The Tai Seng area is shedding its image as a drab industrial estate as a crop of new cafes and restaurants inject buzz into the once- utilitarian dining options of food courts and coffee shops.
No fewer than 10 eateries have opened there over the past nine months. The bulk of them have sprung up on the ground level of the nine-storey light industrial building, The Commerze @ Irving, in Irving Place. They include salad bar Round 8, coffee spot Grasso Coffee and Carol Mel Cafe, which serves Asian and Western food.
Low rental is the main draw, the owners tell SundayLife!. They pay $4 to $7 per square foot. This enables most of these first-time business owners to test their food concepts without going head-on with eateries in nearby mature estates such as Paya Lebar and Tanjong Katong.
Mr James Loh, 44, owner of The Oven Cafe Bistro in The Commerze @ Irving, who was previously in pharmaceutical sales, wanted to lower the risk of starting a business in a mid-career switch. He invested about $60,000 in his cafe.
"I had no confidence in my food, so I wanted a testing ground to see how my customers would react to my food, while keeping costs low," he says.
Another tenant, Ms Fazila Fuad, 44, co-owner of Oleh Oleh Tea House, which sells Malay food such as Nasi Ambeng and kueh, says paying a lower rent allows her to open for a shorter period of time. Her cafe is open till 5pm on weekdays, targeting mainly the lunchtime crowd.
She says: "With a lower rent, I can close earlier as I do not need to recover the extra costs incurred from a higher rent if I were to be in a high-traffic area."
Another plus point is that while these dining spots are nestled in the industrial estate, they are located within a 10-minute walk from Tai Seng MRT station.
That was the main pull factor for self-taught baker Esther Lim, 25, in setting up her pastry cafe, My Sister Bakes, in MacPherson Lane. The cafe is an extension of her 18-month online cake customisation business.
She says: "Being near an MRT station makes it convenient for my customers to pick up cakes, as 90 per cent of my business is done via online orders. Walk-in sales are a bonus for me."
One of the early birds in Tai Seng's dining scene is The Boiler Louisiana Seafood & Beer in Howard Road, which opened in July last year. The restaurant attracts a healthy dinner crowd of up to 400 people over two seatings on weekends.
Owner Malcolm Hong, 35, a former banker, noticed a gap in food options for an increasingly sophisticated office crowd, such as executives, entrepreneurs and owners of small and medium- sized enterprises. He says: "These people have spending power, but their only option for a decent meal or for happy hour in the area was coffee shops."
Lower start-up costs allow him to offer Cajun-style seafood boils and tipples priced at up to 20 per cent lower than at places in town. He invested about $400,000 in the business and broke even within six months.
He says: "With more eateries, it will create hype for diners to check out this industrial area."
Though Tai Seng is a burgeoning foodie enclave, one gripe among eateries is the lack of human traffic, which makes the area especially quiet in between meal times and after office hours.
Mr Gary Ong, 25, owner of Western cafe 23 Jumpin in The Commerze @ Irving, says the area receives "zero human traffic" unless people go with the intention to dine there.
"We receive up to 40 diners during dinner time every day, they are cafe-hoppers who do not work nearby. It took us four months to get the word out on the cafe through social media," he says.
Echoing this view is fellow tenant Sharon Tay, 26, co-owner of SWAG (Salads, Wraps and Greens), who is riding on the trend of healthy eating. Some of her customers come from two CrossFit facilities in the industrial estate. To counter poor walk-in sales, her company started a delivery service last month and hopes to introduce pretty, layered salads in glass jars by next month.
"Snapping photos of food is trendy now. By creating Instagram-worthy foods, we can attract customers."
Office workers who work nearby welcome the bonanza of dining choices. Ms Lee Leng, 57, an administrative executive, says: "Previously, it was just eating for the sake of eating - in food courts. I am happy that we can now get salad, coffee and sandwich options, just like workers in town."
Entrepreneur Pearl Chan, 29, who has been working in Tai Seng for five years, is keen to say goodbye to the days when she had to pack lunch from home or drive out for meals.
She says: "It is refreshing to have such a wide variety of cafe-like food choices, though prices can sometimes be higher."
EATS IN THE AREA
THE COMMERZE @ IRVING, 1 IRVING PLACE
CAROL MEL CAFE
Started by Liew sisters Caroline, 44, and Melissa, 39, both chefs, this 25-seat cafe serves Western and Asian dishes such as pan-fried lemongrass chicken with rice ($8.50), braised pork belly and potatoes with rice ($8.50) and chicken lasagna ($11.90). Those with a sweet tooth can zero in on the waffles ($13.90) topped with salted caramel gelato, which is jazzed up with banana, cheese and marshmallows.
