extreme measures, like set lunch that was cheaper than hawker centre, or opening as usual over the Chinese New Year (CNY) holidays. In fact it was only three years ago that we could afford not to open during CNY. I was at my wit's end, and had totally no idea what to do to save the cafe. Who can I ask for help? How do I explain myself in the first place to ask for help? What help could I ask for beside asking for money? How degrading that was, and how could I bring myself to do that when I was relatively successful before I opened the cafe?
I shifted to the second floor of the cafe so that I can live in the workplace. I had some success in the extended opening hours. I made a mocha at 1 am, and subsequently chanced upon a group of polytechnics students looking for another place to party after their nights out at Chomp Chomp. Our private room was the perfect location and they came continuously for a few times. The most memorable was a steak I cooked at 3 am. They stayed till dawn usually and the latest they left was 7.30 am. I was often so tired I went to bed without showering still wearing my chef's black uniform. Although we closed late, we still have to open on time. Sometimes I overslept, and there was one time, a customer called the cafe line, which was also connected to the phone in my bedroom, when she arrived and saw the cafe still not open. I jumped out of bed at once, changed to working attire just like during a BMT turnout, and went to work immediately without brushing my teeth.
We were often without customers, day or night. Sometimes it was too heartbreaking I pasted a note on the cafe's door to say we have gone out for private function, or that I was sick. It was better to close than to open an empty cafe. On other days when my only part timer could not work, I closed the cafe to think about what to do, while I continued to do the never-ending kitchen work. (No matter how little business we had then, there would still be some form of kitchen preparation, known as mise en plus, to do.) On one such night, a young couple came knocking on our door. I remembered my sense of joy of a potential business, mixed with the disappointment of having to pick up my mood and go to work. I reluctantly let them in. I could not remember the full order, but one dish was a prawn Aglio Olio. I did not know that the prawn was already rotten - how many days did we not have an order? - and I could still remember the expression on their faces when they called me out to tell me that. They were more embarrassed and awkward than angry, as if they felt they have put me in a spot by asking to dine when we were originally closed. I felt like crying but still have to hold back my tears to serve them the replacement dish and then see them out.
I have had rough times and it got more so. The cafe was dying, and me too. I became a skeleton in those few months I worked as the chef. Oblivious to the ordeal I was going through, I heard comments like, "You are too skinny to look good (太瘦不好看)." I thought to myself why I needed to suffer so much and became so unrecognisable ("好好一个人为什么变成这样", in very old auntie style). I postulated that people are not coming maybe because they do not know about us. The location of the cafe was not at Chomp Chomp, the most famous landmark in Serangoon Gardens, but at a secluded location which is at a reverse angle from the minor road - Yio Chu Kang Road - leading into Chomp Chomp. (The major road leading from CTE and Serangoon Central is Lorong Chuan. The minor road leading from Yio Chu Kang Road is Serangoon Gardens Way.) People would only see us after they have dined at Chomp Chomp on their way out. There was no natural footfall at our row of shophouses, and people would only visit our area purposefully, without the spillover crowd from banks, petrol kiosk, Fairprice and clinics for cafes located nearby Chomp Chomp.
So we put up a sign at the junction facing the incoming traffic. But before long, we received a letter from LTA to say that our sign has blocked the views of cars turning out into the road and we were liable for a fine if we do not remove it immediately. Unless some residents had complained, LTA would not have known about the sign. To continue the effort, I employed part timers to stand at Lorong Chuan MRT station and MyVillage Mall to distribute flyers. During those days, I frequented the nearby but very sad looking Serangoon Shopping Centre to print flyers. Every time I pass by that place today, I feel sadness oozing from my heart.
Then I decided I would save more money by distributing the flyers myself. And I did it, in Serangoon Gardens and Kovan neighbourhood, totalling 4,000 houses, for four times, house to house. This was nothing like distributing flyers in HDB flats, when I could stand at the letterboxes to "distribute" the flyers. Covering house to house, when the 4,000 houses were about 50 to 100 metres apart, was no joke, under the hot sun.
To increase my chances, I also put the flyers on cars that are parked along the sides of roads in the estate. I least expected to receive a call from NEA, saying that residents complained us of littering. I enquired more and the officer said putting the flyers on cars was a form of littering and we must stop doing that immediately, or we will face a fine. This was when I begin to learn the modus operandi of our government - price mechanism, that is to penalise the person financially (because Singapore is the most expensive country in the world and money is so important) until he behaves in a prescribed manner. But I had an even greater realisation then, that the 'heavens were working to destroy me' ('天要绝我') and it was truly heart-breaking. When I received the call, I was working alone in the cafe, without customers, with only sad quiet music. What could I do? This was the song that was playing and it left a haunting impression in me: Close to You, by Anna Caram. Go listen to it.
