Business brewing for coffee carts

Olla Specialty Coffee owner Mr Lee (right) and barista Mike Ang serving coffee from a cart at a wedding in 2014. The coffee cart business here has grown, from just two to three companies in 2011 to about 20 now.
Olla Specialty Coffee owner Mr Lee (right) and barista Mike Ang serving coffee from a cart at a wedding in 2014. The coffee cart business here has grown, from just two to three companies in 2011 to about 20 now.PHOTO: OLLA SPECIALTY COFFEE

Tepid coffee from a dispenser at functions may become a thing of the past as mobile coffee carts become more commonplace at events such as weddings, corporate events and exhibitions.

The carts - fitted with water pumps and tanks, a fridge, and an espresso machine - typically come with two baristas who make drinks such as latte and cappuccino and serve them on the spot.

From just two or three carts in 2011, the industry has grown to about 20-strong. Cart owners said they have seen a healthy growth in business, especially since last year.

The cart business is becoming increasingly popular because it overcomes issues such as manpower and high rentals, which are common problems that come with a store space. There is also a demand for such services that can cater to large crowds, said cart owners whom The Straits Times spoke to.

Services may cost anything from $300 per hour.

Selling coffee in this manner gives sellers the chance to let more people experience "speciality coffee," as well.

"People enjoy having a cup freshly made in front of them. When our customers and their guests receive a cup of well-made coffee, it becomes a conversation starter," said Mr Lee Hee Wei, 36, owner of Olla Specialty Coffee.

Mr Joel Su, 35, opened The Coffee Cart after a cafe he opened in the beginning of last year failed.

"Overheads were killing us. We had a new addition to the family and decided to close the cafe to be able to have more quality family time," he said, referring to his wife and their third son.

He shut down the cafe selling cakes and pastries in Crawford Lane, and invested in two carts that cost $15,000 each.

Since supplying coffee from a cart for the first time in October last year, he has set up shop for more than 40 events such as weddings and birthdays, which have brought in at least $400 each time. In comparison, the average daily sales at his cafe came up to about $100.

For others, having such carts became a natural extension of running a cafe. Mr Ahmad Mustafa Hatwadi, 32, opened Of Mice and Men about two years ago after receiving several requests from his customers at his cafe, Working Title, in Arab Street.

"We were badgered quite frequently by our customers about serving our coffee at both corporate and private events, so we eventually thought, why not?" he said.

He added that business picked up last year, and he now has a steady stream of an average of three requests for the cart services every month.

Times have also been good for other coffee cart companies even though the general food and beverage scene has been in the doldrums.

Mr Jervis Tan, 26, crowned Singapore National Latte Art champion last year and this year, said sales at his company, Kinsmen Coffee, "have grown tremendously" this year. Sales have increased about threefold since he started in December 2013, he said.

He said: "In 2014, sales were very bad as it was quite a new concept. Last year, things started changing as people are more receptive to having coffee made on the spot at their events."

For some, like Slayer Coffee, the cart business has paved the way for a physical store front, which will open in February.

Mr Victor Mah, president of the Singapore Coffee Association, said consumption of "better quality" coffee like those offered by the carts has grown by about 30 per cent year on year.

Mr Mah, who is also president of the Asean Coffee Federation, said: "Today, people are more discerning about coffee. Caterers like hotels should also up their game."

Ms Hema Nathan, 28, a civil servant, engaged a mobile coffee cart during her wedding reception at a Hindu temple earlier this year.

She said it was a natural decision. "Coffee is popular, and some of my friends brew their own coffee, so I knew they would appreciate it. They loved it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2016, with the headline 'Business brewing for coffee carts'. Subscribe