ONCE considered a novel concept in the city, cosy cafes specialising in coffee have turned into a normal sight for Ipoh folk since dozens of began sprouting up around 2013.
With an ever-growing list of Ipoh cafes published on blog posts online, it is evident that many coffee-brewing enthusiasts have cashed in on people’s voracious appetite for the aromatic stimulant.
However, the cafe scene hit a rough patch over the past year, with a handful of them, like Harold’s Bread Cafe, Something’s Brewing, The Roquette Cafe, and De Espresso, forced to greet customers with closed shutters.
This begs the question of whether Ipoh’s coffee culture is slowing down, and whether sustaining a cafe is becoming harder now as the overall economy is going through a slow patch even as the cafes face stiff competition in a crowded market.
MetroPerak spoke to several cafe owners to shed some light on the situation.
Elaine Yong, formerly a co-owner of one of Ipoh’s earlier cafes Bread Espresso Dessert, said, the brand (more popularly known as B.E.D.) was dissolved simply because it was time for her and another co-owner Mok Cheong Yoong to try something new.
Yong and Mok, who were two of the three co-owners of B.E.D., now run Six And A Half Cafe after separating from their third partner last August.
“If it was hard to run a cafe, I wouldn’t leave a cafe business just to run another one.
“We just realised that there was no point in running a business together when our visions had changed individually,” she told MetroPerak when asked if business sustainability was the root cause of B.E.D.’s closure.
Yong explained that B.E.D. was, at its core, a bakery cafe, and she felt that a change was essential after observing the coffee trend among their customer base had evolved as well.
“We realised that people are looking for proper meals to go with their coffee nowadays, instead of going with desserts and pastries like cakes and bread.
“With the new cafe, I can show that we are still serious about coffee and at the same time, introduce special dishes that are not commonly found in restaurants to keep our customers satisfied,” she said.
Asked if opening a new cafe is challenging in Ipoh today, Yong, who has been managing her current business for three months, said it was slightly easier for her given her experience in running B.E.D.
“It’s just a different environment and different people we cater to. We are still trying to let customers get used to the idea of our cafe operating on the first floor of a building,” she said, adding that this was still a quaint concept to many Ipoh folk when compared people in Kuala Lumpur.
Likewise, the former owner of now closed Roquette Cafe, who wished to be known only as Joey, said she decided to give her cafe business up due to personal reasons.
“As my children are growing up, I realise that I really need the time to look after them.
“I didn’t expect it to be this busy when I first opened the cafe,” she said.
The mother of two, aged seven and 10, who managed her cafe for a good two years before closing it late last year, said it was a tough yet necessary decision to make.
“Time is short. As a mum, I would like to spend more time with my children when they need me.
“And since I actually don’t have the time, I think finding the right business owner to take over the space of my cafe would be a better choice,” she said.
Something’s Brewing former manager Vincent Ng said the decision to close the business in March was made because he has plans to move onto other projects outside of Ipoh.
“Essentially, we are a technology company, and we started the cafe as an experiment to see if the technology we offer, which is free high-speed WiFi was viable as part of a food and beverage business.
“When we started the cafe in March 2014, we already set a target that we would run the cafe for only two years before deciding on how we should market the technology we have,” he said.
Asked if it was a struggle to sustain a cafe business in Ipoh over the last two years, Ng said no, because the real struggle lies in convincing customers to accept something new and different.
“I realise that those who are born and bred in Ipoh find it hard to accept what we offer because they want something good, but they’re not prepared to pay a higher price for that yet.
“For those who’ve gone to Kuala Lumpur or Penang, they’re more accepting of our prices, as well as the taste of our food and coffee,” he said.
Meanwhile, a cafe owner who wished to be known only as Yivern, closed her cafe Coffee At 91 in late 2014 because she wanted to visit her parents and siblings who are currently living in Melbourne, Australia.
“I had plans to move my cafe elsewhere before I closed it, but I wasn’t thinking so much about it in detail yet.
“It was then that the owner of the space I was renting gave the whole place a makeover, and asked me if I was interested in reopening my cafe,” she said.
Yivern now runs Ninety One, a refurbished and rebranded version of her old cafe. After a hiatus of more than a year, she said the idea of opening a new cafe again was scary at the time when she saw certain cafes closing down.
“But I was determined. The best way to do this was to introduce something new to people.
“This time, with the new cafe, I am trying to work on providing more food choices, so I learned a thing or two from my uncle who used to work as a chef,” she said, adding that Ninety One first opened in February before Chinese New Year.
Yivern admitted that it was challenging to sustain a cafe business because the number of coffee drinkers is not growing as fast as the number of cafes in Ipoh.
“The people here still put food first, and with cafes like us who specialise in drinks and desserts, we can either try to make new additions to our menu or lose out.
“We are still trying to specialise in coffee, but it’s hard when most eateries here concentrate more on food instead to attract customers,” she said.
MetroPerak also spoke to cafe owners who have been doing well since the emergence of coffee culture in the city to understand the struggles they face.
Coffee Tag owner Sam Mok said Ipoh white coffee remains his biggest competitor because it is what the city is famous for.
Like Ng, Mok says that it was difficult to introduce coffee brewed from different kinds of beans to Ipoh folk when he started his cafe in July 2014.
“It all comes down to us educating them about drinking the coffee we serve, like why our coffee tastes different from white coffee, and why our higher prices actually justify what we serve due to the skills and the coffee beans that are flown in from other countries,” he said.
Mok added that it is challenging to maintain the business as well when people are generally confused with the different concepts of cafes and restaurants.
“Cafes like ours are usually meant to serve drinks and light bites like sandwiches, pastries, and desserts. But a lot of times, many people come in and ask us why we don’t serve main courses like other places,” he said.
Pressured by the need to satisfy their customers, Mok said they gradually started introducing other food items like pies and macaroni in their menu without trying to let food take precedence over coffee.
At JJ Lifestyle Cafe, co-owner Audrey Tan, said sustaining a cafe business in Ipoh is challenging in terms weakening demand among Ipoh folk. Tan said she has observed less spending among consumers in the city.
“Which means no one wants to visit and pay more for cafe food compared to hawker food because eating at hawker centres is cheaper.
“Last year it was particularly bad, but this year, somehow things are getting a little better,” she said.
To cope with the changes, Tan said she was forced to cut costs and make internal adjustments such as reducing the number of staff.
“From seven, now we are down to about four to five staff.
“Multitasking and maximising our resources are crucial now because if there’s no need to hire more people, then we won’t,” she said.
To increase sales and sustain the business, Tan said the cafe recently extended its business hours to dinner time on weekends to tap into the potential of the dinner crowd.