Back when Vulcan Post’s office was situated at Tanjong Pagar, my colleagues and I would often go on coffee runs to Amoy Street Food Centre during our lunch breaks.
The snaking queues in front of the stall never daunted us, because it served as a testament of the stall’s popularity among the CBD crowd. But why are people so drawn to it?
Here’s my take: their menu selection is pretty interesting, as it offers a rather diverse variety of artisanal coffee flavours – just check out the signboard menu below! And these ‘premium’ flavours are priced very reasonably at $3.80 a cup, which is almost half the price of a typical drink at Starbucks.
Beyond the brew, Coffee Break also develops homemade spreads for their toast in quirky flavours such as black sesame, matcha coconut creme, and taro creme.
Just a quick background: a trio of siblings – Jack Sai, 32; and twins Faye and Anna, 29 – are the third-generation running the stall.
We have previously featured them as one of the young ‘hawkerpreneurs’ who are breathing life into Singapore’s hawker culture again. I thought this to be pretty cool – the fact that a bunch of millennials are choosing the path less travelled, and opting for the hawker life instead of holding a regular 9-to-5 office job.
So I caught up with Faye Sai to learn more about their business story and their recipe for success.
A Family Business – Since 1930s
Coffee Break has its roots traced way back from 1935, when their paternal grandfather came over from Hainan Island to open a traditional kopitiam on the now-defunct East Reclamation Road (currently known as Keppel Road).
Called San Hai Hng Eating House, Faye describes it as a “small and family-oriented business” – and even their father would help out in getting the coffee beans roasted back then.
“After the government en-bloc, the business moved to Telok Blangah Drive, where it got en-bloc again. My dad then opened a small eating house on Boon Tat Street, before finally opening the current Coffee Break at Amoy Street Food Centre,” shared Faye.
Coffee Break was first established in 1999, which means that the stall has been standing strong for the past 18 years.
The eldest, Jack Sai, officially took over the business full-time in 2009, when he was just 24 years old. Faye joined Jack the following year, and Anna was the last to join the team in 2015.
“Each of us have different reasons for taking over the business. Jack wanted to pursue something that he could call his own; Anna decided her previous work was not cut out for her [and figured working with siblings would be a good choice]; and I had always wanted to take over the business since I was 19,” said Faye.
Since Faye has always been the one harbouring the clearest intention to take over the coffee business, I guess it serves as no surprise that the 29-year-old is trained in specialty coffee.
However, all three siblings have been “taught the traditional way of the sock-brew”. Instead of pulling shots in a machine, they steep and aggressively stir the coffee in a cloth filter to produce stronger flavours.
“One of the things my father, as well as my siblings and I are proud of about Coffee Break is that we very thoughtfully blend our coffees and teas, and brew every cup to perfection, or at least to the customer’s request. We insist on the sock-brew method, and place quality above everything else.”
The New-Age Kopi And Roti
As mentioned, one of the major reasons why I think Coffee Break has been so successful over the years is thanks to their innovative menu.
Surprisingly, the brainchild of putting a modern spin on these traditional coffee drinks is their father, James Sai.
When he was helming the stall, he started adding new flavours to the menu such as mint coffee and almond tea, and the uptake was initially cautious and slow.
But increasingly, as the target market started evolving to a younger demographic, James knew that he struck gold.
After the Sai siblings took over, they innovated the menu further and started introducing more unconventional flavours such as sea salt mint mocha, pumpkin-spice latte, black sesame milk tea, and rum and raisin toast.
Some of the flavours are inspired by their travels. The pumpkin spice one was incorporated from a coffee they tasted in France and their sea salt mint coffee was inspired by ‘doogh’, a yogurt mint drink that Jack had during a holiday to Iran.
When asked who makes the call for the menu revisions, Faye said that Jack is the main man behind their R&D – but all three contribute to brainstorming for new ideas.
They also welcome ideas from their part-timers, but at the end of the day, the trio will be the ones conducting the proper testing and researching to decide if the proposed flavour(s) makes the cut.
Being A Hawkerpreneur Is Not Easy
So far, business has been going great for Coffee Break – they sell an average of 500 cups a day, according to Faye.
As the average price of their drinks cost $3, a quick calculation tells me that they earn an approximate earning of at least $1,500 a day – that’s almost half the monthly salary of a regular office worker!
While the cash flow is indeed good, Faye asserts that good business is impossible without hard work. After all, being a hawkerpreneur isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
“Working at a hawker centre is tough, I will not sugarcoat it at all. The hours are long, and we are on our feet almost 10 hours a day. It is constantly hot and humid, and it does not help that we face a boiling tank of water all the time,” she lamented.
“When it comes down to crunch time, temperature and tempers rise exponentially, [especially when] faced with the pressure of a long queue who constantly demand quick and good [food and service].”
Despite the occasional testing times, Faye said that she’s glad to be working alongside family.
The fact that they are siblings also aided their professional chemistry, she added, as they are already familiar with each other’s characters and working styles.
Deeply Rooted In Tradition
When asked on their strategy to outlast the cut-throat F&B industry, Faye feels that a major reason that most businesses fail is because they lack “an identity that they can truly own”.
“Many of them offer the same thing: coffee, pastries, and Wi-Fi. But not much can be said about what sets them apart from others.”
“For us, it has always been about traditional coffee and tea – ever since my father’s and grandfather’s times. And now as we – the third generation – take over, we’re not straying from the fact that traditional coffee and tea brought us to where we are today. [We may be] young, but [we are also] deeply rooted in tradition – and this sets us apart from the rest, I believe,” said Faye.
When asked about their future plans, Faye said that they will be opening up a new outlet at GSH Plaza, near Raffles Place area, very soon – exact details on the launching date is not disclosed however.
This will be Coffee Break’s third outlet – following the original stall at Amoy Street Food Centre, and a second outlet at Science Park, which opened doors in November last year.
According to Faye, their Science Park outlet is like an “extension” of the Amoy outlet.
“We’ve kept it cosy, simple and clean, bringing back the kopitiam half-wall tiles, marbled tables and old-school chairs brought over from my grandfather’s kopitiam,” she elaborated.
As the business expands, Faye said that they are focusing on steadying the business flow at all three outlets. In the next year or so, they also hope to venture into online retail, so as to globalise their customer reach and make their products more accessible.
Disrupt Or Be Disrupted
The Coffee Break has successfully stood the test of time since its inception in 1935, so they must have been doing things right over the years.
In the business world, it is a known fact that businesses need to constantly disrupt themselves in order to survive in this rapidly changing economy. This means that businesses have to be quick to adapt and change according to the times and consumer needs – and I feel that the Sai siblings have done just that.
Witnessing millennial hawkerpreneurs in action like themselves is indeed a rare sight, and I think the trio has done well in preserving the hawker heritage in Singapore.
The fact that they are not shunning the ‘unglamourous’ job of working at a hawker centre is something that I truly respect as well.
Check out Coffee Break at their outlets here:
Amoy Street Food Centre
7 Maxwell Road
Opening hours: 7.30am to 2.30pm (Mon-Fri), Closed on weekends
Ascent, Singapore Science Park 1
2 Science Park Drive
Opening hours: 8.30am to 5.30pm (Mon-Fri), Closed on weekends
Featured Image Credit: @livcheung on Instagram