Coffee drinkers come in wide range, from serious connoisseurs, to café-hopping hipsters, or just your average casual caffeine seekers.
Regardless where they stand on this spectrum, almost anyone in Singapore who likes coffee has heard good things about Chye Seng Huat Hardware Coffee Bar (CSHH).
Among swathes of cafés that sprout up, fight to survive, and some that fail, this coffeehouse that once drew intrigue with its unassuming (and at first confusing) name has made its lasting imprint on our coffee culture.
Behind the frontlines of baristas serving up fresh and potent brews, regulars are also familiar with CSHH’s parent company. Then known as Papa Palheta, they purvey and roast the specialty coffee we eventually taste in our cup.
Recently, we got a chance to speak with the man who started it all, PPP Coffee’s founder and CEO Leon Foo.
Meet The Young Coffee Papa
Before he deep-dived into a world of coffee, 36-year-old Leon came from a banking and finance background.
Of his four-to-five years in the industry, he spent two of them focused on equity research, which gave him insights into different types of business models and got him thinking about what he could do with a business of his own.
Describing himself as someone with “constant curiosity”, Leon began tuning in to the wonders of coffee in 2008.
I was inspired by how people could be so passionate, or for a lack of a better word, obsessed with this commodity—from farmers to traders, roasters, baristas, consumers, and so on.
Soon he became an uncanny reflection of this ‘obsession’ himself.
Leon plunged into any resources and opportunities to learn more. He read and listened to “every news and podcast possible [on the topic of] coffee”, travelled to meet coffee farmers and roasters all around the world, attended, and eventually hosted coffee workshops and masterclasses.
“[Learning enough to become] scientific about this artistic craft was something that I really loved,” he says.
During this time when he explored a new passion in his life, it was also amidst the 2008 financial crisis.
Leon says this gave him “both a push and a pull” in deciding leave his job, but it ultimately convinced him that any business he started should be “one that has a soul”.
I wanted to start a business around a commodity that could link the first and the third world—something that could reach the different aspects of society—and coffee was one thing that could achieve that.
Ditching a promising career in finance to start a coffee business at 26, Leon’s family definitely had their concerns but still gave him their support, especially his mother, who trusted he was capable of taking on the endeavour.
It Was Never A Small Dream
Stories of entrepreneurs catching the coffee bug typically lead to opening a cool café, but Leon had bigger ambitions right from day one.
“When we first started Papa Palheta (now PPP Coffee), our goal was to bring great tasting coffee that’s ethically sourced,” he says.
He envisioned they would need to fill multiple roles in order to do that, so Papa Palheta was operating across wholesale, equipment, F&B, e-commerce and education verticals even since early days.
They put their strength and efforts into everything from running the café to holding workshops, training, and supplying coffee-making equipment.
Starting up cost Leon an initial investment of “$25,000 to $50,000”, with a second injection of $200,000 later to boot.
Even while the company got by decently, it was hard to see crisp results as any profits constantly had to be reinvested into growing their manpower and upgrading equipment.
Leon admits “it was a slow and challenging process” back then, managing so many business units at once, while cash and manpower limitations made it tough to move forward.
The “breakthrough” came when they opened Chye Seng Huat Hardware in 2012.
“[With CSHH], we put up a product that made specialty coffee more accessible, and we were able to present specialty coffee in a larger format,” says Leon.
Picking Up After Two Failures
Even before the breakthrough of CSHH, Leon first opened another café Loysel’s Toy one year earlier in 2011, but not many will remember it today.
Later, he tried again with Coast and Company in 2014.
These two cafés were closed in 2015 and 2016 respectively, when their leases ended and Leon had to make the tough decision that it wouldn’t sustain the company well to renew them.
In their aftermath, the year that followed became “one of the toughest periods” for them, struggling to manage employee morale and lift spirits back up.
Leon shares that one important lesson he had to learn was to prioritise, rather than taking every single task head on all at once.
We’ve learnt that the key to building a sustainable business is not by doing many things at a time, but by doing a few good things at a time.
While they faced closures like these, there were other timely expansions that succeeded such as PULP, their first and flagship store in Malaysia.
They also branched out to open a dedicated coffee equipment specialist Stellar M, focused on distributing ‘stellar machines’ from a range of trusted brands, and providing servicing and maintenance too.
Rewarding Those Who Travelled Far With Them
Today, as the company has found stability in focusing on a few key areas of specialisation, PPP Coffee sees an annual turnover of about “S$5 million to S$6 million” as a group.
They have also grown to about 50 staff across business units in Singapore and Malaysia.
To mark what they’ve achieved over their ten-year journey, PPP Coffee’s new name comes as “part of the group’s efforts to organise its operations in the markets that they currently operate in”.
This milestone also brought about the opening of the PPP Coffee store, through which Leon and his team hope to give customers a “multi-sensory” experience with coffee.
We already know the uplifting effect the smell of coffee has on us before our lips hit the cup to taste it, but that’s not all they want to offer.
One of the store’s unique highlights is a “hands-on brew bar” near the entrance, where customers can experiment with the machines and try brewing their own coffee.
The PPP Coffee store also presents its ‘Archive’—a frozen collection of vintage coffees made up of “some of the best roasts in the group’s ten years of sourcing and roasting coffee”, along with other exceptional coffee roasts from around the world.
The idea was conceived when one of PPP’s baristas tasted an exceptionally delicious cup of coffee, and wanted to preserve it for the future.
“We don’t just want to sell better coffee, but we want to sell coffee better—and having a multi-sensory approach allows us to achieve that. To be able to try, smell, see, touch, know and understand where the coffee is from,” Leon tells us.
PPP Coffee also brings something new inwardly, as it champions their loyalty co-op model, where its F&B profits are shared with “eligible employees across the group”.
The employee’s share will be based on the years of service, regardless of rank, position, roles or responsibilities. To be eligible for the scheme, employees must have been with the company for 3 consecutive years of full-time employment.
“Based on this loyalty scheme, a packer could get a larger share than a financial controller [does], solely based on the number of years they have worked in the company,” Leon says, as an example.
“Many of the staff have been with us for a long time, this is our way of giving back and saying ‘thank you’ in appreciation of their years of service,” he adds.
Featured Image Credit: PPP Coffee