“You know when your boss says: ‘Hey I need to talk to you, let’s go to a room and talk,’ you know…”
Richard Koh’s voice trailed off, almost as if he was momentarily transported back to his office in the year 2016.
“You know it’s like, ‘Oh this is it’.”
Back then, Koh was working for a multinational technology corporation as a regional business manager. However, the company was restructuring, and Koh — then 54 — was to be retrenched from his job of 10 years — a job he loved.
“You lose your self-confidence, to be honest. It’s like the first thing you think is ‘Why me?’,” he said.
Feet in two sampans
Having to reenter the job market in his fifties was not an easy feat, Koh said.
Opportunities weren’t forthcoming and the best he could do was some part-time consulting work which came about from the courtesy of friends more than any real demand.
On the other hand, Koh felt that he still had a lot of energy and was not ready to retire.
That led him — together with his wife, Ong Bee Yan — to look into starting a cold brew coffee business.
“I love coffee,” said Ong, 64, when I asked where the idea for the business came from.
“I love the traditional Kopi-O from the kopitiam — in the morning I must have a Kopi. But sometimes in the afternoon, I like to have a cafe latte.”
Her obsession with coffee and the couple’s penchant for cafe hopping led their daughter to suggest they try a new trending drink — cold brew coffee.
The drink's portability, millennial appeal, and the possibility of selling it online made the drink stand out among their potential business ideas, explained Ong.
In addition, the low start-up costs mitigated the risks involved in starting a business.
All the couple needed was to make a commitment.
“Yan eventually said to me: ‘You got to focus!’,” recalled Koh, while his wife’s lips curled into a smile.
She eventually convinced him that he would have to let go of his part-time consulting work in order to prioritise the new business.
“‘You got your feet in two sampans. Either you’re all in or you’re all out.’”
"We are completely different"
Koh and Ong met 19 years ago at a Lindy Hop dance class.
For Koh, it was love at first sight, though he added that chasing Ong required patience.
Running 1degreeC — their cold brew coffee business — together is another endeavour that requires patience, the pair said.
“We are completely different. Both in terms of character, in terms of likes and dislikes, in terms of behaviour,” said Ong.
“Once I decide on something, it has to be done. You know? That sort. There’s no such thing as ‘hold on, wait’.
That’s the conflict you see. He’s more laid back.”
“I have to be very forgiving,” added Koh as he broke into a boyish grin while his wife laughed.
“I admire Yan’s talent and capability, so I don’t make a fuss. And even if I did, it wouldn’t help!”
When it comes to the actual operations of the business, the couple have clearly-defined roles: Ong takes care of the drink-making, while Koh settles the logistics and administration.
“Yan’s the really creative one. I’m more of the—”
“Executioner!” said Ong, finishing her husband's sentence.
A mix of Robusta and Arabica
Making cold brew coffee is a relatively lengthy process — one they learned through reading, talking to baristas, and watching YouTube videos.
The couple uses a mix of Robusta and Arabica beans sourced from across South East Asia and Columbia, roasted and ground in Singapore by local roasters.
The grounds are mixed with cold water and — depending on the recipe — left in the fridge or at room temperature for anywhere between 12 to 24 hours.
After sieving the grounds, different ingredients are added to the coffee to make a variety of concoctions.
The result is a coffee that is healthier, less acidic, sweeter, and can be kept longer without turning sour.
Apart from their black coffees, 1degreeC’s signature products include white coffee, coffee made with almond milk, masala coffee, matcha coffee, and oat milk coffee.
They also have a range of flashy cold teas, such as blue pea, basil and mint, and beetroot and cardamon, which are naturally-coloured.
“Most of the time, I think about it at night. I dream about it, or it comes to me at night,” explained Ong, when I asked about the inspiration behind the concoctions.
Despite their effective chemistry — both in working together and making coffee — the first year of 1degreeC’s existence didn’t go too smoothly.
The couple giggled as they recalled the first of many pop-up stalls that were a hallmark of the 1degreeC’s early years.
Filled with naïveté and hopeful ambitions, the 1degreeC team — at the time made up of Koh, Ong, and Kevin Ho, a friend of their son, — lugged a heavy cooler box to a farmers market held at the old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in October 2016.
“We asked how many people were coming and they said 20,000,” said Koh.
“We thought, okay, let’s do 600 bottles‚ 300 white coffee and 300 black… we didn’t sell that many!”
“About half lah!” chimed Ong.
They also visited Koh’s former workplace to sell their drinks to his ex-colleagues, though he admitted that such events were more one-offs rather than a sustainable avenue for business.
