From practicality to purpose driven: How an 86-year old hawker business can flourish in modern times

“My dad always emphasized the importance of offering unique flavours so people will have a variety to choose from…he was always one step ahead of us and encouraging us to break out of the box.” – the Sai siblings of Coffee Break

“With the advent of social media, the term “hawkerpreneur” was coined to give us a fancy label. If you go back through the years, every generation was trying hard to stand out by innovating their offerings. In a way, all of us, my grandfather and my father were already hawkerpreneurs.” We talked to Faye Sai, a third-generation hawkerpreneur, who, together with her twin sister, Anna, and older brother, Jack, runs their family business – the well established Coffee Break in Singapore.

Started as a humble pushcart in Hainan 2nd Street (now known as Purvis Street) in 1935 by their grandfather, Faye’s father, James Sai established Coffee Break in Amoy Street Food Centre in 1999. James introduced quirky flavours like “Orange Vanilla” and “Cookies & Cream”. 

Over the years, each generation has added their own innovations to keep the brand relevant with its times. They’ve introduced coffee flavoured drinks such as Sea Salt Mint, Caramel Latte, and bread spreads such as Black Sesame and Earl Grey Creme to launching the Coffee Break’s E-store. Here, Faye shares with us the life of a hawker in our times and ways she’s learnt to adapt and sustain the family legacy

How did the three of you end up working at Coffee Break? 

During our early teens, we were forced to be at the stall on weekends. We dragged our feet to work at the stall. We worked under the sweltering heat, customers were demanding and we tried hard to understand the lingo of orders that is often a mix of English with a few Chinese dialects like Hokkien and Hainanese in one sentence. I always remembered getting scolded constantly by my dad. 

When I turned 18, I signed up for a part-time Diploma in Mass Communications. I would study at night and help out at my dad’s stall during the day for extra income. My dad still scolded me for not reacting instantaneously or for mixing up customer’s orders. I could not keep up. One day, in the middle of a lunch slam, I threw in the towel (literally) and walked out.

Pictured here is the Sai family in 1981 in front of their second kopitiam, when the Sai siblings’ mother, Julie first married into the family (on the far left), while her father flanked the right side of the photo.

After that incident, things took a turn when I reset my mindset to observe and appreciate my dad’s business. For a long time, my dad suffered from a severe gout problem on his knee and had difficulties walking. And yet, he continued to run the business in the best possible way he could. There was a lot of sincerity in what he did and his customers appreciated him for that.

Every little movement he made was not by chance – the picking up of hot water, pouring the milk, stirring in the sugar – it might look swift and effortless, but they were meticulous and intentional movements in his craft.

Observing my dad, it dawned on me that I can have a decent living running a hawker business. After all, my dad put all three of us through university! 

Jack was already out working in the workforce but he decided to join my dad in running the hawker business shortly after. His biggest motivator was making things happen instantaneously – something that’s quite rare in any workforce environment. He currently oversees the R&D Department for Coffee Break. 

As for Anna, my younger twin sister, we lured her in! She’s the most meticulous one amongst all of us, and now takes care of Operations and Human Resources.

Anna, Jack and Faye who runs Coffee Break now at two locations: Amoy Street Food Centre and Hong Lim Food Complex in Singapore. 
Give us a glimpse into a typical day of running a hawker business

6.30 am – Preparation work starts early. We get the water boiling, and lay out our ingredients and equipment for the coffee, tea and electrical toasters.

7.00 am – We do a taste test and a quick little huddle with the staff to catch up on what’s new, current promotions, and the day’s goals

7.30 to 10.00 am – Open for breakfast. With WFH, breakfast orders usually start at 9.00 am

12.00 pm – We schedule staggered lunches for full-time staff of about 15 minutes each. The Sai siblings will use lunchtime to reply to any queries from our website or to repost any tagged Instagram Stories and Posts.

2.30 pm – Last orders. The store is closed for pack down. 

4.00 pm – End of the day at the hawker centre 

5.00 pm – Collate and prepare online orders to ship the next day. 

6.30 pm – Quick staff meeting before dinner to tally the day’s operations from both stalls.

The term hawkerpreneur is just a fancy word to describe the typical hawker owner’s daily hustle that has not changed from the get-go.

What are the initiatives that you and your siblings launched to modernized Coffee Break? 

Launch of Coffee Break logo to increase brand visibility

We are located within Singapore’s CBD area, and having people walking back to their offices with our logo emblazoned takeaway cups serves as walking free advertisements. Win-win!

Operating Systems 

I used to write down orders manually, which is a very counterproductive process. Imagine running back and forth from customers to the kitchen every time a new order comes in. Inspired by Starbucks and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, it took us six months to find a suitable vendor to set up a POS and kitchen display system to fit our compact stall space in 2015.

Launch of

The website was launched three years ago, followed by our online store two years ago.

The website was launched three years ago, followed by our E-store two years ago catering to customers and corporate orders. 

We did everything on our own, from photographing all the products ourselves to delivery. When the pandemic hit, we quickly sourced for packaging with sealed lids for our hot drinks and launched our bottled cold drinks range. 

Partnership and Catering services 

We cater to events and businesses of various sizes and locations with live traditional Kopi (Coffee) and Teh (Tea) Brew-station available!

If I wanted to open a hawker business today, what would you tell me? 

I would tell you to explore all avenues of opportunities because the landscape has changed. 

We can be considered an established name within the CBD however, we still have to find ways to reach out to people outside of this area, even as small as Singapore is. 

We had hoped that the UNESCO listing would serve as an exposure boost internationally. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen for at least the next two years. Locally, we’ve been approached by local hawker tours to add us as a stop.

Coffee Break’s Matcha Coconut spread, available on E-store
Are there any other avenues that Coffee Break is exploring? 

Yes, the WFH (Work from Home) culture has opened up new opportunities. Care packages are one of them. Offices still want to make sure their staff are cared for. That has been an emerging business for us, and we need to have the capacity to meet the demands quickly enough as they are usually expected to be fulfilled within the same day!

Inter-hawker collaboratives such as Instagram takeovers and reaching out to audiences that we would not be able to. We recently collaborated with Renmin Singapore, a modern craft beer brewery, which was quite fun! 

What are your views on how the media portrays the hawker businesses of our times?

These days, the story of the degree-holder or the person from a high-paying position turning from their glamorous corporate life to become a hawkerpreneur is overdone. It’s too celebrated and somewhat a skewed view. To many of us, the decision to run a hawker business is a practical one.

When my grandfather came to Singapore from China and started his coffee shop, he just wanted to provide for his family. The business propelled forward when he introduced our now signature Nanyang coffee. My father was the one who innovated the product with new coffee flavours such as almond and hazelnut. And now that we’ve taken over, we introduced new offerings, like our best selling Sea Salt Caramel Latte that’s been a popular favourite for the last ten years.

To someone who learns about us in 2021, this might seem new. But to our regulars, it is a staple already. The term hawkerpreneur is just a fancy word to describe the typical hawker owner’s daily hustle that has not changed from the get-go.

Any words of encouragement for the future hawkers? 

It may sound very cliche, but my greatest enjoyment is interacting with my customers. I enjoy knowing that they appreciate our coffee and their gestures of appreciations are why we are doing what we do. 

And not to mention, I get to have a free flow of coffee!

This interview has been edited for clarity. Words and interview by Theri Burhan. Edited by Lim Aileen. Image credit by Coffee Break Singapore 

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