During the pandemic, many of us picked up new hobbies and interests. For me, that manifested as a renewed interest in brewing my own coffee.
After some searching on the internet, I came across a brand called Ghostbird Coffee. I gravitated towards it because of the Sabah Ranau beans it carried—I was curious as to what our local grounds would taste like.
Needless to say, I absolutely enjoyed it and have since bought more. I later realised that the roastery was actually owned and operated by the same people behind a coffee shop I like because of its chicken and waffle dish—The Owls Cafe.
To do so, I sat down to have a virtual chat with Thomas Ooi, the founder of The Owls Cafe and Ghostbird Coffee.
Becoming a coffee drinker
Considering that Thomas now owns a handful of cafes and his own roastery, it’s surprising to learn that he wasn’t always a coffee drinker, not even when he was a student.
“I was still a Milo or mocha drinker,” Thomas explained. “I drank coffee, but it was more like I would order Starbucks and put sugar on top—that kind of drinker.”
But a trip to Melbourne would set the tone for the rest of his life. It was around 2012, and Thomas found himself in a cafe that had a very friendly barista manning the counter.
“He said, this is a coffee from Tanzania, natural process, they only have 15 bags per year, blah blah blah,” Thomas recounted. “I didn’t really know what and where Tanzania was.”
Despite his lack of knowledge, the bartender’s passion convinced Thomas to try a cup of espresso made with Tanzanian beans. In Thomas’ own words, the drink was fruity, acidic, and “blew his mind”, completely changing his perception of coffee.
From there, he fell in love with specialty coffee and began to study it. By the time he returned to Malaysia a few months later, gone were the days when Thomas only drank mochas and sugary Starbucks drinks.
A husband-and-wife duo’s dream
Unfortunately, though, Thomas realised that his home country was lacking when it came to specialty coffee. While espresso coffee and third-wave cafes are a dime a dozen nowadays, such was not the case then.
So, he ended up outfitting his own home with all the equipment and machinery needed to make the perfect cup of coffee. His friends would always ask him if he was going to open his own cafe one day, but he denied the idea.
Yet, he would eventually open The Owls Cafe with his wife in 2014, on the second floor of a shop lot in Bukit Jalil.
“I don’t think it was confidence that led me to start a cafe,” he admitted. “It was mainly [because of] the life that I wanted to achieve together with my wife.”
In the early days, the project remained just a project. For Thomas, who then worked in IT, The Owls Cafe was his part-time job.
Lacking experience with entrepreneurship, he didn’t know how to calculate the full cost of starting a business, a memory that now amuses him.
He also shared that he would just price his coffees based on what he saw from other cafes.
But despite the inexperience, The Owls Cafe received good support and reception, gaining regular customers from the surrounding neighbourhood and students.
After one year of “half-here, half-there”, Thomas shifted his attention away from IT to focus on the cafe. He also decided to start a coffee roastery nearby, this time aiming for a ground-floor location for better visibility and accessibility.
Today, that space is known as New Chapter by The Owls Cafe.
“It would be a totally different concept, so that’s why we called it a new chapter for The Owls Cafe,” Thomas shared.
Becoming his own supplier
During that time, specialty coffee was still hard to find locally. So, Thomas turned to a Singaporean roaster run by someone named Darren Chang.
Eventually, Thomas decided that he wanted to start his own coffee roastery brand, which would become Ghostbird Coffee Company. And instead of cutting ties with Darren, Thomas ended up bringing him on board to be a partner in his roastery.
“A lot of people, when they start a roastery, they will think that they might be able to reduce the cost [of their cafe’s operations],” Thomas shared his reasoning behind starting Ghostbird Coffee. “But for myself, I just wanted to explore more about coffee.”
These days, Ghostbird is supplying around 40 to 50 cafes in Malaysia. With this figure in mind, I wondered whether the coffees at these cafes would end up overlapping with The Owls Cafe’s in terms of taste.
But Thomas doesn’t see this as a big issue. In fact, his company actually does consultations with other roasteries. They give advice on sourcing the machines as well as creating the right profiling for their beans.
“Our objective is not just supplying,” he summarised. “It’s to grow together as well.”
Diversifying the branding
Over the years, The Owls Cafe has expanded to now encompass five locations. Interestingly, though, rather than repeating the same tried-and-true formula, most of these locations have their own branding and menu.
The latest would be ALLO by The Owls Cafe, but there’s also Midorie x The Owls Cafe, and Owlsome by The Owls Cafe.
“As a cafe, we should have more collaborations or cross-brandings to have more possibilities,” Thomas reasoned.
Each brand has its own branding and market positioning. For instance, The Owls Cafe has a middle price range, designed to serve the typical neighbourhood community.
ALLO, on the other hand, is located in Mont Kiara and is a result of a collaboration between The Owls Cafe and Ami Suites. Matching the affluent neighbourhood, the price point and ingredients used for Allo are on the higher end of things.
These collaborations tend to happen rather organically too. For example, the collab with Midorie, a plant tech company we’ve featured before, started after a friend recommended its wall plants to Thomas, who was struggling with the temperature in one of his cafes.
The wall plants helped to reduce the temperature in the cafe by one or two degrees. Its efficacy led to a continued partnership between the two.
Originally, they wanted to run a coffee shop in Midorie’s showroom, but it eventually materialised as a cafe in MyTown, becoming The Owls Cafe’s first venture in a mall.
Slow and steady wins the race
While five branches and a roastery are still a great deal to be proud of, Thomas revealed that the company actually had to close down two locations due to the pandemic, prior to which they had seven.
But the pandemic also ushered in new features. For instance, the cafes previously didn’t offer any deliveries, believing that The Owls Cafe was all about the physical cafe experience, something that couldn’t be conveyed through takeaway.
Furthermore, Ghostbird Coffee Company used to be more focused on wholesale and B2B orders, but the pandemic showed them the value of retail customers.
Nowadays, with Malaysia steadily recovering, the pandemic is already ceasing to be a big issue. Yet, one constant challenge they’ve faced, and may continue to face, is manpower.
According to Thomas, keeping baristas within the industry is challenging as many may see working in a cafe as a part-time or temporary thing. To combat this, he claimed that their company tries to pay an above-average wage, but even so, it’s still hard to retain talent.
He also had to learn how to stop micromanaging, and thankfully, he can now place his trust in his managers, which is critical in maintaining his own work-life balance.
An issue many cafe owners might be concerned about these days might be market saturation, as more and more cafes seem to pop up throughout the nation.
Thomas believes this is because it’s easier to get into the scene compared to back when he started, when the market was still small and people were not used to the comparatively expensive prices.
But the challenge for new cafes these days is about standing out amidst the crowd. As for older brands like The Owls Cafe, the focus would be placed on relevance.
According to Thomas, that isn’t a big problem as long as the team focuses on their own business and what their customers want.
“We won’t be like—someone came up with the croffle, so we’ll do croffles,” Thomas gave an example. “We have our own pace for now. We won’t be chasing the latest thing in the market.”
For now, he said that the team is focusing on more internal things such as maintaining the breakeven of operations. However, the coffee lover hinted that the owls might be taking flight again next year in search of expansion.
Featured Image Credit: The Owls Cafe