Johor jive: Indie cafes in residential neighbourhoods in Johor Baru

Coffee Loft, a cafe located at 29 Jalan Molek 1/12, Taman Molek, 81100 Johor Baru, Malaysia. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Coffee Loft, a cafe located at 29 Jalan Molek 1/12, Taman Molek, 81100 Johor Baru, Malaysia. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Insomnia, a cafe located at Jalan Skudai, 80200 Johor Baru, Malaysia. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Isaac Loh owner of The Brew Orchestra, a cafe located at 19 Jalan Molek, 1/5C Taman Molek, 81100 Johor Baru, Malaysia. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
The Brew Orchestra, a cafe located at 19 Jalan Molek, 1/5C Taman Molek, 81100 Johor Baru, Malaysia. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Faculty Of Caffeine, a cafe located at 106 Jalan Trus, 80000 Johor Baru, Malaysia. -- PHOTO: FACULTY OF CAFFEINE
W Espresso co-founder Chye Yuan Feng (left) with chef Shawn Shum. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
W Espresso Sporting Club, a chic and cosy cafe located at CS01-12, Country Garden, Danga Bay, Jalan Skudai 80200 Johor Baru, Malaysia. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

The drive to The Factory 30 by Just Want Coffee is a ride off the beaten path, meandering through small neighbourhoods and industrial estates.

When you find the cafe, which takes up an entire 21/2-storey warehouse building, its black shutters over the main entrance gives passers-by the impression that the facility is closed.

But the interior is decked out with a cool, industrial vibe, complete with brick walls and fluorescent lights. Exposed pipes are used as railings and shipping containers have been turned into rooms.

It all screams hipster cafe in an obscure part of Singapore, but the ringgit signs on the menu - and the very affordable prices - remind you that you are in Johor Baru.

The caffeine rush, which hit Singapore about four years ago, has spilled over the Causeway.

The sleepy Malaysian state long known to Singaporeans as a haven of cheap groceries, food and petrol, is now a magnet for plaid-shirted 20-somethings in thick-rimmed glasses - both Malaysians and Singaporeans - nursing their lattes and cappucinos and looking oh-so-cool.

The past year has seen trendy cafes popping up in various neighbourhoods.

These cafes look like they could be found in any cosmopolitan city, a world away from the traditional Malaysian kopitiams which serve up local grub such as mee siam, nasi lemak and roti canai washed down with strong, thick coffee.

The new wave of Johor Baru cafes is distinct from the coffee chains such as Starbucks and Dome.

The cafes are run by Malaysians in their 20s and 30s, offer exotic beans from places such as Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea and Jamaica, and use various artisanal brewing techniques, such as a cold drip, pour-overs, French presses and siphons.

For Singaporeans looking for a quick jaunt upstate, most of these cafes are about a 30-minute drive from the Woodlands checkpoint.

These areas are relatively safe, as the cafes draw a sizeable crowd and are in good neighbourhoods.

Malaysian Nelson Lai, 32, started his coffee dreams small about five years ago.

He opened Just Want Coffee, a 16-seat cafe in Permas Jaya, serving speciality coffee.

Today, the Just Want Coffee brand has five outlets in the city, including The Factory 30 outlet in Taman Mount Austin, which is about 20km from the Woodlands Checkpoint.

Each cafe has its own themed interiors. For example, the outlet in Taman JP Perdana is in a bungalow, partly painted in a hard-to-miss baby blue and has white picket fences.

Mr Lai, previously an engineer in Taiwan, says: "I developed a passion for coffee from visiting all these quaint little cafes during my time in Taiwan. But Johor Baru didn't have a cafe culture even a few years ago, so I thought I would open my own outlet and try to introduce the concept to the people here."

Apart from passion for a good brew, many Malaysian cafe owners also have strong financial backing.

The Brew Orchestra's Isaac Loh, 26, opened his Taman Molek cafe with a loan from his parents, after quitting his tax consultant job.

The money went into renovating the first floor of a three-storey shop block in a chic, contemporary-style, with Scandinavian-looking furniture and a long communal table.

While he is renting the whole building, he hopes to sublease the other floors for offices.

