On carrying on: KARA Cafe & Dessert Bar

Photo courtesy of Lee Li Ping
Photo courtesy of Lee Li Ping

With a fall of 24.7 per cent in sales of F&B services on a year-on-year basis, Singapore’s saturated F&B industry is a tough sector to survive, let alone attain success. High rentals, intense competition, manpower costs and keeping customers walking through the door are factors that have ended many a restauranteur’s dreams. Add to the list the unexpected ingredient of a pandemic and things have only gotten harder for F&B owners in the past year. But one entrepreneur, at least, has not let these challenges stop her from turning a failing business around. THG sat with Lee Li Ping, the founder of Sogurt and KARA Cafe & Dessert Bar, to find out what kept her going.

Nestled along Bukit Timah Road just after Coronation Plaza is KARA Cafe & Dessert Bar, one of several cafes populating the area. Its calm atmosphere belies a rocky past that almost saw its earlier incarnation shut for good. 

Before there was KARA Cafe, there was Sogurt – one of the pioneers of Singapore’s frozen yogurt, or froyo, movement. The popular homegrown brand was an overnight sensation when it opened its first location in 2010 here. It rapidly branched out to eight outlets at its peak, employing more than 100 iconic ‘Sogirls’ – young female staff who manned the counters at Sogurt’s outlets.  

The brand was eventually consolidated into the flagship concept KARA Cafe, which serves a variety of brunch staples and Sogurt. 

“Sogurt was born out of a love for froyo,” Founder Lee Li Ping quips. 

“I was studying at the University of Southern California, and [the frozen yogurt trend] was at its peak then. I [didn’t] believe it [was] that good. [But] when I tried it I really liked it, and ate it almost every day.” 

On Carrying On: KARA Cafe
The exterior of KARA Cafe on Bukit Timah Road in Singapore. (Photo courtesy of Lee Li Ping)

In her final year at university, she embarked on a business plan for a yogurt bar as part of an assignment, researching into the logistical and operational aspects of starting a business and the viability of the market. But what started out as a school project turned into reality.

“It also was because I couldn’t find an alternative when I came back [to Singapore]. I couldn’t find a way to satisfy that craving.” 

Despite its initial success, Sogurt hit tough times in the mid 2010s. Ms Lee cited her inexperience in F&B and running a business as stumbling blocks behind some of her decisions.

She recounts, “I didn’t know anything [at the start]… We made a couple of decisions like wrong choice of location, expensive rentals, [and was] struggling with management and operations, because [we didn’t] develop the range of skills, or the team needed to sustain a business.”

In addition, high rental costs due to Sogurt’s quick retail expansion led to a point when Ms Lee realised that the business was “unsustainable”. 

On Carrying On: KARA Cafe
Inside the inviting and warmly lit interior of KARA Cafe. (Photo courtesy of Lee Li Ping)

Handling failure 

Her experience with failure came with its fair share of trauma. She notes that it was “easy” to talk about taking failure in one’s stride, but was difficult to practice it. 

“When you really have to take the punches, it affects your identity, self-esteem, confidence and the way you see yourself – your self image,” Ms Lee explains. 

“In a society like Singapore that’s not easy, because there’s a lot of shame [and] expectation [of entrepreneurs]. I guess [that’s why] it’s hard to step out and to find people to join entrepreneurship, because there’s just a lot of expectation, be it parental or societal.” 

Her troubles with Sogurt took a toll on her interpersonal relationships, especially with her father, who stepped in to help manage Sogurt as the brand grew. 

“It started off my project, but I needed help. When your parent is your partner, it’s a different story.”

The challenges she faced with Sogurt were compounded by the strain on her personal relationship with her father, as they lacked the “skills to communicate”.

“I think we had a lot to learn. There’s a lot of difference between a father-daughter relationship [and the relationship between] business partners. And of course, a father will always see a kid a certain way,” she notes.

“Instead of having a collaborative partnership, it was [filled with] a lot of tension and friction… To build something with two people that are aligned is already very hard. Doing [things] with someone you know you have friction with is going to be very hard.”

On Carrying On: KARA Cafe
Founder of Sogurt and owner of KARA Cafe & Dessert Bar Lee Li Ping seated outside her flagship concept. (Photo courtesy of Lee Li Ping)

Pressing on

Despite feeling overwhelmed, Ms Lee decided to continue with the business as she was committed to upholding her integrity and reputation. 

“I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice, short of just throwing in the towel and giving up everything…You can’t just walk out on a [lease] contract,” she explains. “Of course, there are places that do that, but you either declare [bankruptcy] or just don’t honour the contract. I knew that whatever it is, you always have to do the right thing.”

Her indefatigable persistence and vision for Sogurt kept her going. 

“I still knew that Sogurt was going to be a house brand. I knew that we had something special, and that this was an obstacle, but I had a clear long-term vision [and ideas],” reflects Ms Lee. “I think that helped me through… I hate to admit defeat or give up – I will put in everything and try everything.” 

Finding purpose with KARA Cafe

Determined to be less reliant on the retail market, the 34-year-old entrepreneur decided to embark on a new strategy with Sogurt.

Her new concept KARA Cafe & Dessert Bar opened to customers in 2017, catering to a core demographic of families and students. The name Kara means ‘beloved’ or ‘loved’, which Ms Lee says returns to the “heart” of what Sogurt was – “love, joy, friendship”.

“I knew I could only do so much to focus on what I know, but there was room for uncertainty. And I was okay with that, [doing] the best of what I know, which is [to] build KARA. To be this place that’s a safe space, [to] bring people together. It’s about community.” 

She also began to explore reviving Sogurt in a different format, to “go into supermarkets and homes everywhere.” 

On Carrying On: KARA Cafe
Sogurt pints, which are available online and at KARA Cafe. (Photo courtesy of Lee Li Ping)

The reconceptualisation of Sogurt from a self-serve bar to ice cream-style pints helped the brand to weather new business restrictions brought on by COVID-19. More people started sending gifts to one another during Singapore’s partial lockdown, or circuit breaker, resulting in Sogurt hitting its “highest sales ever”, with a 130 per cent year-on-year growth.

“KARA was such a big blessing to me – it really gave fresh perspective,” Ms Lee says. “If you see KARA’s logo, it’s a door with a shadow… meaning ‘welcome home.’” 

The logo also looks like a butterfly: “That was very much representative of a new beginning, like metamorphosis. You go through the death of the old to come up with the new.” 

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