SME Spotlight

Father and son share daily grind and perks

The senior Mr Kang started off as a coffee salesman in 1975 before building up his own coffee business. His son, Yi Yang, has expanded that empire with speciality coffee and cafes, with more concepts in the works.
The senior Mr Kang started off as a coffee salesman in 1975 before building up his own coffee business. His son, Yi Yang, has expanded that empire with speciality coffee and cafes, with more concepts in the works.ST PHOTO: DON WONG

It is hard to have staying power in the food and beverage scene, but Santino Coffee Specialists has continued to thrive in the business by adapting with the times. In the final of a four-part series on multi-generational F&B firms, Rennie Whang speaks to Ricky Kang, 63, founder and managing director of Santino Coffee Specialists, and his son Kang Yi Yang, 24, co-founder and director of speciality coffee company Two Degrees North Coffee Co, as well as two cafes, The Populus Coffee & Food Co and Senate Coffee.

Q How did Santino Coffee Specialists and Two Degrees North Coffee Co start?

Ricky I started working as a coffee salesman for another company in 1975. In 1978, I set up my own wholesale local coffee business.

NO GIVING UP

We started selling our coffee overseas about 15 years ago. We weren't successful from the start - in Malaysia, for example, we failed, closed the business there, looked for another partner and opened again. But we didn't give up.

MR RICKY KANG

At the start, I was just selling local coffee and tea from a factory elsewhere. As business grew, I set up my own factory.

About 20 years ago, I saw the market would change, so I started doing gourmet coffee as well. The beans for these come from places such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil, Sumatra in Indonesia and Costa Rica.

I got hold of several coffee machine distributorships as well - a few of the major ones are Nuova Simonelli and Victoria Arduino.

Today, we have three factories in Singapore and are also roasting coffee in Indonesia.

We bring in the green coffee beans and roast them in the factories. For local coffee, it's mixed together with margarine and sugar. Our factories produce both local and gourmet coffee.

Yi Yang I've been exposed to coffee from young. I think the first cup of coffee I had was when I was three, a Pokka canned drink.

Because of my dad, I grew up immersed in coffee. I'd pop by his roaster as a kid just to run around and hang out in his office. The smell of coffee has stayed with me throughout the years.

Back then, I already knew I wanted to be in the coffee business.

About four to five years ago, as speciality coffee was being introduced around the world, my dad saw an opportunity in the industry.

For speciality coffee, there's a lot of research and technology involved in roasting, and that's where I got into the picture. He encouraged me to open Two Degrees North Coffee Co in late 2014 and to open cafes as well. Populus, the flagship cafe for the roastery, opened in October last year.

Q Which countries do the companies sell to?

Ricky We started selling our coffee overseas about 15 years ago. We weren't successful from the start - in Malaysia, for example, we failed, closed the business there, looked for another partner and opened again. But we didn't give up because it was a business that could grow, as long as we did it right. Today, we are a market leader in Malaysia. We also sell our local and gourmet coffee in Indonesia, China, Sri Lanka and Brunei. About half of our revenue comes from our overseas markets.

Yi Yang I'm currently selling to Malaysia and Brunei.

Q What is your vision for the companies?

Ricky We hope this Singapore brand can be an even bigger force overseas.

Yi Yang I'm not stopping at these two cafes. We have another two concepts that we're in the midst of planning - already, we're sourcing manpower and sourcing coffee from around the world.

Q Ricky, what's it like to have your children involved in your business? (Yi Yang's older sister is a general manager in Santino, while his older brother is an operations manager.)

Ricky I'm very happy for sure. Many coffee companies in Singapore have closed down over the years as the owners' children didn't wish to carry on with the business, or they couldn't keep up with the times. I have my children to continue with the business, and make it even better. So I'm very happy.

Q Yi Yang, what's it like to be part of the family business? Any major disagreements over time?

Yi Yang It's a huge advantage for me. When it comes to the coffee industry, my dad is the best teacher I can have. Thankfully my dad didn't place heavy expectations on me - although I do have high expectations of myself. My dad created this legacy; I need to continue it and not let him down.

Sometimes we can be very frank with each other. We tend to debate a lot and we hear each other out.

He doesn't stand on the fact that he is much older and therefore doesn't listen to younger people.

In fact, he's very open to listening to what the next generation thinks.

Ricky We have to let the younger generation run this business. The ideas of my generation, compared with theirs, are very different.

Yi Yang For specialist coffee roasting, there's a lot of reading up to do as much of it comes down to technology. (Yi Yang shows on his laptop how he uses Cropster software to roast coffee.)

So my focus is on the research and development side of Santino and my company as well. I modified some of our machines so I could hook them up to all these technologies.

Ricky Before, coffee processing was not precise. People would use their hands to scoop coffee beans - one scoop could be 100g or 120g, all of it was agak-agak (Malay for estimate). But for the new generation, their thinking is different. They want 100 per cent accuracy, and they are right.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Father and son share daily grind and perks'. Print Edition | Subscribe