[Issue Editor, Interviewer]
Coffee for the Well Mannered
Vincent Teng, cafe owner and milk magician goes above and beyond in creating a welcoming ambience in his cafes and liquid gold in his cups.
Opened in 2010, The Plain is one of the pioneers of the third-wave coffee culture in Singapore. While many establishments buckling the trend has closed and left the building, The Plain still thrives on, with customers lured back daily to its laid-back interiors, lovingly brewed drinks and familial vibe. The Plain’s owner Vincent Teng has gone on to open two other cafes—the rough lux cafe, The Bravery (now solely run by his partner Shak) in Jalan Besar and and the ever-inviting Ronin in Hong Kong Street. Here in his first ever interview, he shares with us his deep-set philosophy and well-mannered thoughts.
Hi Vincent, what are some of your earliest memories of coffee?
Interesting question. I never used to like coffee. It started when I was living overseas in Melbourne. Whenever my girlfriend—now my wife—visited me in Melbourne from Sydney, she would always café hop. I used to wonder why did we have to go to three or four cafes a day. That was when I started to drink lattes and cappuchinos.
Yes, now coffee is my all-time favourite drink.
So would you say it was more the ambience of a café that attracted you rather than the drink?
Not really. I wasn’t paying much attention to that. It was more for love that I followed along. (Laughs) But I think what happened was I was shown that coffee shouldn’t be a luxurious item. For me, it’s more a way of life, a lifestyle where it is common to wake up, have a coffee, breakfast and then start your day.
When The Plain opened, there were only a handful of cafes selling speciality coffee. Now there are over 300. Do you feel this explosion is sustainable and do you feel the heat of the competition?
I think everybody needs coffee. If the pricing is reasonable and the coffee is good I don’t see why it cannot be sustainable. I don’t think about the competition. I only think of providing for my staff and the community of regulars that we serve. I think a lot of people come into the industry because it is not too expensive to open a café but how many coffee owners are working in them right now? I’m on roster everyday, 10 hours a day.
So it has been profitable since you started?
It has been profitable. But you don’t open a café chasing money. It becomes stressful. If you do what you do really well, people will notice and that’s when they want to come back.
What were you doing before opening The Plain?
I’m a civil engineer by training. I started working in cafes in Melbourne when I was a student because I needed to earn money for rent and living expenses. Before I came back to Singapore I worked a bit more in cafes and also did some construction project management. I returned, did a bit of civil engineering work. I didn’t like it. I actually also worked in Toast Box as an area operations manager for ten months. I’ve been told that I’m probably the only person in Singapore who can make local coffee and operate a coffee machine. (Laughs)
And now you have your establishments, there’s no turning back.
Yes I’m living my dream. Nothing beats that. Every morning when I open the door and look at my spaces I’m so thankful I have these cafes.
Where do you find inspiration for your job?
I get inspired mostly by my wife, by what she sees and what she likes. And I’m almost always chasing memories—memories of what I had done when I was in Melbourne and the kind of warmth and hospitality I felt. I try to recreate it for others. Inspiration could also come in the form of a particular ingredient or coffee-brewing method but the latter almost needs a few things to come together: the team, the coffee, the music, etc.; it’s about recreating an ambience with a touch of my own personality.
You worked in several cafés in Melbourne before setting up your own, including the legendary Postal Hall and Coffee Darling run by Bill and Faye Colls. What did they teach you about the business, and about life?
Faye always emphasised that when you do something, or make something —for example a sandwich or coffee—you always make it as if it’s for your beloved. She not only told me that, she showed me in the way she worked, in the way she loved her customers. Bill and Faye were amazing to watch. They knew everyone by their names, the coffee they liked, the food that they wanted to eat, and there were never complaints. It’s as if the customers were family coming in to rest and have a meal.
That’s the kind of hospitality that I was shown. And till this day, it has stayed with me. I think that sets my cafes apart from the other cafes in Singapore.
That must be your ethos in running your cafes.
You see, a lot of places now emphasise on speciality coffee, and they have all sorts of coffee to offer. But I feel that it’s not just about a good cup of coffee, it’s not just about a good cup of coffee, it’s not just about great coffee art because if you just base it on the coffee and ignore the rest of the conditions—is the temperature right? Is the place clean? Do people actually notice that customers have walked in?—you’re not offering a whole café experience. There are a lot of people trying to replicate our look, our menu, but they can never replicate the vibe. And the vibe comes from the people working in here, interacting with the customers.
