Welcome to Young Ambition, a feature series in which young adults share their passions, grand plans, and pipe dreams with Wildchild.
Meet Andrew Tjoa, a global citizen who received his primary education in his home country Indonesia, his secondary education in Malaysia, and his tertiary and university education in Singapore. Putting down roots in our sunny city through the establishment of Aroma Coffee, the millennial seeks to bring specialty coffee to the heartlands in a sustainable and cost-effective way.
In this conversation, Andrew highlights the meaningful connections formed within all parts of the supply chain, from the coffee farmers right down to the barista’s interactions with their regular customers. Read on to learn about his attempt at carving out a niche in the specialty coffee space.
When did you decide to run a business that offers specialty coffee and gourmet beverages in Singapore and how did you know that the timing to do so was right?
Andrew: As a specialty coffee lover who grew up — and lives — in the heartlands, I found it very difficult to find good specialty coffee at an affordable price. I had to travel at least 45 minutes to town or the CBD area to satisfy my caffeine fix.
My co-founder and I see that Singaporeans’ preferences for coffee are slowly shifting towards specialty coffee. Since local third-wave coffee houses and international franchise concepts are thriving, we see an opportunity. We want to offer high-quality coffee-based and non-coffee drinks to heartlanders, at affordable prices.
Why did you choose to build Aroma Coffee as the sister brand of Aroma Truffle? What is the thread that ties the two brands together?
Andrew: Kayson, the other co-founder of Aroma Coffee, is a dear friend of mine. He wanted to expand the Aroma brand beyond truffle-related products. Coffee is the perfect fit for the Aroma brand because — just like truffles — it offers a strong aromatic experience for consumers. Hence, he invited me to start Aroma Coffee together.
We envision a more hospitable world where every stakeholder — consumers, employees, community, suppliers, and investors — benefits from our business. The Aroma Coffee culture is very unique. We work hard together and have strong camaraderie; we serve every customer with utmost sincerity and hospitality. Even though we are a takeaway kiosk, we’re on a first-name basis with our regulars.
Aroma Coffee also offers islandwide delivery now as customers may order directly from your site. Since you first started with a brick-and-mortar space, was there a huge transition when you moved part of your business online?
Andrew: We focus on our brick-and-mortar store and do not offer our full menu online. Because customers want their coffee cravings satisfied instantly and it does not make economic sense for them to purchase a cup of hot mocha ($4.90) from us while having to pay a hefty delivery fee ($10+).
Hence, our Shopify Store serves as a platform through which both potential and existing customers can understand more about our brand and contact us. As such, we only offer our signature drinks — Spreeze and Single Origin Cold Brew — in bundles of six bottles and Aroma House Blend as gifts. To me, fulfillment (keeping the cold drinks cold and hot drinks hot without affecting flavor) and logistics are two of the most important considerations when it comes to running an online beverage business in Singapore.
Tell us more about Aroma Coffee’s signature offering, Spreeze, the brand’s very own take on yuan yang.
Andrew: As Singaporeans are increasingly health-conscious, we want to offer our customers flavored coffee without any artificial ingredients or sweetness. Initially, when we experimented with flavored syrup, we faced a huge roadblock. As we added more syrup to increase the flavor and aroma of our drinks, the sweetness inevitably increased too. Our biggest challenge was to decouple sweetness from aroma and flavor.
The breakthrough came when we asked ourselves a simple question, “Why can’t coffee be as straightforward as tea?” We started infusing our coffee with artisanal tea leaves and dried fruits. As artisanal tea leaves are rich in aroma and naturally unsweetened, we are able to achieve the best of both worlds and that became our signature drink, Spreeze.
In what ways are you inspired by the specialty coffee culture around the world?
Andrew: The specialty coffee culture is unique; it is one of the very few businesses that emphasize traceability, transparency, sustainability, and quality. I personally believe that specialty coffee is all about meaningful human connections. The strong bonds between every member of our company, the connection we formed with every customer interaction, the farmers and roasters working hard behind the scenes to yield quality crops and roast them to perfection.
The human connection is so beautiful and exceptionally valuable in the world today, with the rapid evolution of technology and the resultant alienation. Imagine your regular barista greeting you with a warm smile, remembering your order (“as usual?”), and brewing a perfect cup of your favorite coffee. That brief moment of interaction makes my day.
Can you explain what the Fourth Wave of Coffee means and why it is important for Aroma Coffee to take such an approach?
Andrew: We define Fourth Wave Coffee as fast-moving, quality specialty coffee. We strive to combine the efficiency and consistency offered by the Second Wave Coffee operators (such as Starbucks) with the personalization and artisanal quality offered by the Third Wave Coffee operators (such as Blue Bottle).
Retail rental is very expensive in Singapore and every square foot is precious. In order to serve high-quality coffee in a fast pace and consistent manner, we have to rethink the day-to-day operations and simplify the brewing process such that people without any prior experience in coffee can brew a decent shot of espresso.
What are some of the challenges that were the most significant along the process of building the business and how did you overcome them?
Andrew: I still remember very vividly, one day before our soft-opening I received a message from my full-time barista that she decided to resign after receiving training. During the opening days, I worked in the outlet from opening to closing every day.
I personally trained all our team members — full-timers and part-timers who had no prior experience in coffee. Kayson and I took turns to cover the shifts until we eventually hired part-timers. Every single one of our team members was dedicated; they went the extra mile and rallied together. We believe that any challenge can be surmounted with strong teamwork, trust, and camaraderie.
Any advice for young entrepreneurs who have an idea they want to get off the ground?
Andrew: Starting a business is not as glamorous as depicted in popular media, at least for the beginning and growth phase. Firstly, you need to have the capital to start and since the percentage of F&B businesses that fail in Singapore is high, you must be able to stomach that risk.
In their book, “The Startup Playbook: Founder-to-Founder Advice from Two Startup Veterans”, Rajat Bhargava and Will Herman mentioned that entrepreneurs must be willing to sacrifice their personal time and money, work long hours, handle the emotional ups and downs, as well as extreme stress. In the early stages, the founders must do everything.
As this is my first entrepreneurial venture, I have made many mistakes and am still facing many humbling experiences. With so many things to do and learn in a short time, I really have to learn how to prioritize and focus on the most important tasks.
What are your goals for Aroma Coffee right now and what do you hope the future will bring?
Andrew: I envision Aroma Coffee to be at the top of customers’ minds when they want to drink a good, affordable cup of specialty coffee, especially in the heartlands where it is not as accessible. We hope to work with franchisees and investors — who share the same vision and values as ours — to expand our retail presence, both domestically and internationally.
Photography by Aroma Coffee