Setting up a business abroad is never easy, especially one in the hugely competitive F&B industry – but the owners of easy café have made it look effortless. Look on Tripadvisor and you will find patrons raving about the food, service … and of course good wifi.
The owners of easy – Javier Phua and Melissa Koh, dreamt of making Yangon, Myanmar their new home when they first visited in early 2013. They embarked on their new journey in October that same year with an unpretentious idea to create a ‘home away from home’.
In December 2013, easy café opened with a single-minded objective – to ‘make it easy, take it easy and have it easy’ for every guest that wanders into easy neighbourhood, be it for a cool tea beverage away from Yangon’s sunny tropical climate and to tantalize their tastebuds with easy’s array of Asian-Western fusion gourmet delights.
LadyBoss spoke to Melissa and Yingzhen to learn more.
Q: Tell us about your business, how long you’ve been doing it, and who your customers are?
A: easy café is one of the first cafes that initiated a wave of cafe set-ups in Yangon. Melissa and Javier started the first branch almost 3 years ago and Yingzhen and Wan Wan joined the easy team as partners for the second branch in December 2014. Our customers were mostly foreign expats and tourists initially, but we see a change in profile recently, with more and more local customers patronizing our cafes, attributed to growing affluence here.
easy café was incepted in December 2013 with a single-minded objective – to create your ‘home away from home’ café-restaurant catering to everyday folks. Incorporating a focus on warm, cosy and inviting with tasteful aesthetics to please and delight, we draw in people seeking a place to refresh, gather or work (with internet connectivity provided), indulge in comfort fine food, pastries, desserts and enjoy our the newest addition, Specialty Coffee.
Q: What were you doing before entrepreneurship?
A: Melissa: Before embarking on this entrepreneurship journey in Yangon, I was a Deputy Constituency Director with the People’s Association. My portfolio included organising events that promote racial and religious harmony, community bonding and neighbourliness, stakeholders’ management, public relations and facility management.
Prior to that, I worked in a non-profit organisation that assist youths at risk and youths with physical disabilities. Food has always been my passion which led me to experiment and create recipes. Those recipes formed the bedrock and beginnings of easy’s menu.
Yingzhen: Previously a relationship manager in the finance industry, a great part of my job was to maintain good relationships with the clients and at the same time, ensure the quota and targets were met. I have always value interpersonal skills and it also drives me to be very service-oriented now, which is great, because our café customers will not only develop a sense of attachment to the place but to us owners too.
Being one of the last emerging markets, there has been a boom in mobile usage recently and almost every person with access to Internet has a Facebook account.
Q: In terms of sales and marketing, how do you reach your customers, and what works?
A: With social media being very popular now, we find effectiveness in reaching out to the local customers through online-marketing. Being one of the last emerging markets, there has been a boom in mobile usage recently and almost every person with access to Internet has a Facebook account. But most of all, word of mouth has been our best marketing tool, especially among the expatriate community.
Very positive reviews on TripAdvisor and accolades attained like Winners for Best Café 2015 and 1st Runner-Up for Best Café 2016 by Myanmore (leading events publisher) set us up well for reaching our audience.
Q: What is your best-selling product/service?
A: Amongst the many offerings (Braised Pork Rice, Granola Yoghurt, Pulled Pork Burger, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Super Juices etc) that have resonated and became popular with the regular customer base of easy, we are starting to see the uptake in demand and appreciation for our in-house roasted Specialty Coffee by Gentleman Coffee Roasters (started by the same team behind easy).
Carefully curated and selected imported and locally-sourced Specialty-Grade beans purposefully roasted (usually light to medium roast) to highlight the origin character and thereafter meticulously brewed to perfection is what distinguishes us from other cafes. We think coffee consumption and appreciation will continue to grow hence we are positioning ourselves to be at the forefront of this phenomenon.
We envision easy and Gentleman Coffee Roasters becoming an established household brand name frequented by everyday folks.
Q: Where do you see the future of your business?
A: We envision easy and Gentleman Coffee Roasters becoming an established household brand name frequented by everyday folks. In terms of coffee, we are the premier purveyors of Specialty Coffee and the forethought leaders when it comes to innovative coffee products.
To achieve all that, it involves scaling up with more new branches to make easy more accessible and increase the brand visibility, continue raising the quality of our existing products, develop more ‘home-run’ products, build a stronger team and structure the organisation for growth. There is much work to accomplish to attain the milestones set forth in our ‘vision roadmap’ but it’s equally important that the team enjoys every step of the journey together.
The initial set-up was challenging due to unfamiliarity in a foreign place. We had trouble finding the right contractor who could materialize our ideas and also sourcing for supplies, in terms of equipment as well as food ingredients.
Q: Tell us about your Number 1 business challenge?
A: The initial set-up was challenging due to unfamiliarity in a foreign place. We had trouble finding the right contractor who could materialize our ideas and also sourcing for supplies, in terms of equipment as well as food ingredients.
What we find most challenging however, having overcome the set-up, is actually HR. We feel the constant need to find a balance between imposing work environment to our standards and also at times, having to give in to accommodate the way of thinking of our local staff.
But at the end of the day, we are heartened that we have established a strong relationship with our group of core staff who understands our expectations and also whom we hope have benefited from being part of the easy team.