Mr Loh, who has a finance degree from Melbourne University, trained as a barista in the cafemad Australian city, and became a licensed Q Grader professional cupper.

That is a well-known and difficult-to-get qualification for a speciality barista, with only about 1,000 in the world and just a few in Malaysia.

On why he chose Taman Molek as the location for his cafe, the Johor-born Mr Loh says: "I'm familiar with Johor as I grew up here. It has the potential to grow and accommodate more cafes.

"I hope to help grow the coffee scene here, and to help patrons appreciate how to drink and taste it."

He hired a barista from South Korea for the cafe.

Prices for food and drinks at these cafes are comparable to chain F&B establishments in Malaysia such as Secret Recipe and Old Town White Coffee. In general, coffee prices start at about RM7 (S$2.70).

Mr Edward Ng, who co-owns the 40-seater hole-in-the-wall Faculty Of Caffeine, says many young Malaysians will fork out money for a good cuppa.

The 24-year-old final-year medical student opened the cafe in January in the city centre with his friend who is now the cafe's barista. It is often packed on weekends.

Mr Ng says: "We serve quality coffee and our customers know that, which is why they are willing to pay for a good cup. For Singaporeans, of course, it's worth it for them to pay the price because the exchange rate is in their favour."

Perhaps, what also fuels the opening of these cafes is the ready availability of space and relatively low rentals, compared with Singapore.

Indeed, all seven cafes Life!Weekend visited were spacious, could accommodate 40 to 100 customers and were well-staffed.

The difference was not lost on Singaporean Nicole Poi, who writes a two-year-old food blog, PinkyPiggu.

She was at The Factory 30 by Just Want Coffee on a Monday afternoon, with other Singapore food bloggers and restaurateurs.

Ms Poi, a personal assistant who declined to give her age, says: "Cafe spaces in Singapore tend to be very tight, and as they have limited seats, waiting to eat at a cafe can be as long as one to two hours.

"Here, this cafe looks like a hipster cafe straight out of Singapore, but it's big and there are many food options as well."

Singaporeans who drive are better poised to enjoy the pleasures of cafe-hopping. While taxis are easy to get from the Johor Baru checkpoint to take you to these cafes, finding one to return after that can be difficult, as they do not usually ply these routes.

But cafe owners are unsure if the increased tolls at the Malaysian checkpoint will affect business from Singaporeans.

Since Aug 1, cars entering Johor from Singapore through the Johor Baru Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Complex have to pay a toll of RM9.70, up from the previous RM2.90.

When they return, drivers travelling from Johor to Singapore, who previously did not have to pay any toll, now fork out RM6.80.

Co-owner and barista Chye Yuan Feng, 25, of W Espresso Sporting Club, which is along the Johor Baru coast and a 10-minute drive from the Woodlands Checkpoint, says that those on the hunt for good food are more than willing to make the trip to the coast.

For now, he is unfazed by the possibility of a drop in the number of patrons from across the Causeway. His cafe-restaurant serves fusion fare and speciality coffee and has been getting good reviews from Singaporean food bloggers.

Mr Ng says Faculty Of Caffeine has seen fewer Singaporeans on weekends since the tolls kicked in two weeks ago, but thinks "this is just a phase for now, until people get used to the tolls".

He likes having Singaporean customers "as they appreciate good coffee and understand brunch culture".

His cafe on Jalan Trus is within walking distance from the Woodlands Checkpoint, in an area with a handful of other hipster establishments such as cafes, a salad bar and a vintage store selling upcycled apparel.

For now, nothing comes between young Malaysians and their new hip hangouts. Illustrator and designer Vansha Tai, 23, visits Faculty Of Caffeine at least once a week.

"They have good baristas. I would say even better than those in Kuala Lumpur, who are serving up good cups of coffee. Before these cafes, there were no nice places to really hang out in JB," she says.

Just Want Coffee's Mr Lai puts it simply: "Johor Baru is very, very happening now."

And so, the verdict is out: Johor Baru is officially cool.


This chic and cosy 35-seater oozes hipster cred, from the vinyl record player to the retro-looking sporting equipment adorning the shelves, which include polo mallets and tennis racquets.

