Have you ever met a person who seems so wise despite not being very old? Ever felt amazed at how someone younger than you is doing so much with his life and career? Well, I most certainly have. Andrew Tang is one such inspiring individual. At 25, he has been running the Red House coffeeshop located at 236 Upper Thomson Road for over 2 years now. And some of the things he says and does will have you wondering what this young man has experienced in life in order to make him so wise beyond his years.
Andrew candidly shared with me that due to the financial situation at home, he entered the workforce right after his ‘O’ levels. He was even a ‘second-hand car salesperson’ for some 1.5 years, where he did well enough to earn a tidy sum. It would be what he needed for his foray into the F&B line.
Interestingly enough, Andrew says he was the one who started the mookata trend in Singapore. He felt that many Singaporeans “would eat this at least once”. From not knowing how to cut the chilies, to purchasing both the chili and the food from another stall for his mookata stall, till this present day where he manages the whole coffeeshop and can brew a more-than-decent cup of coffee, Andrew has indeed come a long way.
#1) What are some misconceptions people have with regard to coffeshop management?
Have you heard the one about how most coffeeshop owners will rent out all the other food stalls but keep the drinks stall to themselves because it’s the one which makes the most profit?!😀
I believe that every coffeeshop has a specific “job” – to serve the community around it. And while costs – the price of coffee and evaporated milk, for instance – have gone up quite a bit, we are keeping our coffee priced at S$1, and not raising the price to S$1.70 though we could have.
Having said that, we do not compromise on quality. Running a coffeeshop involves an array of arbitrage. For every item that you buy or sell, just make a small win, and life becomes easier.
Sometimes, suppliers may deliver the wrong order on purpose so as to clear some stock. But because I value the relationships with all my suppliers, I keep to the principle of ‘先做人再做事’*. I will promise to help them sell their excess stock, but I will still buy what I want.
(Grace says: *There’s probably no fitting English translation for ‘先做人再做事’ but the gist of it (for me) is that one should know how to be generous, helpful and considerate before thinking of being a successful businessperson.)
Also, I don’t think the alcohol sales curbs during those restricted hours are bad. I think it makes coffeeshop owners ‘wake up their idea’. Don’t leverage on people’s vices. Instead, do proper planning of your stalls and serve the community around your coffeeshop!
As an aside, Andrew told me a ‘trade secret’ among coffeeshop owners, about how they make your coffee taste extra yummy. No worries, it’s all legitimate and hygienic. The coffee ended up tasting sweeter (according to me) and “smoother” (according to my blogging student who joined me to meet Andrew). If you want to find out what this trade secret is, go look for Andrew and see if he’ll share it with you.
#2) What’s a day in your life like, and is it the same for the stall operators?
As coffeeshop operators, we are in the shadows, so to speak. You don’t see us around usually. My job is to handle the things that people are irritated by. So if you don’t see me in the coffeeshop, that’s a good thing.
Andrew, working at home, before 2 computer screens, 1 of which monitors the coffeeshop via CCTV:
Right now, we’re facing the problem of not having enough tables for the growing customer base. So one of the things I have to handle is the seating arrangement. As you’ve probably noticed, the zichar stalls usually require round tables to seat whole families, for instance, whereas square tables give higher turnover rates. So how should we maximize the space that we have?
I’m not comfortable with sacrificing comfort just to increase revenues. Have you seen how some tables are so close to each other at coffeeshops or cafes? Here, whenever my customers need bigger tables, they just ‘join’ two or more smaller ones – some JC students “join tables” when they order from Astons, for example.
I’m also very selective regarding my tenants, as I keep to my purpose of serving the community here. While other coffeeshops may have tenants serving mookata, for the added profit, I believe in providing variety and giving people what they need and want, without the smoke from the charcoal even though mookata profits are good. For instance, some customers gave us feedback in the past that they wanted something ‘soupy’ for their breakfast. So we began offering chicken porridge, and also chicken hor fun.
This chicken rice set is priced at a very affordable S$3.50:
Mr Heng runs the chicken rice stall and he is a very hardworking man. His stall is open from 7am to 8pm daily. He has two children, and his wife is pregnant with his third child.
I respect everybody, and I spend time talking to all the tenants and even their workers. My staff are my friends. On their days off, they come to my place for a recreational game of mahjong. When one of my tenants had trouble paying the rental, I stepped in to help with his money management, and we had discussions about his stall’s cashflow at my place till the wee hours in the morning.
Grace says: Andrew is himself a hardworking person. He told me that he bought this sign to hang up on a wall at home just to remind himself to think about his work, and it is to be the first thing he sees when he steps into his apartment.
However, he also shared that there’s nothing from work in his bedroom because he has one rule regarding this particular room: Don’t go in except to rest.
#3) What are some mantras you live by, and which you love sharing with people?
Yes, you’ve probably noticed that I have quite a number of quotes that I like, and I share these with people as a kind of ‘reinforcement’ for myself. They are as follows…
Always have a competitive edge. Always try to improve – be 1% better today than you were yesterday.
Always expect more. Think “this is not good enough”.
If you want to do something, don’t let the lack of capital stop you.
Think of problems as being a safe deposit box. And think of solutions as being the key to opening the safe. If you’re successful, that’s where the money is.
先要低头 才可以出头 ( You have to be humble before you can be successful )
Words have energy. Give people some leeway. Cut away gossip. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
“Every master was once a disaster” – T. Harv Eker
#4) What would you say to a young person who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Coincidentally, I have a friend who told me about her desire to go into the F&B business. What I will say to everyone is “Go ahead, but I hope you will fail.” This is because failure offers a good platform to learn what you need to learn. If you are successful immediately, that’s when you are stuck. Once the owner moves away from the business, profits fall from the lack of attention.
I tried managing the zichar stall myself previously. There was a lot of conflict, the chef stole the money, and I realized that I cannot fix problems caused by the chef. From that point on, I decided to learn “from head to toe” everything that is needed for running a coffeeshop. So yes, I can make you the coffee or tea personally too!
I’ve also learnt that I must not go down the “foodchain”. For instance, some operators may be tempted to ‘take over’ the running of those stalls which are doing very well. I think that’s a mistake. Work on the business, not in the business. Secondly, I have to focus on the people who come to my coffeeshop, what they need and want, and providing these things for them.
#5) What’s the next big thing after mookata?
Steamboat delivery! Hai Di Lao is doing it already. They get the first-mover advantage.
#6) What’s your take on the “labor crunch” that F&B bosses like to complain about?
My focus is on the elderly workers. Instead of a 6-day work week, I aim to give them 4-day work weeks so they can have more family time. They will work their 12-hour shifts with breaks in-between.
I look to the Government for the direction I should take, and it seems that the government wants us to hire more local workers, especially the elderly.
As for the stalls, I’m working on raising productivity so that workers’ wages can be increased. Instead of 2 or more people manning a single stall, just 1 worker will do.
Do check out Red House Coffeeshop soon! You might get to meet Andrew if you are lucky. :) Red House Coffeeshop is located at 236 Upper Thomson Road. :)