Sometimes I needed to serve ICT and the cafe had to close. This was when I understood why short ICT was a welcome break from work. Suddenly I was in familiar territories and I was again a self-respecting, normal person. I was not sure of the results of my hard work so far, but it was hard work that only I myself knew. The harsh reality is, as I repeatedly learn, that hard work does not equate results. But it did have an effect. Bit by bit, our business improved. Soon it became clear that it was no longer practical for the chef to also be the floor staff and barista.
We needed to employ more people and find a proper chef. However, chefs avoided us. I recalled one interviewee who came, looked at the menu and left quietly. Part timers also avoided us, and if employed, showed us the attitude during work. I was fighting the war alone, handling all departments and administration of this business, and I had no spare energy. Even though my staff looked down on me, I have to still give in to their bad attitude and poor service, else I risked losing them and employing a new one was more difficult, on top of the energy-consuming exercise of teaching everything from scratch. Less one part timer also meant I had to cover and I was very clear I could ill-afford that. After enduring them for one month, at the end of it, I still needed to pay them a salary. My current staff would attest that I am in fact a friendly albeit demanding person, and I do not think I was any different then. I just had staff who looked down on the business then.
This kind of mental training opportunity was truly character building and hard to come by. It deepened my patience and resilience, totally diminished any trace of ego I might have, and brought me down to humble grounds. Now thinking back, those days were one of the saddest parts of my life, but it was not all bitter. It always flashed across my mind in slow motion, producing very depressing but yet meditative emotions in me. I have this urge to visit the Pasir Panjang market after midnight to rewalk the old routes and relive the old times. Once in a while I would fantasize that someone, maybe the "scriptwriter" or some fairy godmother, finally decided that I have suffered enough and I should live a good life from then on. No magic happened.
Finally, we managed to get a chef. And that allowed me much needy recuperation time, as well as time to think about future plans. Alcohol had high margins, so I sold all sorts of alcohol from Japanese shochu Iichiko to Macallan to draft beer Asahi. We even got Asahi to sponsor a signboard, with the words 'Asahi' printed all over it, making our cafe looking like a pub. (In contrast, we now have only one type of alcohol on our menu.) Our kitchen has somewhat become 'professional', and it was time to professionalise the bar too. Having some experience and interest in coffee, I decided to go overseas to take up a professional coffee course in Barcelona under the ambit of Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE).
I also learnt roasting and bought a small 2.4 kg roasting machine upon coming back from the course and started roasting. We wanted to totally reverse the public impression of our cafe and the general low-opinion of pet-friendly cafes, that we were indeed capable of producing good food and drinks. That was 2012, and our first step was to roast coffee as a SCAE-certified roaster in our pet-friendly cafe.
I am not sure whether customers really do appreciate and understand what we were doing. In an economy of supply and demand, we could supply a quality product but customers may not demand it as they may not understand or appreciate it. Else, traditional artform like Beijing opera or even western operas would sell better than rock concerts. No matter what, professionalising the bar must be the right step and we boldly took it. We were not sure what we served in the past, but it sure was awful.
Our cafe, both the pet and non-pet-friendly sides, have irregular layouts, slanting in two directions lengthwise and widthwise, of rhomboid shapes. The non-pet side was more severe in the distortion, with a height difference of two steps between the front and back of the cafe. The non-pet side generally had two areas, namely operational area (kitchen and bar) and seating area. Our initial construction was for the operational area to run lengthwise, with kitchen at the back, and bar in front, on the same side, with the seating areas parallel to it. We faced a few issues though: first, the noise and chatter from the kitchen were audible at the seating area beside it, and customers got to hear more colourful language coming out from it when the pressure was up; second, the low number of seats in the front seating section gave a wrong impression that our cafe was tiny when viewed from outside, worsened by the fact that the back section was hidden away by the lower elevation. Another important lesson we learnt was that crowd attracts crowd, and emptiness attracts emptiness. When the cafe was empty, passer-bys would avoid us. When the cafe was busy, more people wanted to come in.
When we took over the adjacent unit (81 Brighton Crescent), we needed a walkway to link both the units for operational convenience. The only possible location for such a walkway was the little space between the kitchen and the bar, and the current layout had created a narrow and uncomfortable corridor flanked by the bar and kitchen. 81 Brighton Crescent used to be a landscaping shop, and we tried to retain as much infrastructure as possible, with the main aim to save cost. At that time, we have no idea about concepts and image, when our main concern was survival. Not that we are doing that very well today, but it was worse in those days. Just take a look at our old posts in Facebook and Instagram, where every post screamed of amarteur effort struggling to survive. We retained the old office and converted it into a private dining room. It was sort of iconic and customers remembered it for a very long time. We did a renovation in 2015 and did away with that room but we were still receiving calls even in 2017 enquiring about the private room.