You always try to make the customer feel better when they walk out then when they first walk in. I always teach my staff that a coffee maker makes coffee but a barista makes your coffee and makes your day.
And you know I make every coffee the best I can. My milk for my coffee is one of the creamiest and silkiest in Singapore. Everyone focuses on their coffee but no one thinks of their milk when it is actually a combination of both. I have a magical milk technique that I reserve only for customers who are well mannered—can you put that down?
What were some challenges you faced in the journey to becoming a barista, and in running your establishments?
Back in Melbourne, initially I wasn’t allowed [to operate] a coffee machine because I was an Asian boy. And of course I managed to show that I could understand instructions and I could serve customers and I could make coffee so I became one of the first few Asian baristas in Melbourne. And when we first opened The Plain, we didn’t know whether it would work. So I was telling everyone if nobody comes to drink the coffee and eat the food Laura and I will have them ourselves. (Laughs)
Do you find it hard to employ staff for your establishments?
I don’t employ any foreigners because I always believe in giving opportunities to locals and there are a lot of them looking for work. No on stays for long, the industry is very volatile, people come, people go, but that’s the challenge. You have to expect that when you teach the new people and in time they become good at what they do, they will leave so I am grateful for those who are still here with me.
What inspired the names behind your establishments? I’m sure you must have put a lot of thought into their meanings and what they represent?
For The Plain, we wanted to keep things plain and simple and it’s also located behind the Duxton Plain Park. The Bravery is a manifesto to be loyal, committed and not to fear venturing into the unknown. Ronin—I had wanted this name for a long time. Ronin is a masterless samurai; he does things in his own way. That reflects what I do. I don’t really follow the mainstream trends and get weakened by peer pressure. But a ronin still practices Bushido, which is the code of the samurai where you live each day as if it’s the last.
So what’s a typical day for you like? Do you have a morning ritual?
Turn on the music, turn on the air conditioning; for me it’s very important to establish the vibe and the ambience from the moment I enter the shop. I will say good morning to all my equipment in the dark before I turn on the lights because they work through the day as well. Then I’ll make myself a coffee.
Have you created any concoctions that are unique in your establishments? Tell us the stories behind these drinks.
We have created a few signature coffees and have decided to sell different ones only at each shop. The Plain has a coffee called Generra. It’s a coffee with mocha and orange zest. My life Laura used to drink that at the coffee cart at University of New South Wales in Sydney and we wanted to introduce that for our first café.
The Bravery has Lavender Latte. It uses lavender flower buds steeped in hot water and is slightly sweetened. With the right proportions of coffee, it hints at very slight flowery notes.
Lastly, the Wicked at Ronin has been really popular. It’s a coffee with mocha and mint. I had a colleague I used to work with in Café Racer in Melbourne. One day she was in The Plain and she said she would be staying in Singapore for about five months to work on the musical Wicked, which was touring. She was playing the role of the Green Witch. She and her crew came for breakfast everyday, which made it feel like the days in Melbourne for me. When they finally left, and we created this drink that is coffee brown, milky white and minty green in colour, we decided to thank the crew for the fun and laughter they had brought into the café so we named it Wicked.
What new projects do you have in the pipeline?
The Bravery is run solely by Shak and I know he has interesting plans for the future, which will be revealed in time.
Ronin will see a continuous addition of new items to the menu because we learnt from The Plain that it is important to continually push the boundaries and grow as a café with the team and the customers. The Plain has had almost the same menu for four years but it was mainly due to power restrictions. The unit that we operate out of at The Plain only has enough power for an office space; single phase 60amps and power upgrades involves civil works to the roads outside thus we had to keep things really simple. Having said that, we always strive to be consistent in terms of the coffee, food and service quality. The eggs at this premise are poached upon order instead of being cooked beforehand and warmed up in a water bath before serving.
Also, we use Genovese coffee for all my shops and it has been over a long time that Genovese would like to collaborate with us and have a presence in Singapore. So there is a possibility that I might start roasting my own coffee beans.