THE cultural heritage area in central Johor Baru is an interesting place for a walkabout.
Besides refurbished colonial-era buildings and townhouses, the area is full of trendy cafés and shops.
Located a stone’s throw from the prominent Red House in Jalan Tan Hiok Nee are two black containers stacked on one another.
If they were once used for transporting goods, they now house a café called Chaiwalla & Co. Chaiwalla means tea boy in Hindi.
While such container shops are common in the earthquake-devastated city of Christchurch in New Zealand, the concept is a novelty here.
The café is a joint venture of secondary school friends Nazrul Hakim Putra and Abdul Razak Misan, both from Johor Baru.
The former captain of an offshore support vessel, 30-year-old Nazrul used to travel the world and got the idea from a container mall in Christchurch.
“I thought there were a lot of second-hand containers around and they could be used. I had the idea for a while,” said Nazrul.
The name Chaiwalla was inspired from the main character in the award-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire.
Planning for the café took almost two years before it became a reality last December. Both friends quit their regular jobs to focus on the café, which is located next to an open carpark.
“We want to be hands-on for at least six months,” said Nazrul, admitting that the only prior food and beverage (F&B) experience they had was from eating and drinking at restaurants.
“I wanted to do something totally different not related to shipping. It is not about the money.
“If you work hard, the money will come,” said Nazrul, who wants to emulate the big boys such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
For Abdul Razak, 31, who is married with two children, it was more of a risk.
The former delivery manager in Pos Malaysia said his wife was supportive although his other family members were understandably worried.
Most of the designing and renovating work was done by themselves.
Initially, the local council wanted to issue them a hawker licence but after seeing their café, they were granted a premises licence.
The top container is used for storage while the bottom is the kitchen and bar.
“Nothing like this had ever been done here before. We even have our own water and power source,” explained Nazrul on why the council decided to grant them a premises licence.
The containers cost about RM6,000 each. Another RM15,000 was spent for the interior, which is made entirely from recycled pinewood pallets.
Altogether it cost about RM35,000 just to do up the containers. They can literally move shop to another location should they choose to do so as the containers are portable.
With the purchase of the land, the appliances and the printing of at least 100,000 cups from Taiwan, it cost about RM150,000 to set up the café from scratch.
The café serves different kinds of beverages and simple grab-to-go food such as buns, brownies and pastries. Nazrul’s mother bakes the pastries at home.
The beverages served include Vietnamese coffee, Taiwanese black tea and Thai milk tea.
The more adventurous can customise their drinks by choosing its base (tea, milk tea, coffee, fresh milk, smoothie), flavour (caramel, mango, pure honey, banana), toppings (pearl, grass jelly, basil seeds) and sugar level.
Nazrul said, in future they would introduce new kinds of tea to cater to their customers requests.
How is business so far?
“So far so good,” said Nazrul, adding that they were already making profit.
“We are surprised that it has been moving so fast. A lot of gratitude goes to the customers who keep on supporting us. They bring their friends along.”
Initially, the café was supposed to be only for takeaways, but after requests they decided to put some tables and chairs.
The café can accommodate 32 people at the moment, most of it in the open.
But expansion is on the way. They are planning to get another two containers, a 20-footer as the base and a 40-footer for an upstairs seating area. This also means that the carpark space will be taken up.
They have got the consent of the carpark owner and are hoping this expansion will take place by April.
Because of their novelty and success, some people have approached them in view of franchising their business.
Nazrul, however, said they want to take it slow for the moment.
“We want to take it step-by-step and prove that we can do it first. We don’t want to take any wrong step,” he explained.
And with such things, there are bound to be copycats. But Nazrul is not worried.
“People will always know that we were the first ones to establish ourselves,” he said.