On a late weekday afternoon at Tekka Centre as a weary crowd trudged on, two diners seated between tables that have been demarcated by red construction tapes were tucking into their meals as the few hawker stalls opened for business looked on. This off-beat, despondent rhythm is discernible — a far cry from its thriving self in the pre-pandemic days. For hawkers Zender Wong and Kenneth Lim, founders of Generation Coffee, such a sight has become a norm.
“On a good day (before the dine-in restrictions), we sell about 300 cups of coffee. But this time around, we sell about 200 cups instead,” says Mr Wong, 31, highlighting his 20 to 25 per cent dip in sales.
The sad reality of 2-pax dining and the ever so often restrictions has left much to be desired. For a while now, food and beverage (F&B) owners have struggled to keep up despite pivoting to delivery platforms or boosting their digital presence. Even so, the two millennial hawkers remain hopeful that things will turn a corner.
Transitioning for the better
As with many F&B outlets, Generation Coffee has seen its fair share of pivoting and transitioning during the pandemic.
In early 2020, Mr Wong and Mr Lim started an online coffee distribution platform Pore Coffee, where they partnered with local roasters and distributed freshly roasted beans to the then-budding homebrewers. Eventually, they started adding homemade cold brews to their offerings. After nine months of operation, the duo realised that things were not working as well as they intended for and decided to pivot.
Seeing that traditional sock-pulled kopi, the coffee you drink in coffee shops, hawker centres and air-conditioned food courts, lacked consistency, the duo vowed to come up with a solution that would not “compromise the quality, aroma and consistency” of kopi while keeping it affordable.
They rebranded and opened a sleek and modern-looking coffee stall at Tekka Centre that proffers traditional kopi with a contemporary twist, alongside a small menu of specialty coffee.
Mr Wong says: “We looked at local cafés and international players, like Starbucks, and we thought we could come up with something in the middle, between a good quality coffee and an affordable one at that.”
At Generation Coffee, coffee beans are freshly roasted and ground daily, and each cup of coffee is brewed using the eye-catching Expobar Carat 2 Group Automatic Coffee Machine — a sight to behold in a hawker centre, but not an entirely new-fangled concept; in 2017, Kopi More at Golden Mile Hawker Centre was reportedly the first to kickstart this trend of brewing kopi. There, Mr Lim takes on the role of a barista responsible for doling out caffeine concoctions while Mr Wong acts as the front-of-house who takes order, tends to the crowd, and occasionally serves coffee.
The stall’s traditional kopi is brewed with a special blend of coffee beans, comprising Brazil Arabica and Vietnam Robusta beans, that boasts a robust flavour with whiffs of toasted nuts and dark chocolate. The specialty coffee, however, is brewed using coffee beans procured from Rwanda that veer towards the fruitier and sweeter side. The price point, according to a dangling menu at the stall front, ranges between $1.40 for a cup of Kopi-O and $3.50 for a mocha or dirty matcha.
“I can safely say that our coffee is 30 per cent cheaper than most cafés,” says Mr Wong.
One of Generation Coffee’s loyal customers Gabriel Ngo, 26, agrees with him. “Some people might find Generation Coffee’s drinks expensive, but did you know that Ya Kun charges more?” he asks. On average, Mr Ngo, who is a frontline worker at a government quarantine facility, visits Generation Coffee four to six times a week to get his morning brew before he kick starts his day.
The traditionalists’ arguments and educating curious on-lookers
It is not unusual to be derided by traditionalists when you spend anything more than $1.50 on a morning cuppa. The bizarre sight of mobs of people, especially youths, crowding outside certain reputable coffee chains, they say, is anything but ridiculous and “non-commonsensical”.
They also argue that specialty coffee, or Ang Moh (Hokkien for westerners) Kopi, tastes the same as a 3-in-1 coffee sachet or a traditional kopi. Some might even argue sock-pulled kopi is leagues ahead in flavour and even exudes a sense of nostalgia.
But would traditionalists eventually subscribe to the notion of paying for a cup of specialty coffee in a hawker centre?
Yes, but not without some education.
The perennial question on why some of Generation Coffee’s offerings would rival the price of a plate of chicken rice is a common one. The duo, whose clientele is a healthy mix of people from all walks of life, are often questioned on how they price their drinks. “At the start, a lot of people asked us and we took time to educate them,” Mr Wong says.
“The most common comment we get from the older generation is that Ang Moh Kopi is not as nice, but that is because they have never tasted a good latte before, so maybe they do not understand.
“I always tell (our customers) that it is important to know what goes in a cup.”
When it comes to pricing, Mr Wong says that there are three broad considerations. “It starts from the seed,” he says, indicating where the coffee plant is grown and how the farmers process the coffee cherries into raw beans have a part to play. The second consideration falls on the hands of the roaster who, according to Mr Wong, needs to be cognizant of the beans’ properties, such as their density and at which altitude they were harvested. Finally, the onus is on the brewers to ensure each cup of coffee is consistent. Mr Wong adds: “We need to understand the brewing ratio and make sure we weigh them accordingly.
Would traditional kopi ever go extinct?
On whether specialty coffee would one day supplant traditional kopi, Mr Wong and Mr Lim disagree.
“First of all, traditional kopi is very accessible and affordable. Secondly, Singaporeans tend to cling to these traditional offerings,” says Mr Wong. And he is right. For, after all, there will always be newcomers to the coffee trade who appreciate traditional kopi.
Perhaps they may be like Mr Wong and Mr Lim, who are willing to take things into their own hands and inject something new to the mix. Besides, hawkers are more than likely to pass on the baton to the next generation and should they choose not to learn the ropes of the trade, the older hawkers can always hire foreigners and teach them instead.
In any case, Generation Coffee, along with notable game-changers like Kopi More or Coffee Break, is showing a glimpse of what having a morning joe at a hawker centre would be like in the future. Whether the coffee is going to be pulled by a sock or brewed using a fancy espresso machine in the future, the prices of a cuppa will likely increase with time, in part due to inflation and the rising cost of coffee beans. And if that means forking out more just to get my caffeine fix. So be it.