Then comes the question why exactly we took over the adjacent unit since we were financially weak? It was precisely because we were poor so we needed a bigger space to grow our revenue. We were very clear that the original unit at 79 Brighton Crescent did not offer enough seats and if turnover was slow, our sales would suffer. Similarly, we were restricted in operational space - kitchen and bar - that could allow us to develop more offerings. And given our very secluded location on the reverse side of the minor road leading into Serangoon Gardens, we needed to offer an integrated dining experience that allowed people to have a complete meal - main course, dessert and drinks, because Singaporeans value convenience more than anything else and we were very clear then we were in no position to offer food and drinks so special people would make a deliberate trip to us. We were financially weak then but we would die if we did not poise for future development. Importantly, that space allowed us to do pet gatherings and pet parties and that provided sustenance to our business for a while. So when the adjacent tenant shifted out, we took the unit immediately.
The Singapore palette has been conditioned by the ubiquitous commercial sweet offerings, so much so that if any drinks has no sugar in it, it is bitter. And if we did not offer sweet desserts, nobody would come. We were faced with a philosophical and moral question of whether we should offer what the customers wanted (as pre-programed by the myriad commercial offerings), or what we thought was quality and specialty? For example, coffee is a berry, a fruit, so should we offer coffee that showcases the elegant fruity acidity or should we succumb to usual customer complaints that our coffee was sour and so roast it darker to create a nutty and chocolatey note? Should we make a quick buck by charging extra for a pump of Vanilla syrup into our coffee? Ultimately, we decided to do what we thought was right, and we published this line on our menu: 'No syrups please. We respect good coffee.' That was 2012 and that line remains in our menu till today.
Singaporeans are not bothered about certificates, and needed a lot of persuasion to change their initial impression about food and drinks. First impression lasts, and unfortunately for us, it was bad impression. Look at our "espresso machine" and the coffee it produced then. The residents remembered us as a failed establishment from the start, and we needed more effort to reverse that impression. We wanted to show that we were good enough to teach and are willing to open ourselves up to public scrutiny. We registered with SCAE to become a trainer and started our coffee educational journey which lasted till today. (Now we have an academy - Parchmen Academy - that teaches coffee, tea, wine, sake, whisky and lifestyle courses like flower arrangement and watercolour painting, and another company - Parchmen & Co - to do sale of coffee tea and associated equipment.)
Now that we roasted coffee ourselves and made better coffee, we decided to up our game by developing the food menu more. We employed a foreign chef who said he previously worked as the head chef for the UK Prime Minister's Office. I could not believe it until I saw the employment letter. However, it did not work out and we went separate ways. We had two more rounds of expensive chefs who were not compatible with our small cafe as well. In the end, we relied on more junior chefs who ultimately stayed the longest with us till today.
We were trying very hard to tell people we offered better products that your usual cafe fast food. We did a renovation to reposition the bar, such that we could showcase the espresso machine and our hand brew capabilities. We also redid the floor, painted the entire cafe, and aligned the interior design for both sides of the cafe. This was when we took away the very awful-looking private room and opened up the area for seatings. The pet side looked bigger, more spacious, and importantly, more inviting.
With renewed confidence, we started to take part in competitions. We started with the Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS)'s Epicurean Star Awards. This was an award that did not ask for an advertisement fee or needed us to buy a HR or CRM software. This was a competition that had mysterious chefs coming to dine. We were very encouraged that on the first time we took part in 2013, we were a finalist, and we shared the table with Timbre and Joel Robuchon. We continued to take part in that competition till 2014 when we were also the finalist. In 2016, we decided to take part in Weekender's Foodmania Award. It had an online voting component followed by food tasting. We were happy we edged out and was awarded the Best Bistro/Cafe in that competition.
Now that we were strong in coffee, we decided to develop our capabilities deeper. I took part in Tea Mastery Course held in Geelong, Australia conducted by Australian Tea Masters and took 4 months to complete assignments and exam to be awarded the title of Certified Tea Master. I am happy about the achievement, but I am always apprehensive of such titles because I do not think I deserve it. I truly believe we will never fully understand Nature and we remain its students always. When I teach courses, I always introduce myself as the Lead Student.
We were not sure our luck has finally turned or that our years of hard work was finally bearing food, because our winning streak did not stop then. In 2017, we took part in Tea Masters Cup Singapore and became double champion in both Tea Preparation and Tea Pairing, earning us the rights to represent Singapore to take part in the global Tea Masters Cup International happening in Hubei, China in September 2017. We were blessed to have won third place in Tea Pairing, earning an inaugural honour for our country. Back during March when we were participating in the Singapore Tea Masters Cup, we also took part in the Melbourne International Coffee Awards, an international roasting competition organised by the Australian government, and we won a silver medal. Of the 11 silver medalists, there were only 2 Asian winners - one was us, and the other was from Hong
Kong, while the rest were Australians. In September 2017, the reigning Singapore AeroPress champion joined our family and he represented Singapore to take part in the World AeroPress Championship held in Seoul in November. Although we did not win, we once again represented Singapore on the world stage and gained valuable competition experience.