People mostly remember Wheeler’s Yard for its iconic floor-to-ceiling blue doors, which is arguably the most Instagrammed spot in Singapore.
For those unacquainted, Wheeler’s Yard is a five-year-old bike shop and café housed in an industrial warehouse located at Jalan Ampas.
At first glance, it looks like a nondescript warehouse but once you step in, you’ll be greeted by eclectic fixtures, distressed wooden furniture and troves of bicycles.
Managing director of Wheeler’s Yard, 65-year-old Tommy Ong, had turned his family’s old warehouse into a thriving bicycle workshop and cafe today.
Since its establishment in September 2013, it has earned a reputation for being one of the most ‘hipster’ hangouts in Singapore.
Pioneering A New Concept
In an interview with Huck Magazine, Ong said that cycling was fast “becoming a lifestyle” in Singapore.
But since “having only bikes is hard to sustain”, he decided to merge it with a café as the café culture is already booming in Singapore back then.
“This warehouse is actually a family property – we bought it in 1985 for investment purposes,” Ong told Honeycombers.
“For the last 12 years, we rented it to a carpentry company and it was a factory of sorts. At the end of 2012, the rent was below market rate, mostly because the place was quite rundown.”
So Ong decided to put the property to better use and convert it into a bicycle workshop, as he is a cycling enthusiast himself.
“I used to live in New Zealand and I stay in a coffee shop whenever I have free time, and there were many shops converted from old buildings, warehouses and factories; so I think such a concept in Singapore would be very successful,” said Ong.
But because the space was too big, he figured that adding a café component would be a good move.
Moreover, the warehouse is located near to a park connector, so it doubles as a cyclist stopover – for bicycle servicing, repairs, and the likes.
Ong also wanted the space to be a common area for cyclists and coffee lovers to converge, where they can chill over a cup of coffee.
Benefiting From The Nationwide Cycling Push
“Before I set up Wheeler’s Yard, I noticed that the government was encouraging people to cycle and have a healthy lifestyle,” said Ong.
The government is heavily pushing the biking agenda and said that it would increase its current Park Connector network to 360km from the current 200km by 2020.
Commenting on Singapore’s newly-built cycling infrastructure such as parks and park connectors, he said that he sees them as a huge advantage to his business.
And true enough, Wheeler’s Yard earned an operating profit almost immediately after opening its doors to the public.
Like its café concept, their bikes are old-school, ranging between $600 and $3,000.
Their self-manufactured bikes, with parts sourced from Italy and Taiwan, are being exported overseas too.
Being Called Hipster Is Not A Bad Thing
With so many cafés sprouting up in Singapore, Ong admits that the competition in the coffee industry is very intense.
At the same time, he believes that there will always be an opportunity for innovation.
In fact, Wheeler’s Yard purely uses coffee beans from New Zealand and it prides itself as the only store in Singapore serving this brew.
“I believe coffeehouses will continue to increase, but the market will not be saturated because customers will have more options as the coffee industry grows.”
“Cafes must focus on their concepts and the store atmosphere rather than just focus on coffee. But at the most basic level, [owners need to] pay attention to the details of each coffee.”
Wheeler’s Yard has often been labeled as a ‘hipster’ cafe, but Ong does not necessarily see this as a negative thing.
“Every generation has a term for themselves. In my time, the teenagers were hippies, and now it’s hipsters. I think we present ourselves pretty well, because not many have this location and space,” said Ong in a Honeycombers interview.
“For instance, with all the warehouses in the West, it might not work there – but the same is why it’s not likely to fade out in Singapore.”
“Putting bikes and cafes together in one space is a new concept in Singapore, so we’re getting a lot of attention as pioneers.”
Following its success, Ong has even expanded the Wheeler’s Yard business with a $2.5 million sister outlet called Wheeler’s Estate at Seletar Aerospace Park in 2016.
His brothers – Ong Tiong Ann, Daniel Ong and Ong Tiong Huat – are now helming this new F&B arm.
Sharing a piece of advice for aspiring café owners, he said: “It’s a business that requires high investment, and it’s not as easy as you think.”
“You have to be creative and if you can own your own store instead of renting it, it’s definitely a big advantage.”
Featured Image Credit: Uniqlo Singapore / Wheeler’s Yard