People Can Count

September.5. 2011

When I first discovered Choon Seng coffee shop in Sibu a few years ago, I was astonished. (*Please see update below.)

It was full almost every time I went there. In fact, most of the time, you had to wait around for people to leave to find a table.

And Sunday mornings? Forget it, you wouldn’t be able to find a table at all.

It got me thinking.

Coffee shops are a dime a dozen in Sibu, and if you were to look around, most of them only have a few customers at any one time.

What’s the secret to Choon Seng’s success?

To me it’s obvious –  it’s their coffee.

But there’s no secret to coffee making. All you have to do is mix some coffee powder with hot water (and for me, condensed milk) and you have a good cup of coffee.

What’s so special abut Choon Seng’s coffee?

It comes down to four words.

Generous helpings of ingredients.

They don’t stinge on their coffee, nor do they stinge on their milk. You can see them making it right in front of you. Generous scoops of coffee powder and generous spoonfuls of milk.

And so I guess the next question is.

So why don’t others do the same? Why can’t they see that there’s no secret to a good thriving coffee business? All you have to do is be generous with your ingredients and people will keep on coming back.

I have a good friend in Kuala Lumpur. We’ll call him Lee. Lee is a superb businessman but more than that, he’s one of the most genuine people I know. He owns a thriving music business and every time I meet him in Kuala Lumpur, he seems to have bought a new car. (No, this is not to suggest he’s a spend drift, it’s to underscore his business success.)

So one day, I asked him his secret.

And his answer was simple: “People can count.”

This means, don’t try to cheat your customers or your workers. They’re not stupid; they know when they’re being taken. (Is there a lesson here somewhere for our friends at Air Asia?)

If they’re customers, they won’t come back, and if they’re workers, they’ll be looking around for another job.

Coming back to coffee making again, I was at a Thai restaurant here once, in Corpus Christi, Texas, and as usual, I had to order my iced coffee.

When it came, it was the worst coffee I’d ever tasted. Just a faint hint of coffee and milk, that was it. It was mostly just water and ice.

So I asked the waitress, “Who made this coffee?”

When she said she did it herself, I was flabbergasted, I asked her again, “Do you drink coffee?”

She said no.

So I said something to this effect (something that I know my good friend Lee probably would never say), I said. “How can you make coffee if you don’t drink it yourself?” (Implying, how are you supposed to know what coffee should taste like if you don’t drink it yourself?)

Almost immediately, I was sorry I said that, from the expression on her face.

And needless to say, I never went back to the place.

Back to Choon Seng’s coffee. You can feel the effort, the passion behind the coffee. You can feel the love, the care. You know that the people making it obviously drink coffee and they know what it should taste like.

And that’s why people keep on going back.

So I guess if I were to identify one key element in building a good coffee shop business, it’s to paraphrase Lee: “People can taste.”

 

*Update July 28, 2015

As they say, all good things must come to an end. About two years ago, the coffee at Choon Seng started going south, more out of neglect than anything else. So nothing extraordinary about Choon Seng coffee anymore, sad to say. In fact, I’ve given up on finding good coffee in Sibu. These days, I only ask for barley water.

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2 Responses to “People Can Count”

  1. Annie Q Says:

    Well said Philip.

    I agree with you, if you don’t drink coffee, you can’t make a good coffee. Same goes to food, food that cook with love and patient, it sure taste a lot better.

    Thanks for sharing Choon Seng coffee with us. Actually everytime when i go back, i hardly order coffee, i find some coffee shop the coffee very dilute. Now, at least i know Choon Seng got nice coffee and there is another one near Civic Centre, at the market food court, their coffee very good too. The lady said, the coffee is from Sarikei.

    • philhii Says:

      I’ll try the Civic Center shop next time. Coffee Fantasy is not bad too but Choon Seng is still the best. Of course I like to go to the Civic Center too for the other Sibu delicacy, the tianmengu.


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