Training in the family property business and touching on sustainable coffee practices during postgraduate study were the combining forces that prompted Perth-based Harry Grover to open a coffee shop in Singapore. Grover had been visiting Singapore on and off for about five years before he decided to take the plunge. He moved to Singapore in 2010. Forty Hands – named after the average number of hands required in the production of coffee – opened its doors in October 2010 in the out-of-the-way district of Tiong Bahru.
The 30-year old isn’t the first to have got a whiff of a burgeoning coffee culture amongst inhabitants of the island nation. He is part of small posse of entrepreneurs that has made it their business to change the standard Singaporean coffee habit from chain shop mentality to speciality store.
Grover – who has a local business partner and also a silent partner in his brother (a permanent resident of Singapore) – has taken a pragmatic business approach to his fledgling business venture.
“We’re in a weird location so don’t just rely on convenience and footfall. That was part of my business strategy,” Grover says.
“We’re a little bit out of the way. You have to seek us out. We’re much more destination driven so [customer] expectations are higher, and they should be higher … It’s the whole hidden gem thing.”
While it doesn’t sound like the easiest foundation on which to build a business, Grover says the gamble is already starting to pay off. Cheap rent and a cheap renovation – “we haven’t had a lot of money to throw into it” – meant set-up costs were kept to a minimum.
The decor is basic – industrial chic – with some pleasant touches such as the menu written on a roll of brown paper hanging on the wall. A Synesso machine has pride of place behind the counter.
“We don’t get a huge, constant crowd – but it’s never empty,” Grover says.
“We’re doing heaps better than expected … we’re known now as café and there is quite often a queue on weekends. We’re usually full for lunch.”
The Food Sage visited mid-morning, mid-week and was torn between an exciting choice of freshly made toasted sandwiches on homemade bread, including Thai chicken, Jamaican pork with plum chutney, a vegetable stack of truffle, mushroom, salt cod mash, or Mediterranean lamb? The latter blended spiced lamb, herbs, tomato, olive, and basil, as well as feta, red onion and cucumber into a textural and flavoursome brunch option.
Gourmet hot dogs were also on the menu, including the Big Bang – Guinness beef and pork sausage, with bacon, Bolognese, sour cream scrambled eggs, and chili flakes. Hot tau sar pau - steamed buns with red bean paste filling, a range of cookies, and smokies (scone and cookie) provided an ample choice of smaller snacks.
Forty Hands champions fair and direct trade coffee and promotes single origin beans alongside its house blend. But when interviewed, Grover downplayed his sustainable philosophy.
“Ninety percent of people who come in a café just want a good coffee and don’t want to know how much farmer sweat went into it,” he says.
“The sustainability part of it is important to me but it’s not something I want to force down people’s throats.”
He sources coffee beans from several roasters, buying his stock in the smallest quantities possible.
“There are a few secrets in good coffee and one is freshness,” he says.
“I’ll buy enough that I can get through in a week, or a bit more. We’ve done the sums and it costs us a lot more but we count on the fact our coffee … is ten times better than your average coffee and we are going to sell more of it and get a good reputation.”
A house blend flat white combined beans from Costa Rica, Ghana and beans from Papua New Guinea. It was pleasantly smooth with a faintly sweet finish. A single-origin Costa Rican brew was more special, brighter.
Grover admits that joining the coffee fraternity has been as steep learning curve. He signed up for a barista training course in Perth before he moved to Singapore and enjoyed it so much he did as many courses as he could. He now trains his own baristas.
He describes Forty Hands as an “incubation brand” – the first step in a business that he intends to expand. However, he’s not interested in doing “the whole franchise or cookie cutter thing”. Instead, he will embark on “little collaborations with people”. In a few months he will open a coffee bar within a wine bar/café that some friends are opening.
“For me Singapore is a great testing ground,” Grover says. “Generic coffee chains have done so well. I thought ‘why can’t you have both?’ A nice café where people can chill out and deliver on the product as well.”
And Singaporeans are foodies, after all.
“They will always travel for new dining and drinking experiences.”
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