Since the inception of Choon Guan Cafe in 1956 by Foo Hee Hong, nobody actually knows the meaning or origin story behind the restaurant’s name.
Not even the family who runs the business, who has passed it down to its third generation.
“My grandfather passed away before I was born. We never had the chance to ask him about the meaning behind the brand,” said Foo’s 28-year-old grandson David, who now runs the business.
Enforcing A Brand Identity
Directly translated from ‘Spring Garden,’ (偆園) Choon Guan has been operating for over 6 decades.
But the name of the restaurant never really mattered. For years, many of their customers, even its regulars, didn’t even know its name.
Instead, they simply called the shop after its owner: Ah Foo’s cafe, Ah Foo’s kopitiam, Ah Foo’s shop.
“After my grandfather passed away, it became Ah Keow’s (my mum) cafe, or Morgan’s (youngest uncle), or Chee Chin’s (my aunt),” said David.
When David finally took over a few years back, he enforced a stronger brand identity with Choon Guan.
“Hainan Coffee” was later added for brand recognition, following in the steps of well-known MNC brands like Subway Sandwich, OldTown White Coffee, Kentucky Fried Chicken, etc.
Today, it’s officially known as Choon Guan Hainan Coffee.
The Land Was A Gift
Born on China’s Hainan island, Foo came to Malaya in the 1940s to work for the British District Officer (D.O.) as their personal home chef. At night, he took English classes to communicate better with his bosses.
When the British D.O. was planning to retire and move their whole family back to England, they invited Foo to join them.
“But my grandpa decided to stay in Malaya. Thus, they suggested my grandpa start his own cafe instead of looking for other jobs,” David shared.
To thank him for his service over the years, the British D.O. gifted Foo a piece of land in Port Klang, where he built a shop house to open Choon Guan Cafe in 1956.
After getting the business up and running, he got permits to move his wife and his 8-year-old daughter to Malaya at the beginning of 1957.
Defining A Focus
Throughout the years, the family started establishing SOPs for cooking its food and brewing its Hainanese coffee. One of the biggest changes to their menu was the removal of many dishes.
With the late Foo being a chef for the British, he sold a variety of cuisines at the cafe. It included Western food from fish and chips to chicken chop, and Asian ones from kuih to noodles.
“There was a period of time after my grandpa passed away where my mom and grandma only managed to maintain the Hainanese chicken rice, beverages (Hainan coffee & tea), and breads,” he shared.
Due to manpower issues, even the Hainanese chicken rice was removed for a while before returning shortly after. When David took over, the restaurant began adding more variety again.
Today, they offer the regular assortment you’d find in any kopitiam from half-boiled eggs to curry laksa, nasi lemak, and custard pudding, all made from scratch.
With this quality control, Choon Guan was able to expand to 5 other locations in Selangor, which unfortunately had to cease operations when the pandemic hit. The brand struggled to move to the digital sphere.
We focused a lot on dine-ins. The pandemic taught me a valuable lesson, never put all your eggs in a basket. Sales dropped dramatically. We wanted to subscribe for deliveries but didn’t due to high commissions. We were quite reluctant to markup the prices of our food and beverages.David, manager of Choon Guan Hainan Coffee.
Instead of closing their shop, the team contacted regulars, offered self collection for takeout orders, and even deliveries through Lalamove and Grab Delivery.
Though Choon Guan had to bear the extra costs of food packaging, they mitigated paying commissions.
David told Vulcan Post that Choon Guan never overcame the pandemic, but that their customers did it for them.
As for the land gifted by the British? David shared that it’s the only branch still existing today.
The restaurant now sits on what used to be the parking spot for the original shop house that was infested by termites 2 years ago.
Growing Up With The Restaurant
Since young, David has always been a part of the business. Though he can’t remember when he started helping out, Choon Guan remains a big part of his childhood.
So much so that regular customers felt like his long lost relatives that would know about his performance in school and even dating life.
When Choon Guan launched their instant Hainanese coffee packs 10 years ago, he roped in a few friends and sold the product at morning markets together. They would then split the profits for extra pocket money.
With 6 decades of history already behind it, David wants Choon Guan to make it to a century, and his wildest dream is to make it a household name, not just in Malaysia but also in ASEAN countries in the future.
- You can learn more about Choon Guan Hainan Coffee here.
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Featured Image Credit: TauFuLou and Choon Guan Hainan Coffee