In our pursuit to try to understand the story behind the brands that fill gaps and create their own niche market, we were fortunate enough to get the insight of Singapore’s leading coffee entrepreneur Harry Grover.  Harry started the third wave coffee scene in Singapore back in 2010, when the only existing options of a coffee was Starbucks and local coffee stalls which had a deep-seated hold on the Singapore mindset and market.

We wanted to know more about entering the hospitality scene with a radically differentiated product, what were the perils he faced and the long-term rewards Harry gained by being the originator.

Valé - How did you assess the market before entering with a new product?

Harry - A mixture of intuition and luck. I had got into coffee in Australia a few years earlier and I had a brother living in Singapore. On visiting him a few times, I wondered where all the independent and third wave shops were when the chains serving high prices already were so established.  I was lucky to meet some people who already were working in the industry and could see the potential, so I partnered with them.

Opening 40 Hands was almost like a lo-fi, low-risk test bed.  Its success gave me the confidence to go deeper and invest more to open up Common Man, a more sophisticated offering, with a separate B-B wholesale company.

Valé - What were some of the notable hurdles you faced introducing an unfamiliar product to a market dominated by first and second tier offerings?

Harry - Exactly that - an unfamiliar product where you need to educate your consumer. Therefore food, service, design, ambience are all vital so the opinion leaders and expats patronise you, then the next wave follows.

If I had a dollar for every customer in the early days who told me ‘my coffee is sour’ I could retire by now.

Valé - How did you overcome these hurdles?

Harry - Hire strong staff and train them well, be always present me (in the first 3-4 years) to help articulate the message, design strong marketing collaterals and brand info.

Also through just remaining operationally steady and consistent. Then you competitors actually are allies to help educate the customer as the whole scene changes. The scene went through  boom and bust from 2011 to about 2013 with new shops opening each week

Then it became a little more Darwinian,  with a new batch of strong operators emerging and a new breed of educated customer who knew what to expect and knew what they wanted.

Valé - 8-6 years later, how is your premium product accepted by the market?

Harry - It’s still a relatively niche demographic looking for a particular style of speciality coffee, but we can create a bigger market attached to it by getting the other key elements right - notably the food offering and good service.  

Valé - Being a market pioneer, do you find you are ahead of the competition today?

Harry - I think we certainly had an advantage by being an early player and creating enough legacy with 40 hands and early days of CMCR Martin road so that now we can open somewhere like Common Man Stan and already have a fairly strong following

But then the challenge is really sustaining and keeping your reputation, often times in an increasingly challenging Singapore market (labour crunch, high rents) I’m more worried about these things and keeping my customer base happy, than concerned about what my competitors are doing.

40 Hands Coffee - Tiong Bahru

Valé - How would you describe the design of the original 40 hands and any conscious decisions you made to reflect the values of your first wave of customers.

Harry - The first version in 2010 was actually built on a shoestring so was pretty basic! But the' industrial chic' look had not totally gone mass in Singapore yet so we were ok with raw wood, hanging lights, homemade tables etc. I wanted it to simply look ‘original’ that was important - nothing like anything in Singapore (or even Australia really) but still had its own style and some level of familiarity that it was a coffee place.

Same philosophy applied to Common Man - the industrial cut and paste look was in full swing by 2013, so we chose to go the other direction and make it more plush - green marble, white tiles mixed with wood floors, and a slight Art Deco feel.  Our intention again was to make it different and more unique to what was being copied from the aesthetic dominating Aussie cafes.

Valé - In hindsight, what might you have done differently?

Harry - Stay singularly focused on building the coffee brands, not be distracted by other F&B projects that I dabbled in, and lost a lot of time and money . I was on a good thing from 2010 but we should have capitalised on that faster energy, time and resources are finite!