ASIDE from the ever-so-popular bean sprout chicken and white coffee, Ipoh now has coffee-specialising cafes under its belt as well.
It is estimated that over a dozen such cafes have mushroomed at different parts of the city since last year, fueling a new trend of cafe-hopping among Perakians.
A few of the early starters that sparked this coffee culture here were long-time friends Elaine Yong, 30, Ong Shi Yuan, 28, and Mok Cheong Yoong, 31.
The three of them co-own Bread Espresso Dessert, which opened in 2012 at Medan Istana 6 in Bandar Ipoh Raya.
Yong thinks that before cafes started sprouting in Ipoh, there were barely any decent cafes in town that serve drinks and light meals.
“People mostly flock to places serving white coffee and heavy meals as well, and it is mostly packed, making it a very difficult ‘yumcha’ (tea break in English) session for people who wish to just hang out and catch up.
“Before we opened, cafe-hopping trends have long started in Kuala Lumpur, and had gradually spread to other big cities like Johor Baru and Penang, but not in Ipoh,” she said, adding that the three of them were attracted to the cafe design concepts in Kuala Lumpur when it first started.
Cafes, she mentioned, were easily available in Kuala Lumpur and most of them had an environment conducive for tea breaks.
The trio remained confident in running their coffee business at the start despite knowing that white coffee was more famous in the city.
“Even though we did not promote or advertise about our cafe, the support from our family and friends were enough to do the trick for us.
“We also relied on maintaining the quality of our coffee beans, breads and desserts to keep our customers coming back for more, and from there hopefully, word will spread,” said Ong, adding that the breads and desserts served at their cafe were homemade.
Ong also said they would take the chance to educate their customers on their coffee and explain why their coffee costs more than others.
“We serve Italian-style, espresso-based coffee, and we want our customers to know what they are paying for so they can get their money’s worth,” she said.
The third person on their team, Mok, who is the cafe’s barista, thinks that media influence has brought on the trend of cafes in Ipoh as well.
“Previously, there was a Hong Kong drama called Coffee Cat Mama depicting the lifestyles of people running cafes like this shown on television.
“It probably made viewers want to eat and have tea at a cafe, that’s why Ipoh folk are more open to new cafes around the city,” he told The Star.
Espresso Lab manager Shawn Siew, 33, said the coffee business was becoming a necessity in Ipoh due to the demand for a good cup of coffee.
Siew believes that the trend had also been brought about by Malaysians who had previously spent time overseas.
“When I was studying in Australia, the coffee culture over there was already strong.
“There would be lots of cafes just about anywhere you go,” he told The Star.
According to Siew, the concept of these new cafes was vastly different from that of the famous white coffee.
“Cafes like mine serve specialty coffee, using beans that are specially sourced from other countries, which is completely different from Ipoh’s white coffee in terms of taste and smell.
“I think Ipoh has been lacking in terms of having a variety of coffee choices, and this is where cafes step in to perpetuate the growth of a Western coffee culture,” he said.
This Western coffee culture, added Siew, was not only a trend followed by youngsters but adults as well.
“Most of my customers here are over 30,” he said.
Another graduate from the Land Down Under would be Yivern, who started her cafe Coffee at 91 in February last year.
“I think that people who stayed in Australia must have loved the coffee culture there, and it was brought over here first at Kuala Lumpur.
“And over time, people’s interests in espresso might have grown from there so that’s why Ipoh folk are warming up to a new coffee culture here,” she said.
Yivern studied in Melbourne five years ago and worked as a research assistant at Monash University first after she returned.
“Along the way, I realised that I did not enjoy life in the big city, what with the traffic jams and hectic lifestyle.
“Moving back to Ipoh and working here became my calling, so I quit my job and decided to start up a cafe here instead,” she said, adding that she had thoughts on opening a cafe while studying but did not seriously consider it until now.
Her uncle had then offered to send her for a barista training course and she decided to give it a try before discovering that she could see herself running a cafe.
When she first opened her cafe at Tambun Inn Hotel, it had been a quiet six months before business started booming.
“I think it happened because a popular lifestyle blogger came in to review and post about my cafe.
“After that, more customers started trickling in a few days after,” she said, adding that she did not put in any effort to promote or advertise her cafe.
She kept it only to Facebook and other social media platforms.
Yivern viewed the Ipoh famous white coffee as her biggest challenge because it was cheap, savoury, and already well-established as a business on its own many years ago.
“What I serve is only espresso-based coffee, and I am lucky enough to have coffee beans freshly roasted by a Japanese professional barista, who ships the beans over to my cafe every week.
“I think his roasting style is unique and that is what keeps customers coming in for more,” she said, adding that both coffee lovers and people new to coffee drinking have patronised her cafe.
On the other hand, passionate artists Audrey Tan, 31, and Tan Kuan Siew, 38, who run JJ Cafe, owe it to coincidence when they had planned their cafe business early last year.
“We definitely did not think of opening this cafe purely for the sake of cashing in on the rising trend of cafes in Ipoh,” said Audrey, who had always loved experimenting with brewing coffee drinks.
“There were probably only about five or six coffee-specialising cafes that just opened when we opened our doors for business last May,” she said.
Kuan Siew pointed out that the thought of opening a cafe had long been on her mind but she could not find a suitable partner to help her in materialising her dream.
“It was when Audrey happened to quit her job in Kuala Lumpur that we formed a partnership and set up our cafe,” she said.
Fuelled purely by passion and their love for a healthy diet, they did not think twice about being part of the coffee scene even though there were known competitors.
“Besides coffee and cakes, we try to serve light, casual and healthy meals for not only youngsters and seniors, but also working adults who are probably too busy to prepare a good meal for themselves,” said Audrey, adding that they strived to serve food that closely mirrored home-cooked food in terms of taste and nutritional value.
Both Audrey and Kuan Siew had decorated their cafe on their own, from the painting of furniture, down to the mural drawings and decoration accessories.
“The goal here is to provide a homely and comfortable environment for our customers as they savour our food and drinks.
“This is how we create a concept that is ours and to make us stand out from the rest,” Audrey said.
Being one of the newest additions to the coffee scene in Ipoh is Something’s Brewing.
Its manager, Vincent Ng, also opined that the current growing cafe trend in Ipoh was highly influenced by Western culture, especially Australia.
“I studied there a few years ago and I can agree that the influence of Western coffee culture present here is definitely going to boost tourism and improve the city’s economy,” he said, adding that he always made sure to adhere to Australian standards when it came to serving coffee.
Ng said the cafes in Ipoh made up a crowded market and most of them relied on extravagant interior designs to keep customers coming in.
“I decided to start this cafe to provide something different, something that most cafes do not,” said Ng, who opened his simplistic yet chic-looking cafe late last December.
True enough, besides whetting the appetite of customers, Ng is focused on giving them wifi access.
“The most welcomed accompaniment to food is reliable high speed Internet, and with that, I make sure there are at least two plug points located at each table.
“Aside from keeping themselves entertained, I get to have them occupied as well during peak hours when food might take longer to be served,” he said.
Ng continued that his customers talk about his cafe on social media via the use of hash tags and leave comments on social media platforms.
“I did not need to do much promotion on my own, word-of-mouth was already enough to let things work out for me.
“What was also surprising to me was that although my initial market was youths and working adults, I find senior citizens coming in as well with their electronic devices in hand,” he revealed, adding that it was an eye-opening experience for him.