Some of the furniture is also designed with a sporting theme in mind, with table tops made to look like tennis courts and tall gym locker shelves lining the back wall.

Style matters aside, W Espresso is serious about its coffee. Co-founder Chye Yuan Feng, 25, is an expert at latte art and has trained under UK Barista Championships runner-up James Bailey.

Its food offerings are also nothing to sneer at, with a fusion menu that changes every six months.

Chef Shawn Shum, 22, is open to cooking special off-menu items for private parties held at the venue, so call ahead for details.

Must-tries: Get the M Cold Brew (RM8.90 or S$3.50) and a slice of the dark royal feuilletine (RM12.90) for a relaxing afternoon tea.

Those with time for a proper dinner must order the truffle porcini mushroom soup (RM18), which is a rich soup of oyster mushrooms, shitake and ravioli mushrooms, served with dry porcini mushrooms and a drizzle of truffle oil. Follow it with the grilled poulet with chasseur sauce (RM31) or the unagi aglio olio angel hair (RM32) for a satisfying meal.

Its menu, which comes in the form of artsy little booklets with pretty photos of the food, are free for customers to take home and drool over.

Where: CS01-12, Country Garden, Danga Bay, Jalan Skudai 80200 Johor Baru


It may be situated in the middle of an industrial estate, but this roomy 4,000 sq ft double-storey space was crowded on a Monday afternoon even as stormy weather raged on outside when Life!Weekend paid a visit.

Designed to look like its namesake, the industrial-chic cafe is adorned with giant metal shutters and sleek metal-leg furniture and topped off with huge coffee bean gunny sacks hanging from the ceiling.

Do not worry - though they may look heavy, they are filled with newspapers, so you may eat without worrying about falling bags.

Coffee beans are sourced everywhere from Ethiopia to Costa Rica, and are roasted on site. The Factory 30 is the fifth cafe under the Just Want Coffee brand, founded by Mr Nelson Lai, 32, and Mr David Lim, 28, which has cafes in other locations using other design concepts.

They also run barista courses, coffee tours and tasting and brewing classes.

Must-tries: The Factory 30 makes a daily fresh batch of its own take on the bagel, using a recipe that the owners say is "more suited to local tastes" as its bagels are softer and not as tough as the New York originals.

Order the pesto-crusted chicken sandwich (RM29.90 or S$11.70), which is a poppy seed bagel paired with crispy fried chicken fillets with homemade pesto sauce.

For a cool afternoon treat, try its icy cold tiramisu (RM15.90), which is served frozen for an ice-cream cake-like texture.

Since it set up shop, the cafe sells about 10,000 of these delicious tiramisu every month.

Where:30 Jalan Mutiara Emas 5/3, Taman Mount Austin, 81100 Johor Bar

My Liberica looks a little like a homey but slightly cheesy hotel bar (complete with Kenny G muzak playing in the background), but it takes its coffee seriously. So seriously, in fact, that its coffee beans are sourced from its own 20ha coffee plantation located near Bukit Batu in Johor.

Customers can get their specialty coffee via the siphon or filter drip methods.

Must-tries: Other than its many coffee options - the tiramisu coffee (RM11 or S$4.30) is popular and aromatic - try the Taiwan plum essence series of drinks, which are tart and refreshing. Order a slice of the mille crepe (from RM9.90), a lightly sweet dessert that comes in flavours such as oreo and green tea.

Where: 73 Jalan Molek 3/10, Taman Molek, 81100 Johor Baru


This is the best option for non-drivers, as it is a mere 10-minute walk from the Johor Baru Customs, Immigration and Quarantine complex.

Situated on one of the city's oldest streets, Jalan Trus, the cafe is flanked by various old- fashioned businesses, from traditional herbal tea stalls to old-school bakeries.

This cosy cafe has tables kitted out with vintage Singer sewing machines, a retro kitchen cabinet as well as a large mirror with Chinese characters on it. The walls of the cafe too are adorned with artworks done by the two owners.