“Of course you know, we have friends that come and support you but you can’t go there every week or every month because after a while when people see you they’ll avoid you.
It works both ways. You feel bad, I feel bad.”
With intentions to sell their products directly to cafes and other businesses, the couple sent out countless email enquiries. Every time they spotted new cafe opening, Koh and Ong would send in their pitch, though replies seemed to get lost in a virtual black hole.
“It's just like applying for jobs and not getting a callback,” said Koh.
The one and only respondent that first year was a cafe in the north of Singapore.
“It was just so rundown. It was just not right (for our product),” remembered Ong, still shuddering from her memory of the place.
“Anyway they said no, which was good also. It was so dilapidated.”
... and first-year blessings
Yet, the couple were quick to add that the first year was full of encouragement too.
Their son’s friend, Ho, was out of a job when 1degreeC was first starting out and came on board to help Koh and Ong.
His comparative youth meant Ho had far more expertise when it came to navigating social media.
Also, they quickly learned that his vigour would come in handy when transporting large amounts of bottled coffee for pop-up stalls.
The creation of their webpage — a staple of any internet-based business — came about through an offer the couple consider generous; their daughter’s digital marketing company designed it in exchange for cold brew coffee.
In addition, Koh and Ong’s early marketing copy was written for free by an early sampler of their coffee.
“From our day one we were very, very blessed,” surmised Ong.
The breakthrough moment
As selling to businesses didn’t take off, husband and wife decided to pivot to selling their product directly to consumers.
That decision saw them end up at the 2017 edition of the Singapore Coffee Festival, about ten months after their first pop-up at Tanjong Pagar.
Koh decided to get the cheapest booth available and pitched the idea to his wife. Ong recalled:
“He said: 'Let’s participate. (It’ll cost) S$1,000.' I thought, 'S$1000, so expensive? Are you kidding me?'”
To Ong’s dismay, the booth they were assigned was right in the corner of the Marina Bay Cruise Centre’s large exhibition hall, at the end of a long line of other booths; “Who’s gonna come and see us?” she remembered thinking.
Her solution? To build a tall LED-lit sign that would demand attention for 1degreeC.
However, come the first day of the festival, coffee lovers didn’t end up needing the sign much at all.
Instead, they just needed to follow the long snaking queue that had sprouted in front of 1degreeC’s booth.
Ong remembered receiving a call from Koh, inundated with customers at the festival; she was home still brewing drinks for the remaining days, unaware of what had transpired.
“He said: ‘Hey, there’s a long queue, you know?’ I said: ‘Are you sure or not?’ He said: ‘Yeah you better brew more drinks!’
I couldn’t believe it.”
Overwhelmed with the demand for their product, Ong and Koh decided to use whatever drinks they had on hand as samples for queuing customers. If they liked what they’d tasted, they could get more by pre-ordering from 1degreeC.
“We had all these flavours at the booth,” recalled Koh.
“It looked quite impressive, but every day it was completely emptied out.”
Enduring a pandemic and expanding their vision
The festival proved to be a turning point for 1degreeC, catapulting them into local coffee recognition. And the couple hasn’t looked back since.
These days, while they sell both to businesses and to consumers directly, Ong and Koh still do the vast majority of the heavy lifting.
They now run the business out of a kitchen in MacPherson where Ong does all the brewing, while Koh does the deliveries.
While the Covid-19 pandemic proved a challenge in the initial stages, direct sales to consumers picked up.
“People started to research online about cold brew coffee, and you know orders kept coming in,” said Koh.
“We were busy all day. In fact, we were so busy that we had to enlist our son to help us make deliveries.”
Four years since plunging headfirst into running their own business, the couple is now using their relative stability to fulfil other endeavours.
“We have expanded our vision from just coffee to collaborations, to charity work,” said Koh.
Before I could settle in at the beginning of my time with the couple, Ong excitedly pulled out a small black box of soap bars.
After some research, she’d found out that body scrubs could be made from used coffee grounds and had been looking for soap makers to collaborate with.
Just like their drinks, the soaps come in all sorts of scents, and can be used for different purposes; some for the body, some for the face.
They’re targeting a Christmas release, with the proceeds from sales going to a nursing home.
Ong and Koh hope to collaborate more with NGOs and charities moving forward, and plan on donating to different causes that will change on a quarterly basis.
They are also looking into scaling up the operations of 1degreeC.
Expanding while maintaining high standards remains the perennial challenge for many start-ups.
But if Koh and Ong can continue to harness their so-far irresistible combination of creativity, grit, and good humour, you wouldn't put it past them.
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top image by Andrew Koay