Coffee princes of Singapore

5 male baristas tell us what it's like to make coffee for a living - and whether their good looks play a part in attracting customers

The Artsy Prince
The Artsy Prince
31 May 2016

The Artsy Prince

Jervis Tan, Kinsmen Coffee

He could have been a banker, but he chose to become a barista instead -- and now he's the Singapore National Latte Art Champion. Three years ago, 26-year-old Jervis Tan traded a suit and tie for an apron, starting Kinsmen Coffee, one of the first mobile coffee catering companies in the nation. It was a risky move. Specialty coffee had taken off not long ago in Singapore, and mobile coffee was an even newer concept. Unswayed by skeptical family and friends, Jervis pushed his coffee cart to private and public events, serving handcrafted coffee with a smile — which has paid off, because demand is growing fast.

Do you ever regret not pursuing a banking career?

I’m considered lucky to find what my passion is. Banking would have been a safer route to take — that’s what most people think. But I would choose passion over other job aspects. I really love coffee and so far, I’m able to survive being a barista. 

You run Kinsmen Coffee together with your girlfriend. What’s that like?

It’s good and bad. When you work with each other you can support each other. But it’s not easy to leave personal matters outside of work when you’re working so closely together. There were times when our views did not meet, and a little conflict is natural, but we try not to bring it to the job.

What does a girl have to be prepared for in order to date someone in your line of business?

In the F&B business there are long hours and work on the weekends, so give the guy time to work. Currently I’m still struggling with finding time to accompany my girlfriend outside of work but the good thing is that we run the business together so we see each other every day. 

Photos by Jenny Tai 

Jervis Tan, Kinsmen Coffee
Jervis Tan, Kinsmen Coffee
31 May 2016

Jervis Tan, Kinsmen Coffee

How did you know you had something good?

I started three years ago, and the first year the response was really bad. Many people were not receptive to coffee being made on the spot, without a physical store. But in the last two years the response has been rising. There have been so many requests to have a mobile coffee company at events. Now over 20 mobile companies have popped up. When I started I was only the second one. People can see that there’s a market for this.

After winning the Singapore National Latte Art Competition for two years running, you went on to represent Singapore in the World Latte Art Championships in Gothenburg and Shanghai. What's the biggest takeaway from this experience?

Going to the World Championships woke me up to realise that the coffee scene in Singapore is actually very small. When you step out into the world, it's very big out there and their standards are very, very high. In Gothenburg last year, I only placed 28 out of 36, so I took a lot of effort to push up my standards and skills. This year in Shanghai I placed 16 out of 37. Meeting overseas competitors, seeing their pours and standards made me want to improve myself. It's motivating.

Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs?

If you have something you want to do, do it when you are still young. When you still have the energy to start up something. Don’t hesitate too much when you have something in mind, because when you hesitate, the chance is already given to other people. If I had hesitated, I wouldn’t have been the second mobile coffee company, I would have been one of the 20 companies that just started. I got the advantage because I started earlier.

For more information about Kinsmen Coffee and its services, please visit http://kinsmencoffee.com.  

The Bad Boy Prince With a Heart of Gold
The Bad Boy Prince With a Heart of Gold
31 May 2016

The Bad Boy Prince With a Heart of Gold

Margeet Kean, The Coffee Academics

With all his tattoos and piercings, Margeet Kean exudes a bad boy vibe. But once he starts speaking, it's surprising how polite and humble he is. His colleagues will tell you he is a gentleman. And he’s proof that it’s okay if you don’t know your passion. The 23-year-old stumbled into his, and he never thought it’d be coffee.

Two years ago, unsure of his next step after completing his national service, Margeet took on a job as a barista. (Nevermind that he didn't even like coffee then.) For many, the longer they stay at a job, the more disillusioned they get. For Margeet, it was the opposite: The more he understood coffee and the logic behind each step, the more his excitement grew. To him, being a barista doesn't mean blindly following procedures and letting the espresso machine do the work. It means being an artist, a conversationalist, and above all, being teachable. Take it from Margeet: Good, passionate leaders are good, passionate learners.

How has your past helped you succeed at what you do?

My grandparents raised me. I've always worked. Working part-time was a way to earn money and keep myself in school, so I would be able to pay for school. Growing up without parents made me want to go and work for myself and be more independent. I’m definitely not someone who's afraid of handwork.

You have a twin brother who's also a barista. Who started first?

I started as a bartender first, and after that he followed me in whichever industry I went to. Then I became a barista at Toby's Estate, and we worked there together for a while. We are very close, my twin brother. We have similar interests. 

Margeet Kean, The Coffee Academics
Margeet Kean, The Coffee Academics
31 May 2016

Margeet Kean, The Coffee Academics

What’s your proudest accomplishment as a barista?

Latte art is one of them. You have to be patient and have really good control with your hands. A good barista is someone who is a really good artist.

How long does it take to learn latte art?

One design takes about one month to learn. The difficult part is learning how to properly master it. The swan is my proudest one to have mastered. I think I’m pretty good at pouring swans. If it’s higher volume of customers, then I’ll do something easier, maybe something simple like a heart shape.

What’s the most challenging part about being a barista?

