Café hopping: A growing trend

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People need a space between home and office, and cafés which serve good coffee are proving to be a popular choice for business meetings these days.People need a space between home and office, and cafés which serve good coffee are proving to be a popular choice for business meetings these days.

Story and photos by Carolyn Hong

A cup of coffee these days isn’t just a cup of coffee. Coffee is also about meetings, gatherings or just chilling, and cafés have become what’s termed as ‘third spaces’ between homes and offices.

It’s not a new trend in Malaysia which had long embraced the big coffee chains. But now, independent cafes have joined the bandwagon with each one outdoing the last with more exotic beans and perfectionism in the making of a cup of coffee. Making coffee has become an art form.

There are now enough of such cafés for a coffee map to be created by a group of friends who call their venture Café Hop KL. The printed map covers 28 cafés in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya which sponsored the print run of 5,000 copies.

Café Hop also publishes an online map that lists 87 cafés around the country, including in Sabah and Sarawak, and which is still growing. They are now in the midst of building a smartphone app with nationwide listings of mainly coffee outlets.

A printed map of George Town’s quirky cafes is also in the works as the old city has seen a revival of independent businesses over the last five years since its listing as a Unesco World Heritage site.

Joachim Leong, who founded this venture, believed that it’s a business model that will last as the demand for cafés as a ‘third space’ is driven by Malaysia’s urbanisation which brings with it smaller and smaller living spaces.

“People need a space between home and office,” he said, noting that cafés are a popular choice for people to conduct business meetings in a more relaxed setting.

In fact, he used to hold many meetings in cafes in his last sales job, and realised there was widespread interest in independent cafes when he kept having to answer his friends’ queries about the places he visited.

He also said these independent cafes capitalised on the artisanal food movement that began in New York, and is now emerging in KL. This movement has resulted in the growing popularity of pop-up food fairs, supper clubs and home-based gourmet food entrepreneurs.

“There is now an appreciation of craftsmanship that allows smaller ventures to flourish,” he said.

Leong is so convinced that this trend is here to stay, so much so that he has left his lawyering career to work in KL’s VCR Cafe, a beautiful outlet located on Jalan Galloway behind the city police headquarters in Pudu.

“A barrister turned barista,” he joked.

Being focused on coffee and customer experience

Lee Ee Han, who opened VCR Cafe with his friend Andrew Lee in October, was previously in a marketing and communications role in the services industry. He decided to leave his job to pursue a passion for coffee with skills that he had honed through courses with the Barista Guild Asia, other roasters and visiting coffee shops in Japan which has a thriving coffee culture.

He also worked as a barista for a time before taking the plunge to open the café which, for now, serves only coffee and cakes made by a home baker.

“We are more focused on coffee, and so far, it’s going quite all right,” he said. “We want to look for higher quality beans and differentiate ourselves with better coffees.”

The next step is to go into roasting their own beans. The idea is to make drinking coffee an experience in itself while also working to ensure that fair remuneration goes to those along the chain in coffee processing right down to the farms.

Asked if coffee-only outlets are a viable business, he said only time would tell but, so far, business has been on track at VCR. Without any advertising or marketing since it opened, the café is already sees a steady clientele attracted by the stylishly chic ambience, good coffee and chatty baristas.

While the mushrooming of cafes may eventually slow down, Leong does not think that it’s just a fad. He said the factors that drive the need for a ‘third space’ were only going to intensify with the continued rapid urbanisation of Malaysia.

It helps that the growing middle class also tends to seek novelty and quality, and something more personal than chain stores.

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