[Article has been updated on 18 August, 5:00pm]
Meet Lim Wei Jie, 28, and Nadi Chan, 27, the duo helming specialty coffee startup Foreword Coffee Roasters.
Foreword is not your usual cafe joint with hipster interiors nor fancy menus; it serves coffee with a social mission.
Each cup of coffee is made and served by disabled individuals. Excluding Nadi and Wei Jie, 90 per cent of their employees are persons with disabilities, special needs, and mental health conditions.
How did this social enterprise stem from a passion to make a difference in the world and grew into a chain of three cafe outlets today?
Started Off As A Hole-In-A-Wall Cafe In NUS
Wei Jie first experienced the specialty coffee culture, especially slow-pour coffee, when he was on a student exchange in Amsterdam.
I saw how the baristas were making filter coffee (slowly) and [I thought] that might be a skill that can be picked up by people with autism because it is slow, repetitive, and step-by-step.– Lim Wei Jie, co-founder and director of Foreword Coffee Roasters
He then took a barista foundation course in Amsterdam and spent his time cafe-hopping. He also visited other cafes in Eastern Europe, soaking up the European coffee culture as much as possible.
When he returned to Singapore to attend his final year of studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), he observed the growing coffee consumption and the emerging specialty coffee trend here.
He wanted to sell coffee, with a purpose.
“I felt that there was not enough opportunities for the general public to interact with persons with autism on a daily basis and each time we read about autism, it would be something negative on STOMP and social media,” said the Psychology graduate.
This was when he then decided to merge the two ideas together with his business partner in 2017 to set up a socially “foreword” coffee company with a mission to empower those with special needs.
He started visiting specialty coffee shops, talking to cafe owners, baristas, roasters and also created a coffee interest group in the College of Alice and Peter Tan (CAPT) of NUS, trading coffee knowledge with members.
He picked up barista skills from a friend, learned how to do pour-over coffees through videos, and also turned his college room into a mini cafe, serving coffee to his friends.
He also experimented with green, unroasted coffee beans. He started roasting them with a home roaster machine and then sold them on online marketplace Carousell.
After familiarising himself with the basics, he then moved on to commercial machines.
He organised coffee pop-up events in NUS to get feedback on his coffee-brewing skills and also conducted a five-part coffee workshop for students in APSN Tanglin School.
In August 2017, he opened a small hole-in-the-wall cafe at NUS. Soon, two of his friends from CAPT joined as part-timers, serving coffee to students and professors.
However, he almost didn’t manage to convince his professors to let him use the empty space for his coffee business because they wanted him to focus on finishing his studies first.
He tried to persuade them again after his exams with his proposal and succeeded. The good thing was that he didn’t have worry about rental costs and could fully focus on the business and training people with disabilities and special needs.
In addition, a volunteer from his coffee workshop, who was also his customer on Carousell, wanted to be a part-time barista because he believed in Foreword’s vision.
With that, an initial team of five was formed: Wei Jie, his co-founder, two CAPT friends, and the part-time barista.
However, things took a turn 10 months later. The NUS outlet was not sustainable, and his co-founder and two CAPT friends also left the business.
In May 2018, the kiosk at NUS ceased operations.
Someone then approached Wei Jie and asked if he was looking for a co-founder. He ended up joining the team as a finance manager, and that person was Nadi.
Wei Jie was quick to credit Nadi for “working with him without name and recognition for almost a year”. In January 2018, Nadi was conferred a partner of the company.
With Nadi onboard, Wei Jie grew Foreword Coffee grew from a hole-in-a-wall cafe into a thriving coffee chain.
Serving Coffee With A Conscience
In July 2018, the team opened their first “official” full-fledged outlet at Civil Service College.
Right from the start, the company’s mission is to be an inclusive company and what better way than building the brand through working with disabled individuals?
90 per cent of the company is made up of employees with disabilities and they are the pillars of the business, said Wei Jie.
Foreword provides employment opportunities for the disadvantaged communities in Singapore, specifically those with autism, intellectual disability, deafness, cerebral palsy, and mental health conditions.
Their goal is to help gain more visibility and interaction with general members of the public to reduce the social stigma on autism among others.
They are also a social enterprise member of raiSE (Singapore Centre for Social Enterprises).
“We have partnerships with various social service agencies and special education schools to provide traineeships and work attachment for their beneficiaries.”
“We are a small company but we still try our best to provide real-world experiences for them to build the confidence before they graduate from school and enter the job world,” said Wei Jie.
Many coffee companies and cafes are still hesitant in hiring people with disabilities as they worry about their brand, efficiency, productivity, and so on.
For us, our company’s brand is built through working with people with disabilities. This makes us very different from any other companies in the industry. We want to show the industry that people with disabilities can work given sufficient training and patience with them.– Lim Wei Jie, co-founder and director of Foreword Coffee Roasters
They are proud to call themselves an inclusive company.
“Regular companies, even though they want to or start to hire persons with disabilities, would have majority of their workers without disabilities, making it harder for them to be inclusive,” said Wei Jie.
However, working with differently-abled people comes with its own set of challenges.
Firstly, they need to take care of emotional management in the workplace. Everyone has their own quirks and brings in different perspectives and experiences into the company.
Wei Jie and Nadi come in and mediate situations whenever any staff member is going through a meltdown at work.