Where: 01-30, open: 9am to 6.30pm, Tuesday to Friday; noon to 10pm, Saturday; 10am to 5pm, Sunday; closed on Monday
Info: Call 6635-5755 or go to www.facebook.com/carolmelcafe
Previously located in Simei, this cafe offers sandwiches (from $2) and ice-blended drinks ($6) such as Mocha and Cotton Candy (a raspberry and vanilla mix). For lunch, it serves baked fish in mushroom, tom yum or lasagne flavours ($9.80).
Where: 01-27, open: 8am to 7.30pm, weekday; 10am to 4pm, Saturday; closed on Sunday
Info: Call 9123-8399 or go to www.facebook.com/GrassoCoffee
SWAG (Salads, Wraps and Greens)
Choose from eight varieties of hearty salads or wraps, including Southern Pulled Pork (from $8.90) and Greek Apple (from $7.90), which has greens, green apple and turkey ham drizzled with maple bacon dressing. It also serves salmon mousse ($4.90) and juices.
Where: 01-26, open: 11am to 8pm, weekday; closed on weekend
Info: Call 6341-6126 or go to www.swag.com.sg
THE OVEN CAFE BISTRO
The repertoire of 15 spaghetti dishes and pizzas is inspired by what chef James Loh learnt from his five-week course at At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy. Try the salmon sashimi spaghetti ($16.80) and crispy baked chicken spaghetti ($10.80). Feeling peckish? Order the baked tandoori chicken cubes ($8) or bratwurst pizza ($8.80).
Where: 01-22, open: 11am to 9pm, weekday; 11am to 11pm, Saturday; closed on Sunday
OLEH OLEH TEA HOUSE
This Muslim-owned cafe is an offshoot of the popular kueh kiosk in Parkway Parade. Besides its popular kueh such as Lapes ($1.50) and Onde Onde ($0.70), it also serves Malay fare such as Nasi Ambeng ($7.50), a festive rice dish.
Where: 01-21, open: 9am to 5pm, weekday; closed on weekend
This 30-seat cafe offers surprisingly exotic fare such as pork goulash stew ($12) and duck confit ($16). For dessert, it serves Black Volcano Waffle ($18), a chocolate lava cake with ice cream on a charcoal waffle.
Where: 01-25, open: 11am to 9pm, Tuesday to Sunday; closed on Monday
Meat does not play second fiddle to the eight types of salads and wraps here. Try the Chicky Chix, which has baked chicken breast topped with fried egg ($6.50), and Captain's Choice ($6.50), which comes with baked fish fillet and greens. Interesting sauces include passionfruit plum and truffle mayonnaise. The cafe also serves cold-pressed juices ($5.50).
Where: 01-24, open: 8.30am to 7.30pm, weekday; closed on weekend
Info: Call 6702-3188 or go to www.facebook.com/round8sg
THE BOILER LOUISIANA SEAFOOD & BEER
Seafood fans can choose from two Cajun-style seafood boils served in bags: Boiler's Bombdiggity Bag ($145 for four) and Boiler's Duo Bag ($52 for two). The seafood selection includes Dungeness or brown crabs, prawns, mussels and clams. Diners can choose from four piquant sauces, including the house special, The Works, which is a blend of eight spices, including paprika and lemon powder. Other popular lunch picks are fish and chips ($10.90) and St Louis- style ribs ($18.90).
Where: Novelty Bizcentre, 01-06, 18 Howard Road; open: 11am to 2.30pm, Tuesday to Friday; 5 to 10.30pm, Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday; 5 to 11pm, Friday and Saturday; closed on Monday
Info: Call 6635-1285 or go to theboiler.com.sg
MY SISTER BAKES
This 16-seat cafe serves up to eight types of cakes, including Milo Dinosaur ($6 a slice), a Milo sponge cake filled with Milo buttercream; and Earl Grey ($6), an Earl Grey tea-flavoured cake dressed up with vanilla buttercream. There are also tarts such as Chocolate Salted Caramel ($4.50) and Yogo Berry Chocolate Tart ($4.50), which is made up of Greek yogurt, chocolate ganache, strawberries and caramelised cookies.
Where: 01-55, Block 81 MacPherson Lane, open: 11.30am to 5pm, Wednesday to Sunday; closed on Monday and Tuesday