Must-tries: If you are hungry, go for the Generous Breakfast set (RM16.50 or S$6.50), which offers scrambled eggs, mushrooms and grilled tomatoes. It also serves a fresh Caesar salad (RM8.50).

Coffee fans will enjoy their drinks here, as the cafe uses 100 per cent Arabica beans and has double shot espresso. On a hot day, opt for an iced cappuccino (RM10.50) or an iced caffe mocha (RM11.50). It also has non-coffee based drinks such as Minty Lime Punch (RM 7.50) and a Chilly Fruit Tea (RM 8.50).

Where: 106 Jalan Trus, 80000 Johor Baru


The strings lining the ceiling are designed to look like musical instrument strings to go with the cafe name.

Owner Isaac Loh, 26, explains the inspiration behind the name: "Different beans have different brewing methods using different equipment and they all come together here - just like how different musical instruments form an orchestra."

Indeed, there are myriad options here: From the cafe's house-blend coffee, which has hints of blueberry (from RM7 or S$2.80 for an espresso macchiato to RM13 for an iced cappuccino), to the many options for its speciality single origin coffees sourced from Kenya, Ethiopia and Honduras (RM13 for paper drip, flannel and aeropress, and RM15 for syphon), coffee-lovers will be spoilt for choice.

Must-tries: The coffee, obviously. But non-coffee drinkers will be happy to know that its selection of teas is excellent too.

Try the Kyoto genmaicha (RM13) or the houjicha karigane (RM15), whose roasted fragrances wafts through the room long before they reach your table.

Peckish? Order the mustard pastrami panini (RM13), a perfectly toasted sandwich with oven-smoked pastrami dressed with English mustard.

Otherwise, head over to the display cabinet in the middle of the room to order (or ogle at) a pretty tart or a slice of cake.

Where: 19 Jalan Molek, 1/5C Taman Molek, 81100 Johor Baru


This eight-month-old cafe is perfect for those who just want to curl up with a book. There are plenty of books lining the wall shelves here, so grab one and read away over a cup of hot cuppa.

Situated in the up-and-coming gourmet food area in luxury residential neighbourhood Country Garden, this is also a good pit-stop for those who are on a food trail around the area.

Do not be alarmed if you cannot find the cafe this weekend: The signboard at the moment reads Cestino, but the name will be changed to Insomnia next month.

Must-tries: The rich house-blend coffee here is sourced from Brazil, Columbia, Indonesia and Ethiopia. Prices range from RM5 (S$2) for a single shot espresso to RM16 for a 16-ounce cup of iced hazelnut latte.

For hungry souls, the bestseller is the thin-crust pizza, which has toppings such as tuna flakes (RM13 for a six-inch pizza, RM25 for a nine-inch one) and Hawaiian chicken (RM13 for a six-inch pizza, RM25 for a nine-inch pizza).

Where: Country Garden Danga Bay, behind the sales gallery, Jalan Skudai 80200 Johor Baru


From the outside, this easily looks the most impressive of the cafes, given that all three floors of the corner shophouse are painted in a wash of grey as if it were a massive warehouse.

In reality, only the ground floor is used for the cafe, while the rest of the building is office space. The ample space gives it a chilled-out loft feel, for an enjoyable weekend brunch.

When Life!Weekend visited the cafe two weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon, most of the clientele were families and young adults, having leisurely chats or reading magazines over coffee and cake.

The cafe's slogan "when coffee meets art" means much thought has been put into the bright and colourful paintings hanging on the wall, including those by young Malaysian artist Hoe Say Yong.

Co-founder Shaunjit Singh, 23, says: "We went for that industrial feel as we wanted to show off the art more."

Look out for the cute bear figurines at every table which act as a paperweight for the food order chits.

Must-tries: Order the smoked duck pizza (RM21 or S$8), a crispy thin-crust pizza, and a hot basket of potato wedges (RM9) for a satisfying lunch.

Coffee options include the usual lattes and cappucino, but non-coffee drinkers will love the fact that it also has a wide range of tea offerings, including the mood-lifting peppermint ginger tea (RM10).

Where: 29 Jalan Molek 1/12, Taman Molek, 81100 Johor Baru

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