Hello! My name is Swee Heng, I am the co-founder of The Coffee Roaster Group. We currently run a café based in NUS as well as an academy specialising in corporate coffee workshops. The TCR Story is far from romantic – if it were a book, its pages would be stained with sweat and tears.
Coming from a single-parent family, it was tough financially. We always wished for the day we could finally break free of the constant cycle of worrying about whether we had enough to survive each day.
One of my fondest childhood memories was my mother’s handcrafted cookies. During one festive season, I asked if we could start selling them to our friends and neighbours so that we could have enough money. After drafting a simple order form, I started knocking on doors. Some were nice and supported me, others were not. I always thought door slamming was a thing you saw on TV, until I experienced it myself! This was how the seeds of business were planted in me.
2014 was the year we took the leap of faith. My mother and I decided to pursue a business in specialty coffee, as we both had a huge passion for coffee. Our first outlet was a small coffee bar located in International Plaza. We started with zero experience, in terms of technical knowledge and running a business. So you can imagine how steep the initial learning curve was!
Very soon, we realised that the reality of running a business was different from expectations. We found ourselves working 16-hour days, doing anything and everything we could to keep the business afloat. Competition was very stiff; not only did we have to compete against other specialty coffee shops, we also had to compete against local coffee shops.
All this happened when I was still studying in university! Shuffling between school and work was a nightmare. Sometimes, things will crop up at the shop and I have to get out of class to either make calls or make my way out to resolve these issues. There were huge sacrifices made – sleep, weekends, personal time, outings with friends, etc.
At the end of the two years, we were left exhausted. We found ourselves asking if it was all worth it, and just as we were on the brink of giving up, we were awarded the opportunity to operate the café at the new AS8 building in National University of Singapore. This was a major turning point in the TCR journey, as we now have a much larger stage to showcase our coffee. We soon evolved to become one of the highest volume specialty cafes in Singapore, as well as a frontrunning coffee academy focused on corporate team building workshops.
I stepped out of my comfort zone once more when I decided to take my personal skills to the next level. In 2018, I signed up for the Singapore Latte Art Championships, pitting my latte art skills against some of the finest baristas in the nation. It was a difficult decision – participating and preparing for the competition meant I had to give up other business opportunities. Furthermore, insecurities plagued me – Am I good enough? Will I embarrass myself? I decided, nonetheless, to rise to the challenge. I began intensive preparation for the big stage, and I saw marked improvement during the process of preparation.
Today, connecting with the community has become an important mission, as TCR becomes heavily involved in social causes. We conduct customised coffee workshops for participants from Singapore Children Society, Singapore Cancer Society, Lion Befrienders, etc. We have also launched our latest project “Social Brew Friday”, in which we raise funds for beneficiaries in our partner VWOs through hand-brewing specialty coffee. TCR’s social objectives are actually an extension of my personal philosophy of gratitude. I believe the hardest thing to make in this world is to make a difference, and I find it particularly meaningful to create experiences that bring smiles on the faces of many others.
Being an entrepreneur has taught me the resilience needed to weather storms, and the humility in understanding the wealth of knowledge that still awaits us. When we are going through challenging situations, we may have to endure extended periods of hardships. But always remember, difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations.