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If you’re not serious about coffee, do not go to Mods Cafe in Melaka. Consider this an official warning, if the sign on the door that literally reads “Serious Coffee Drinker Only” isn’t enough to deter you.

Serving artisanal coffee along Jalan Tukang Emas in Melaka’s Jonker area, Mods Cafe features a unique retro aesthetic with a vintage van parked inside and an eclectic assortment of personal items, from a drum set to childhood trophies, on display.

We asked for permission to take our few photos for this article / Image Credit: Vulcan Post

With such an interesting concept, you’d imagine that Mods Cafe would be one of those Instagram hot spots.

But you’d be sorely mistaken. Remember what we said about it only welcoming serious coffee drinkers? That disclaimer comes with the added rule of no picture-taking whatsoever.

Finding this to almost feel counter-intuitive to how businesses are run today (AKA with an astute awareness of what social media can do to ramp up sales), I reached out to Abert Khow, the man behind Mods Cafe.

Image Credit: Abert Khow / Mods Cafe

Find something to do, and do it well

Before he was a coffee aficionado, Abert was actually a full-time drummer. After marrying his wife, who worked as a teacher, the couple decided to start something of their own.

As he often worked nights while she worked in the morning, they wanted something in between that they could do together. They found their answer in coffee.

Interestingly, before settling on that career shift, Abert was not yet a big coffee fanatic as I imagined. Rather, he only really started diving into the world of coffee after making the decision. As he ran the business, he would further research the craft on the side.

Image Credit: Vulcan Post

Originally from Johor, Abert started Mods Cafe as a mobile coffee shop, operating out of the vintage van that’s now pretty much a permanent fixture in the store. They started out by doing a lot of events, but eventually settled down in Melaka (for the vibes, we gathered).

Abert then continued honing his barista skills over the years.

They roast their own beans using binchotan charcoal / Image Credit: Vulcan Post

On how he picked up the expertise to go this far, he said it’s self-taught, and that there’s no one academy that can teach you these things. You just have to adjust and tailor your practices over years, as he did.

Today, Mods Cafe is a place where coffee lovers gather, with some willing to pay more than RM50 for a cup of joe.

This level of pricing is apparently not uncommon for premium roasts and brews (or so I heard from Mods Cafe’s team). The reason for it is not just because they use premium beans and an exclusive roasting technique, but also because of their unique equipment, which Abert oftentimes makes himself.

He even has some odd milk distillation contraption that feels kind of like a mad scientist’s lab. In short, patrons aren’t just paying for simple cup of coffee, but rather over a decade’s worth of knowledge and craftmanship.

Respect for the store, staff, and craft

Finally understanding Abert’s initial intentions with the store, I still didn’t quite get the no-photography rule.

“Actually, for 13 years, we allowed people to take photos,” he explained. According to a blog post I found online from 2013, one cup of coffee was the “minimum quota” to take a picture at the time.

Image Credit: Vulcan Post

“But around the time after the MCOs, the people who came just for photos became too much.”

To Abert, these people weren’t there for the coffee, but just there to show off on social media. While not inherently wrong, they were not the kind of people Mods Cafe wanted to target in the first place.

After deep consideration, they came to the decision to ban photography.  

Of course, this ended up alienating and eliminating a lot of customers. But that’s a willing sacrifice from Abert’s part, who even considers it as an opportunity to strengthen their base of regulars.

Today, Melakans make up around 10% to 15% of this regular base, while most customers actually travel all the way from KL, Singapore, Johor Bahru, and other bigger cities.

Image Credit: Vulcan Post

“Actually, this thing is difficult. Coffee is difficult,” Abert mused. “Not many people are willing to challenge difficult techniques. But we do. Similar to how there are expectations for our quality, we also have expectations for our customers.”

Asking Abert about the increasing competition in Melaka’s cafe scene, the Mods Cafe owner admitted that those spots are probably much friendlier than them.

“But every industry is actually like this,” he continued. “When you’ve gotten to a very expert level, your customers’ level and your level should be close too.”

“But people keep thinking that all cafes are places that anyone can just go, so they’d think, ‘Why is Mods Cafe like that?’ But if they are people who expect quality from coffee, this is not a problem for them. Only those who aren’t serious about coffee will have a problem.”

Criticisms may come from people who don’t get it

A few months ago, I was able to give Mods Cafe an in-person visit and spoke to the barista working at the time.

She’s been with Mods Cafe a few years, and has some opinions about the no-photography rule. The short answer? She likes it.

The barista explained that at her previous job in another cafe, many visitors would just start taking photos of her as she was working, as though she was on display. It felt uncomfortable, and it detracted from the actual coffee that she was crafting for these guests.  

But not everyone gets that. If you go to Mods Cafe’s Facebook, you’ll actually find some pretty shocking comments about the cafe’s customer service—or perhaps the lack thereof.  

A man who stands his ground, Abert said he’s not fussed at all about these so-called hate comments.

“I have no feelings about it—these reviews won’t affect us, because people who will give these reviews don’t come for the coffee,” he pointed out.

Understandably, Mods Cafe may appear to be a place that feels intimidating, especially for those who are new to coffee, or feel as though they haven’t refined their palates yet. But in a way, Mods Cafe actually exists to refine that palate.

A range of premium roasts are usually on display / Image Credit: Vulcan Post

In any case, aside from the expensive drinks that can go above RM50, there are affordable options on the menu for beginners, such as the general RM13 latte.

Moving forward, the cafe has no big ambitions of growing and expanding. To Abert, if you want to run a good business, one shop is more than enough.

“Our priority is not money, it’s quality,” he affirmed. “If I want to pursue quality, I can’t open a second, third shop—we can do a bit more, but we won’t open another location.”  

Having seemed to perfect their quality now (though Abert denies such is the case—they’re always learning), I wondered whether Mods Cafe would want to put themselves on the map through barista competitions.

The answer from the owner is a resounding no.

“People think the hardest thing is being a champion,” he said. “But I’ll tell them, champions spend three months fighting for one cup of coffee. But that one winning cup of coffee is something I have to try and do every day at my shop. Serving customers that kind of quality, that’s the real challenge.”

  • Learn more about Mods Cafe here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about F&B businesses here.

Featured Image Credit: Mods Cafe

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)