August 11, 2011

Sean in Singapore and Vietnam

Sean checks out Vietnam

Off to Asia for a quick week of checking out the café scene in Singapore and Vietnam. I have been travelling up to South East Asia now for the last ten years, and it’s great to see some of my predictions come to fruition in the café market. I have been keeping a keen eye on Singapore, as they are probably the most western of all the Asian cities, and they are a major trading hub for Asian business. I have been actively involved with the Singapore Coffee Association and have helped in the development of their barista network and training. It is great to see this group of passionate baristas stepping out into their own businesses and becoming pioneers, making the changes needed to be successful in this quickly evolving arena.

My recent visit took me to some great new concepts like Espresso Soul, Forty Hands, Oriole, Jimmy’s Monkey, Loysel’s Toy and Papa Palheta. Most of these new concept espresso bars would not look out of place in Melbourne or any other Australian city coffee strip and when you look under the covers, you will see most of these businesses have had a small link to the Australian marketplace. Many of them have trained in Australia as baristas or have partnerships with Australians.

A good friend of ours at Café Culture, Ross Bright from Spinnelli Coffee in Singapore, has also been keeping a close watch on this new breed of coffee centric business and is pleased it is starting to change, with a higher standard being pushed forward into this industry. Ross has helped many of these businesses with good green bean supply, and he assisted many of the new in house roasting concepts.

Danny Pang from Espresso Soul made the choice to look outside of the Singapore café space for ideas when he researched his espresso bar concept. Danny travelled all over the world, so he could design a café business that had a point of difference in the Singapore corporate space. This worked, and he now has five cafés in high volume CBD locations – which is a credit to his research and passion for quality.

The conclusion of my Asian visit took us to Hanoi in Vietnam, where we did a week’s coffee training for a charity group called KOTO. Please read our featured article in this edition about this worthwhile project, and see how our industry can help out.

Quality has finally come of age in the café world, to the point where we can now experience the same quality service and product choice you would only once receive in a fine dining restaurant, without any waiting for a seat and for half the price.

Back in Australia and on our return from the Café Biz Melbourne trip, we followed the Hume Highway north, with a quick stop over in Canberra; this took us on a visit to ONA coffee in Fyshwick. I had the pleasure of ordering a simple lunch of shredded duck baguette with a ragout of wild mushroom with a truffle sauce, complemented with a single origin Santa Marree pour over filter. And it was all under twenty dollars! Fantastic choice; I can still taste the unique flavours.

If I’d ordered a similar dish at a high end restaurant, it would have cleaned my credit card limit out – and I wouldn’t normally have been able to walk off the street into a waiting seat. Even at the best café businesses I can usually still walk straight in for a coffee and a meal. We are definitely getting spoilt in this country, and it’s great to see café owners playing around beyond a bread based menu in a café. I love café owners who use quality as a point of difference in their food and beverage service; it is a win-win situation for customers and the business.

This growing trend of direct focus on café food quality will hopefully break the cycle of generic café menus I see every day, and that I am quite over with. Food service does not have to be expensive in the portion cost; you just have to bring a bit of that ‘Master Chef’ back into the café kitchen with creativity. A good tip is to use food sources that are not on the general household shopping list, with products like duck, game meats, crab and fresh, locally farmed produce. Combine these ingredients with some different cooking techniques, like poaching, pressure cooking or even theromomix, which creates an interesting selling point on the menu description. Then give the meal a touch up with some homemade relish, sauce, or dressing, and bang … you have an original. And guess what? You can charge a little more, because there is no price perception of that meal type on the street. Yes, you get rewarded for the extra effort.

I would sincerely like to thank all involved with the very successful Café Biz this year in Melbourne. The event was well received and a real enjoyment to run at The Melbourne Show Ground. The crowds were fantastic, and the back to back competitions kept the vibe over the two days. My only setback was the big drive from the north coast of NSW to Melbourne with my co-driver and ideas man, Kevin Chilvers, to help share the driving. Six hours into the trip, I asked Kev to take his turn behind the wheel – and at that point he told me he doesn’t drive a manual car! Looks like I’m flying next year!

Sean Edwards.

Publisher Cafe Culture Magazine.

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