Anyone can learn how to be a barista, but to be a good barista it’s about doing the extra stuff. It’s about being ambitious. Reach out to consumers, start conversations, learn different flavour profiles. You can also join competitions to challenge yourself. That’s why I’m joining the Singapore National Brewer’s Cup.

What’s your coffee of choice? 

Flat white.

Do you ever get sick of drinking coffee?

Actually no. I have to taste it at work, but I also have gear at home to make coffee at home. I like to go to different coffee shops and try their coffee too.

What's your favourite feature?

My eyelashes. People say I have long eyelashes.

The Coffee Academics is located at 6 Scotts Road, Scotts Square, 228209

The Adorkable Prince
The Adorkable Prince
31 May 2016

The Adorkable Prince

Douglas Tan, Tolido's Espresso Nook

Douglas Tan didn't like drinking coffee at first. It was latte art that interested him. But in practicing latte art, he felt compelled to drink the coffee -- otherwise he felt it was a waste. Over time he realised that getting the flavour out of the coffee was an even more mind-blowing art in itself. As the goofy, self-taught 23-year-old barista put it, latte art was just the cherry on top of the whole sundae. Today, when he's not in class, you'll find Douglas serving up peppermint mocha, pandan pancakes, and prawn laksa pasta -- just a few of the popular items at the Central Perk-inspired coffee shop. Tolido's Espresso Nook is a story about a young guy who, with the help of two chef friends, turned a hobby into a full-fledged career.

Tolido’s used to be a family store at the Omni-Theatre, and now it's a specialty coffee shop. What's the story there?

We used to sell popcorn and hot dogs for movies, and we had a little coffee machine there. When I got interested in latte art, I only had that tiny coffee machine that I would play around with. When the Omni-theatre had to shut down, they gave us six months’ notice to vacate. The shop was the only source of income for my mom and me. We had to think of something fast, then this idea came up. I was unaware of the coffee industry and didn’t do enough research. We came in with a very simple menu and were thrown in the deep. 

What’s it like to date a coffee shop owner?

I’m running my own business and going to university at the same time, so don’t think that I’ve got to be there 24/7. But if I love you I’ll definitely put time aside for you. No calls that go till 3 AM though — I got morning shift the next day. I'm currently single but sometimes I’ll see a very attractive girl sitting in the cafe — then the boyfriend shows up and I’m like, “Crap.” On Valentine’s Day every table is a couple and I’m just standing over there thinking, “This is gross.” 

What's something valuable you've learned about running your own business?

In the beginning I wasn't a very social media savvy person so when I got exposed to the whole social media thing around cafes, I was like, "What is this? I gotta post things every week?" You have to hype things up. "Yay it's Friday! Food!" It's not my personality but I learned.

Everyone is a coffee aficionado now; coffee is such a hype. There's a lot of competition. Reinventing is important. Our famous drink is the sea salt caramel latte. My friend was saying that there's salted caramel everything, and I thought wouldn't it be awesome if people who loved both had it together in one drink? The next day I couldn't wait to test it out. Ever since it was a revelation to me: What do the people want? Give it to them.

Douglas Tan, Tolido's Espresso Nook
Douglas Tan, Tolido's Espresso Nook
31 May 2016

Douglas Tan, Tolido's Espresso Nook

What's your favourite part of the day?

Morning. It's just a different atmosphere then. I love breakfast. You know dinner is very formal, lunch is scary because office workers all come and it's like a stampede. From 12 to 2 PM, war begins in the kitchen, it's like Sparta. Morning has a nice flow. The lightning is nice. It's casual. You wake up and smell the coffee and it's just awesome.

What do you like most about your job?

For us, me and my two chef partners, we are all very passionate about our craft. Nothing pleases us more than when a customer appreciates our craft. Just someone saying "The food or coffee was very nice today" is like WOW. Day made.

Any unusual latte art requests?

There’s a kid who always wants an angry bird on his hot chocolate.

Tolido's Espresso Nook is located at #01-63, 462 Crawford Lane, Singapore

The Prince Next Door
The Prince Next Door
31 May 2016

The Prince Next Door

Alistair Seetho, One Man Coffee

Alistair Seetho was like any other student studying in a cafe when a friendly conversation with the manager landed him the job of his dreams. Today, the 26-year-old runs One Man Coffee at Fusionopolis Two. (Ed note: Alistair is literally the boy next door to Toggle, since our new office is located just down the road from Fusionopolis.) For a guy who’s held numerous part-time jobs since he was 16, becoming manager was a big deal. Although he holds a diploma in engineering, he's always had his heart set on the service industry. This is someone who genuinely finds joy in serving others. He doesn't mind complicated, high-maintenance coffee orders from picky customers (and trust us, many baristas do). Alistair is passionate about coffee, and he's passionate about serving you.

What’s your favourite part of the day?

Serving a customer their first cup of coffee. They come in with a very down face, haven’t had their coffee yet – then I give them their first cup, talk to them, and when they leave they’re cheered up.

What excites you the most about coffee? 

