Coffee Société, Pioneering the Specialty Coffee scene in Malaysia
Four outlets under their belt, all seems rosy right now, but at their lowest, they sold only 7 coffees in one day. ‘Coffee in the Dark’ was a campaign that saved them. I speak to co-owner Choong Kar Heng over a delectable meal at Garage 51 (click here for my food review, as featured on The Yum List) as I attempt to understand their challenges along the road to success.
It always starts with an idealistic dream. Being exposed to the coffee culture in Melbourne, and falling deeply in love with the art of coffee as a barista, Choong Kar Heng, with his brother, Choong Kar Wai in tow, decided that Malaysians needed REAL coffee. The Coffee Société idea was born.
The business prospects seemed promising: Starbucks was flourishing in Malaysia and if coffee could be such a huge thing in Australia, surely Malaysia would catch on. It is an amazing product after all, and we’ve got tonnes of Australian graduates always reminiscing the coffee culture there.
Taking a gamble, hoping Ben’s Independant Grocer being the key anchor in the mall was going to bring an Ikea like crowd to the then extremely quiet vicinity, they opened Coffee Société in Solaris Dutamas (the periphery of where Publika mall is) in 2011.
This turned out to be their most trying year ever. The initial idea was to offer really good coffee and some desserts. Unfortunately, Malaysians were not queueing up, and definitely not buying enough coffee to keep them afloat. “At one point, we were selling only 7 coffees a day” mused Kar Heng. “We had to take a step back, and ask ourselves, how much coffee would we have to sell in a day to make this work… we knew we had to introduce a bigger menu and get those margins in on food.”
Lesson #1 - It’s not so easy to start a coffee revolution, even with the best coffee in the land. Education takes time.
With the food menu in place and nothing to lose, they launched ‘Coffee in the Dark’ - unlimited coffee for RM10. Many people asked if that meant the lights were turned off when coffee was being served… in reality, the campaign name reflected something else - the darkest days of the business. Slowly, people started coming in, and the Choong brothers took the opportunity to educate coffee as best they could. Customers started sharing ‘Coffee in the Dark’, which attracted their followers, and the campaign grew organically, and rather successfully. “Thank God we made it, ‘Coffee in the Dark’ saved us, otherwise we wouldn’t be here today” Kar Heng adds.
Lesson #2 - Adjust the plan, give it your best shot. Do not underestimate Social Media, and the power of authentic sharing (they have a full time marketing person in house to handle this).
Being in PR, I really wanted to know if publicity really made a difference… Sometimes I get a bit paranoid and really wonder, has the work we have done at Suppagood PR made a difference at all. So, are food reviews important? Exposure important? I was relieved to hear a story Kar Heng shared. “A few years back, we did a small roadshow at Publika, and this girl saw our logo and didn’t think much of it. Later on, she recalled our logo above our Garage 51 which is when she decided to work for us. It just goes to show that every little thing counts. Putting something out there, is better than nothing at all.”
Lesson #3 - No Marketing dollar is ever wasted.
Service requires people, and a lot of training. I was suitably impressed with the service, and wasn’t too surprised to learn that they have training protocols in place (as everyone should). In their recent managers orientation, they recognise that everybody comes from different backgrounds, and different upbringings. So it was imperative to dedicate time to sit everyone down, and tell them about Coffee Société history, the expectations, career progression opportunities and introduce the culture.
Lesson #4 - Every employee is your ambassador, they must know what you stand for, and what experience you are selling.
Running a business is never as straight forward as it seems… personally, I struggle with keeping myself motivated, and have to take a step back from time to time to ask myself ‘why?’. How do you keep yourself motivated in the F&B business? Kar Heng says: “ You must know why you are doing what you do… Just for the money? What’s next? Another outlet?” I think in a nutshell, you can’t coast.
Lesson #5 - Know what you want to achieve; go all out, or not at all.
My 2 cents (Suppagood PR style)
Flexing my Marketing and PR brain a little, some ideas came up during our chat which I’ll jot down:
Beginner to Connoisseur
For Coffee Société to be the place to learn about coffee, to be friendly to beginners - those fancy names seems so daunting, and Malaysian’s generally don’t like being inquisitive about stuff they don’t know anything about. Spark their interest by easing them into the coffee journey with a little brochure perhaps, and classifying your coffees into different levels, so that people can easily explore, perhaps offering a little prize / incentive at each leg of the journey the customer completes.
Gluten free options
Make some of the menu options gluten free - or with gluten free options! You’d be surprised how many people are getting into it. Definitely retain a balanced menu - keep that menu engineering going!
Chocolate bars made with Coffee Société special blend coffee? Or perhaps with a liquor? Sounds like a win-win situation to me.
I’m looking forward to watching Coffee Société grow, and i’ll be keeping an eye on them! Good luck gentlemen!