Loving Life with… Faye Sai (Coffee Break)!

Faye at her Ascent (Kent Ridge) outlet

Faye, together with her twin sister Anna and elder brother Jack, run their family-owned coffee stall, Coffee Break. Currently they have 2 stalls, one at Amoy Food Centre and the other at Ascent (Kent Ridge).

Passion from Young

It started with Faye’s grandfather who had a coffee stall at Telok Blangah and her father used to help out there. Her father later found a stall at Amoy Food Centre and Coffee Break was born in 1999.

Faye and her siblings started helping their father since secondary school days.

“I was known as kopi girl in school because I couldn’t stop talking about my father’s business,” Faye laughed.

Singapore Heritage Fest 16
Anna and Faye hard at work at S’pore Heritage Festival 16

After her A Levels, she started helping her dad during the day while studying for her diploma at night.

“It was then I told my dad I wanted to help him full time. But he told me to go and get my degree.”

Making the Best of Her Education

Since her father wanted her to continue schooling, Faye decided to make full use of her degree and chose to take Business Management at SIM.

“The 3 years I was at university were very helpful. I applied everything I’ve learnt from my modules to Coffee Break. And I did case studies on Starbucks, Ya Kun and other retail stores like Levi’s to see how their business model works.”

Serving her customers cheerily

After she graduated, Faye thought she can finally join her father.

“But my father told me to go out and see the world.”

The Other Side of Coffee

Faye decided to work at different cafes where she was exposed to specialty coffee like latte and macchiato.

“I even went to Melbourne and volunteered at World Barista Championship 2 years in a row just to see what the hype was all about. If I was going to do traditional coffee, I need to learn about specialty coffee as well. I recognised a lot of trends, especially coffee that could do the same for traditional coffee, so that was very helpful.”

Being Different from Others

Was that how Coffee Break started offering different lattes to their menu?

“Contrary to belief, it was my dad who had the foresight to stand out from the crowd. At the same time Coffee Bean started introducing ice blended, he had the same idea too. He started adding drinks like cookies and cream and mocha, and they were very popular.

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Credits: Coffee Break

We came up with ideas like sea salt caramel and matcha. But he has already started almond coffee and mint coffee. We simply made the flavours quirkier.”

“We take different coffee beans and make our own blend. So you won’t find the same coffee outside. We make sure it’s 100% coffee too. In traditional coffee, some people add corn. It’s not necessarily a bad thing though, it’s more of a culture.”

And being avid travellers, when they happen on a unique flavour during their trips and think they can replicate it, they would go back and experiment. Flavours come and go, so their menu is always changing.

Taro toast
Popular taro toast. Credits: Coffee Break

Not only does Coffee Break offer unique coffee and lattes, they sell highly popular toasts and waffles too. Earl grey toasts are snapped up within the hour of their stall opening. Rum & raisin, pistachio and matcha coconut are just some of the premium toasts they offer. You name it, they probably have it (assuming it’s not sold out yet).

Must latte be made from an espresso machine?

Having heard Faye’s indignant comment from another interview, I pounced on my chance to question her more on it.

“What is a latte to you?” I asked eagerly.

“It’s Italian for milk,” she deadpanned.

Bursting into laughter, I recalled Jake’s experience in Italy when he was given a glass of milk after a confused barista passed him his order of “latte”.

“People think latte must be made using a shot from an espresso machine. But if I use really good coffee that’s brewed using a sock and add milk to it, will you be able to tell it wasn’t made from an espresso shot?”

What if customers complain that their latte isn’t made from a pulled shot?

“I tell them to go to Jewel Coffee down the row.” Faye said indifferently.

“If you go to Chye Seng Huat and order a macchiato, you’ll get an expresso shot with foam. But if you go to Starbucks and order a caramel macchiato, what do you get? Are you going to complain that it’s not a “proper” macchiato? It’s all about interpretation.”

Precious Lessons

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Credits: Coffee Break

“My lowest point was when we just took over from my father. We weren’t allowed to touch the sock when we were young. And it took me at least 2 years before I got the hang of brewing coffee using a sock. Once my father retired, business dropped significantly.”

“Luckily business picked up after sometime as our brewing skills improved. Later I had regulars who came to me and said that when we first took over, our coffee simply wasn’t as good as the one my father brewed. But they stuck with us because they believed in our potential. I was really grateful.”

For a few months, Faye ran an outlet at GSH Plaza in the CBD region as well. They sold Indian food and brought in food from Amoy in addition to their coffee.

But she soon learnt that people just want to have coffee and chill out.

“It was the most excruciating 7 months of my life. We were spread so thin with each of us running our own stall. But I did learn that Coffee Break is really known for our coffee.”

Working with Siblings

Coffee Break recognised at Marigold 咖啡中强!

“My brother and I were both young and have very hot tempers when we first started working together. We even screamed at each other in the stall. It got really bad.”

“But one day, my brother told me something that made me really stop and think. He said that both of us were here and we need to eat and survive. There’s no point in shouting at each other all the time.”

“He was right. So each time a problem arose, I’ll stop and think about it. I would respond, not react. That helped us get used to each other’s working style and understand each other better. We became closer and working was more fun.”

Best Idea for Coffee Break

“About half a year to a year after I joined full time, I implemented an ordering system using Ipad. I used to run out and write down orders on paper then run in and shout orders to my brother. It wasted a lot of time. So I looked at how McDonald’s orders are sent to the kitchen via a monitor and thought “Why can’t we do the same?”

“We don’t earn a lot as a hawker, but investing in this ordering system is worth it. The convenience outweighs the cost. And it helped us keep track of our sales.”

Motivation When the Going Gets Tough

“I feel that we have this responsibility to carry on the heritage of brewing coffee using a sock. I didn’t start out feeling like this at first. But along the way, people told me “You have this skill. Your coffee is really good. Don’t let the tradition die off.”

“Every single cup of coffee is made with a lot of care.”

Future Plans for Coffee Break

“I think eventually we want to bring it overseas. We have a lot of international customers who come back and tell us that this could sell in their countries.”

Faye and Anna working together

 

“Though honestly, given our constraints right now and supply chain management, it’s going to be tough. Franchising will not be ideal because we want to maintain the high quality of our coffee. But we can look into supplying our coffee powder overseas.”

Any Advice for Budding Entrepreneurs?

“Don’t give up. It will be very very difficult. You will keep asking yourself “Is it really worth it?” or “What am I doing here?” and it will be very tempting to just go back to a steady paycheck.”

“Do your homework and persevere.”

Coffee Break at Kent Ridge
2 Science Park Drive
#01-28

Coffee Break at Amoy
Amoy Street Food Centre
7 Maxwell Road
#02-78

If you are an entrepreneur or know someone who would like to share about their journey, do let me know!

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