To make a cup of coffee, you have to know the different processes. What I like is getting every step right. The process doesn’t get boring for me. Even though it’s muscle memory now, when I calibrate, set the grind size and dosage, pull a shot and see the flow of the coffee, all of it excites me. Every cup that comes out is all for the customer.

Where can you be creative in your work?

Latte art. I like pouring different latte art for different customers. My favourite design is the tulips.

What's the most challenging part of your job?

The amount of coffee I drink every day. I have to taste at least five cups or more to keep the consistency right. I have a high tolerance for caffeine now, and I can drink coffee any time – day or night – it doesn’t affect my sleep. But five cups is my max before my hands start shaking.

Alistair Seetho, One Man Coffee
Alistair Seetho, One Man Coffee
31 May 2016

Alistair Seetho, One Man Coffee

Do you get a lot of attention from customers?

I do have customers who know me and pay attention to my presence. Regulars will ask where I am when I’m traveling. I’m good with faces and I remember my customers’ orders well. They walk in and I know their orders; they don’t even need to say a word. I feel happy that there’s such natural thing. 

How helpful is it to have good looks as a barista?

Looking presentable helps. Don’t work with broken shoes. How you dress is important, and how much effort you put into yourself shows a lot about you, especially in the service industry because you’re always facing customers. Always dress up and doll up.

The best kind of customer?

Customers who say thank you. Some people just grab and go.

What would you say is your best feature?

My smile.

What do you love most about being a barista?

My head barista once said that to make a cup of coffee is to see the smile on a customer’s face. I like to make people happy. And if I can do that just by making them coffee, why not do it for life?

One Man Coffee is located at 4 Fusionopolis Way, Kinesis #01-15, Singapore 138635;  215R Upper Thomson Road, Singapore 574349; and 1 Maju Avenue #B1-23/24, MyVillage @ Serangoon Gardens, Singapore 556679. 

The Manly Prince
The Manly Prince
31 May 2016

The Manly Prince

Jared Chan, The Coffee Daily

As the owner of the specialty cafe, The Coffee Daily, 28-year-old Jared Chan possesses an impressive full beard (a man bun, too, at one point) and extensive knowledge of brewing techniques -- though he maintains that with all his formal training, he's still got a lot to learn about coffee. Like its owner, The Coffee Daily exudes an inviting, laid back vibe: There's a rocking chair at the entrance, the paint is peeling from the scruffy tiled floor, and there's a blank canvas on the wall with "Old Painting" scrawled across. This is a comfortable place where Jared simply wants you to relax and enjoy good coffee.

How did your coffee journey begin?

It started when I was 12 years old. My mum used to buy back coffee from our local coffee shop after work. The local coffee smelled really fragrant and sweet, and I kept pestering her to let me try some, but she always said no because I was too young. Boys being boys, every time she said no I just wanted it more. Finally one time I skipped recess without eating anything, and used my pocket money to go to the local coffee shop after school. I remember it was really bitter when I first tried it.

What does a girl have to be prepared for if she wants to date someone in your line of business?

She has to be prepared for the amount of money that passionate baristas will spend on some home equipment. Our brewing tools probably won’t cost a fortune but it’s not cheap. Also the insane amount of coffee that we consume. And that whenever we go on holiday, every barista will probably have their mini pilgrimage around the city’s top coffee shops.

Jared Chan, The Coffee Daily
Jared Chan, The Coffee Daily
31 May 2016

Jared Chan, The Coffee Daily

What’s special about the coffee community in comparison to other F&B industries?

Here’s an accurate portrayal. One time I posted on Instagram that I was going to London, and asked if there were any coffee shops there that would let me hang at their bar. Some contacted me and said yeah. That’s how I ended up guesting at Saint Espresso and Climpson and Sons in London. The coffee community is very warm. There are people and budding baristas from overseas, Canada, Melbourne, Indonesia, who have visited my cafe just to do their mini coffee pilgrimage. It seems that coffee has this unspoken ability to break down walls, to allow conversation to flow freely.

Any drink inventions that you’re especially proud of?

The Dirty Little Ice Latte is one of our most popular drinks. It’s frozen espresso cubes in milk. It was an idea I got while traveling in Korea, so we did not invent that. But ours is a bit different. Instead of freezing black coffee like they do, we use frozen espresso cubes so it’s even more potent.

We also have chocolate tea, which we came up with when earl grey chocolate cake was really popular. We infuse earl gray tea and mocha chocolate syrup in a milk base, and it has a pretty interesting taste to it.

Any advice for entrepreneurs seeking to break into the coffee biz?

Really do your homework. The homework has to encompass a wide spectrum, down to equipment cost, the mundane stuff, location study and the competition in the market. The market is really saturated right now. Identify a niche – something you can offer, a creative novelty, that’s not just any other coffee shop. And if all those criteria are in check, do not be afraid to take the opportunity and risk.

What do you look for when you’re hiring someone?

I look for somebody who is more outgoing, more vocal and willing to share their ideas. In general interviewees are too reserved. I wouldn’t be able to strike up a conversation on the first interview. It’ll be like a Q&A, but when I try to ask more about themselves it usually ends quite abruptly.

The Coffee Daily is located at 75 Brighten Crescent, Singapore 55921.  

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