Secondly, communication with the deaf requires sign language or writing. Since there are different employees with different special needs, it can be a challenge to communicate with each other.
Thirdly, it requires patience and understanding working in an environment with special needs.
They celebrated another milestone with the opening of their second outlet at Centre for Healthcare Innovation in October 2017.
By May 2019, they had opened their third outlet at Temasek Shophouse.
During Phase 2 of Singapore’s reopening, their Centre for Healthcare Innovation and Temasek Shophouse outlets remain open while their Civil Service College outlet is closed.
Wei Jie added that unlike other companies, they have not conducted any retrenchment exercise due to Covid-19, and still pay regular salaries to all of their full-time employees.
Nadi was quick to add that the Job Support Scheme was timely and definitely helped them to keep their workers on payroll despite reductions in working hours.
Besides that, they also support environmental sustainability by encouraging the BYOC (Bring-Your-Own- Cup) movement and choosing products made from renewable resources such as PLA and PHA.
Right from the start of Foreword, they understand the detrimental effects of single-use waste on Earth.
Whenever a customer brings their own cup, Foreword gives a discount.
“We also avoid the use of plastics and straws in our cafes. For a long time, we use hot paper cups to serve cold drinks; now we have cold cups made from PLA, use hot paper cups with PLA lining, and provide straws made from PHA only upon requests,” said Wei Jie.
“We also encourage reusing our glass bottles for our bottled lattes which we sell online, and also the coffee bags that we use for coffee beans.”
Focus On Asian Specialty Coffee
Foreword Coffee Roasters sources specialty coffee beans from Asia and roasts them locally in Singapore.
“Our focus on Asian specialty coffee stemmed from the observation that many cafes and roasters import from all over the world, but not much from our part of the world,” said Wei Jie.
I have personally visited the farms in Yunnan, Laos, Thailand, and Indonesia, forging relationships with our coffee partners there. We import directly as (much as) we can from the producers to cut out the middlemen and channel greater profits to the producers themselves.– Lim Wei Jie, co-founder and director of Foreword Coffee Roasters
His first contact with coffee was on a farm in Yunnan, China. Wei Jie said that he was recommended to the farm owners by his professor to volunteer to pick coffee during the harvesting season. There, he was inspired by how coffee is grown and processed.
After seeing the backbreaking work put in by the farmers, he “made a silent promise to import coffees as directly as he can from the producers so that more income gets channelled to them”.
He added that for every coffee partner that Foreword works with, they will pay a visit to the companies to forge that bond and build a working relationship with their suppliers.
Afterall, coffee is a “people business”, said Wei Jie.
“This also means we have been handling all logistics ourselves. We work with partners who care for their people and environment, import our coffee from them, store in our warehouse, and roast our own coffee for our cafes and customers.”
Over S$1,000 Worth Of Sales A Day
They bootstrapped their way through the initial stages when they opened their kiosk in NUS, said Nadi.
“Our first source of external funds came in when we were awarded the youth Venture for Good Grant [in March 2018] under the Singapore Center for Social Enterprise (raiSE), contingent on our first public location at the Civil Service College,” said Nadi.
“As we progressed, we were able to also secure grants via NUS Enterprise, under the Lotus-NUS Fund [in May 2018], and another larger round of the Venture for Good Grant to really help kickstart our growth.”
Last year, they raked in close to half a million in revenue and pulled in over $1,000 worth of sales a day, shared Nadi.
However, there are challenges sustaining a social enterprise.
“When we make any decision, we have to consider both aspects — the social impact and the business aspect,” he said.
Ultimately, we are a business, and we cannot take actions that cannot eventually breakeven in the long-run, even though the social impact might be there.
From the other perspective, we are also very cognizant of the impact of what we do, and we will not take an action if it conflicts with our social mission.– Nadi Chan, co-founder and director of Foreword Coffee Roasters
How They Kept Themselves Competitive In A Saturated Industry
The coffee industry in Singapore is quite saturated, and with how accessible coffee became to homes especially during the circuit breaker period, it was necessary to react quickly, said Nadi.
“We were one of the earlier ones to sell bottled coffees directly to homes. Subsequently, the rest of the industry followed suit,” he said.
“We looked carefully at the resources we had on hand, and we were able to internalise all our deliveries — in other words, we were able to accede to customers’ special requests (for e.g. wishing recipients happy birthday, et cetera), provide superior customer service (for e.g. we are able to inform the customers pretty accurately when their drinks would arrive), and have a lower minimum order quantity,” he added.
This kept them competitive during the circuit breaker period despite the influx of competitors into the online coffee space.
Since they are coffee experts themselves, I had to ask what their respective go-to coffee of choice is and whether they have different preferences for different times of the day.
“A cup of filter coffee in the morning at the office, or a cup of hot latte made by my staff as part of my “surprise” test for him. [I gravitate towards an] iced latte in the afternoon when it gets hotter in the day. Maybe another iced latte or hot latte when I get sleepy later on,” said Wei Jie.
However, Nadi said that he has been cutting down on lattes, in order to lose weight.
“I like to start my day with a strong black coffee, but as the day progresses, I switch to something richer like a latte (in part also to train my latte art). However, I have been putting on the pounds since I joined Foreword, so I have been avoiding lattes lately,” mused Nadi.
Featured Image Credit: The Super Charmed Life / Foreword Coffee Roasters