Running a café is a piece of cake for Samantha and Ernest

Home is where the cupcakes are

WHEN the heat and humidity of Singapore’s eternal summer is melting you into a gooey zombie, head towards the Ngee Ann Polytechnic campus. Enter at the main gate, then turn right and walk towards the sports complex and swimming pool. There’s a hideaway café guarded by a rocking horse where you snack on macha and salted caramel tarts, cupcakes, green tea strawberry cakes and lemon meringue sweet as sin, baked by Sam, and sip fragrant-smooth java brewed by Ernest. The two 25-year-olds who sat for their last RMIT University's Business Studies exam paper on a Saturday in October 2013, and opened their café the Monday after, have created a perfect home-away-from-home diner with thoughtful clutter and mementos of Audrey Hepburn and grandfather’s clock and grandma’s tabletop sewing machine.

Stop time to revel in the quiet and the cool of Cupplets Café and watch Sam dish a slice of creamy cake and Ernest prepare the smoothest cup of joe this side of coffee paradise.“I’m still looking for the perfect cuppa,” says Ernest Tan Wee Kiat who takes care of the drinks while partner Samantha Quek Zhi Yin does the baking.

But Sam’s cakes did not always taste heavenly. In the beginning she knew nothing about baking and when she tried, the result was the yellow bricks that you see in neighbourhood cake shops which are usually bought only as temple offerings. “When I asked my mum what she thought of my effort, she didn’t answer but gave me a copy of Baking for Dummies book that she bought at Popular Bookstore,” Sam confesses. She tried the chocolate cake recipes in the book and gradually, with passion and verve and watching lots of Youtube video clips on baking, she now bakes stuff that makes you shut your eyes in order to concentrate on the flavour and texture.

Don't depend on only chilli hot dogs

The couple were no strangers to the makan (eatery) business. Back in 2009 when both were studying in Ngee Ann Poly for a Diploma in Business Studies, they submitted a proposal for the poly’s Entrepreneurial Scheme and won a $3,000 grant and the opportunity to be among the pioneer group of students to run a café for three years in one of the recondite study spaces on campus. Although they did make a decent profit, the business was not without hiccups. A particular American chilli hot dog at their stall became a hot favourite with students. “Without warning, the supplier told us there wouldn’t be any more chilli hot dog,” Sam says. “It badly affected our business badly because most customers wanted only chilli hot dogs. We learnt the crucial lesson that a viable business must not depend solely on one product or supplier.”

In 2012, both graduated from the poly and went next-door to a private education centre which runs the RMIT University’s Bachelor in Business Management. Their poly diploma entitled them to several exemptions and they were able to get their Bachelor in about 1-1/2 years.

While studying at RMIT, Ernest saw a tender notice published by Ngee Ann to run a café at its sports complex. “We submitted our bid and won the tender,” Ernest says. There was only a one-day weekend break between their last exam paper and the opening of the new outlet, Cupplets.

Initially, with decorative knickknacks and the rocking horse at the glass door, passers-by mistook the place to be a gift shop, so business was slow. “In the first month, we were worried,” says Ernest. “So we added new décor items to emphasise that this was an eatery.” Through Facebook and Instagram postings and word-of-mouth, more people came. Today, Cupplets has a steady stream of walk-in diners as well as online and phone orders, and on many occasions the couple could not enjoy even a lunch break. Their crew include current students from the poly.

Serving behind the counter is intimate service, says Ernest. “Between the time when the customer places their order and the time the order is ready the conversations that take place is what the whole café experience is about. The 15 minutes of caffeine dosed serenity before the rest of the day begins.”

Dealing with space invaders

It isn’t all sweet going at Cupplets, though, because of the space invaders. Ernest mentions students who would dump a pile of bags and books in the café and then disappeared, treating the place like the luggage deposit area of a hotel. Having a space sitting capacity of just 12 to 15, it is a challenge to get customers to be considerate about space that has to be shared with other customers. 

“We learnt how to be firm but polite when dealing with these space invaders,” says Ernest.

Another learning point was the discovery that ambience couldn’t be created by simply having the right décor. When the couple added music and soft amber light, they discovered that their own mood was transformed. “Suddenly we felt happy and energetic and wanted to serve our customers. So, the secret to good customer service is to be happy ourselves.”

Audrey Hepburn shows up

On the money side, the start-up capital was in the mid $20,000 range. The grandfather’s clock, the posters of Audrey Hepburn, the sewing machine table, and even the fridge and oven were from their own homes. “My dad collects retro stuff and what you see around here are mostly from him,” says Ernest, waving his hand around the room. Oh yes, Sam and Ernest also pay themselves a competitive salary.

Running a small business is almost 100-percent hands-on. However, when you’ve learned business management theory and underlying principles, you have inner clarity and you understand why certain activities and tasks are carried out in certain ways. A worker who performs a task with understanding is always more productive.

Looking ahead, Ernest feels the business model for Cupplets can be improved as business progresses. In a year’s time, he may like to expand his kitchen and provide more seats for customers.

“But we will aways retain the homely, cottage feel.” — June 2014