How Singapore's Biggest Kopi Chain Keeps Thriving As Others Shutter

How Singapore's Biggest Kopi Chain Keeps Thriving As Others Shutter

A retired banker in Singapore was looking for his next venture. He found it by reviving a dying trade: traditional coffee shops.

kopi pulled in singaporeMarielle Descalsota/Business Insider
  • Singapore is known for its kopitiams, or traditional coffee shops. 
  • Killiney Kopitiam is one of the most successful chains in the city-state.
  • Founder Woon Tek Seng said catering to the tastes of Gen Zs and millennials is key to growing his business.

Woon Tek Seng grew up in the 1950s and remembers spending mornings at a quaint coffee shop on Killiney Road in central Singapore.

As an immigrant, Woon felt a special connection to the coffee shop. He had moved over from Hainan — an island in southeastern China — at age 3 and felt this was where some of his homeland's culture could be found. He would go on to visit the coffee shop every day for some 40 years.

In 1992, Woon learned that the owner of the coffee shop — Kheng Hoe Heng — was closing the business. Woon was heartbroken. The traditional hand-pulled coffee had served as a comfort to him over the years.

At the time, Woon had just retired from banking and was looking for a new venture. He figured this was it.

He decided to buy the business and revive it. Today, some 30 years later, the coffee shop — now named Killiney Kopitiam — has become one of Singapore's most successful chains.

But while old-school coffee shops are an integral part of Singapore's culture, not all of them are thriving. In fact, there are fewer than ever before.

In the 1950s, over 2,000 traditional coffee shops could be found across the city-state. Today, only 776 remain, according to Singapore's Housing Development Board.

"We try to maintain the standard of the coffee so people can come back all the time," Woon, now 75, told me on my visit to one of his shops.

Woon Tek Seng
Woon Tek Seng, the founder of Killiney, one of the first kopitiams in Singapore. Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

A visit to the original location

I met Woon on a weekday morning at the original Killiney Kopitiam shop.

The store at 67 Killiney Road is one of the oldest coffee shops in Singapore. It's located in the heart of Orchard, Singapore's shopping district. Orchard Road is busy, bustling, and vibrant. It's where you can find luxury hotels, sprawling malls, and quaint shophouses — just like the one the store is located in.

From the outside, the store looks modest, especially when compared to the fancy cafes nearby. There's a distinctive brown canopy at the entrance of the store, faded from the many decades of use. And inside, it has the same old-school feel, with rusty wall fans, tiny, wooden stools, and a well-stocked kitchen.

the exterior of 67 Killiney Kopitiam in Singapore
67 Killiney Kopitiam is the oldest Hainanese kopitiam in Singapore. Courtesy of Killiney Kopitiam

Woon owns the property. Henry Oh, the general manager at Killiney, declined to share how much Woon paid to purchase the old store, but it is likely worth millions today. A similar shop on Killiney Road was listed on December 11 for 9.3 million Singapore dollars, or $7 million, according to the property listing site Commerical Guru.

Singapore's unpretentious kopi culture

Kopitiam, the term used for Singapore's traditional coffee shops, is a combination of the words "kopi," which means coffee in Malay, and "tiam," which means shop in Hokkien, a Chinese language.

One of the things that make Singapore's kopi distinctive is the preparation method: Kopi is made by straining coffee through a sock to make it smoother and more aromatic.

Traditional kopi at Killiney is made from Robusta and Arabica beans that are roasted with butter and sugar and then roasted with sweetened condensed milk. A cup of kopi alone costs SG$2 at Killiney — which is on the high side, as the average kopitiam charges SG$1.20.

Toast on the grill
Toast is put on the grill before being served up with spreads like kaya. Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

Kopitiams are perhaps best known for their traditional breakfast, and Killiney is no exception.

The breakfast typically includes three components: coffee or tea, which can be prepared in over 15 different ways; two slices of white toast smothered with kaya, a coconut jam; and two brown eggs, served in the shell. The runny, soft-boiled eggs come in a bowl where they can be cracked, drizzled with soy sauce, and topped off with white pepper. It's a perfect mix of sweet and salty when the crunchy toast is dipped in the salty egg. At the outlet in Orchard, the breakfast costs SG$8.

eggs, toast, coffee
A typical traditional breakfast at Killiney. Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

A bustling atmosphere

I joined Woon and Oh at an alfresco table outside the shop.

Diners were mostly dressed in flip-flops and shorts, so Woon stood out in his blue button-up shirt and black slacks. He was sipping on a kopi c kosong — the local coffee lingo for coffee with evaporated milk and no sugar — from a white, Killiney-branded mug.

On an average weekend, the 67 Killiney Road outlet sells some 1,000 beverages a day — mostly traditional coffee and tea, Oh said. He declined to share the company's revenue.

Many of their customers, he added, are in their 20s and 30s.

The key to younger palettes? Ice, Oh said — and fusion flavors like matcha and milk tea.

"It's merging tradition and trends," Oh said, adding that kopi is regarded as a local comfort food.

killiney kopitiam
Customers of all ages dining at Killiney Kopitiam. Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

Back inside, locals and tourists were placing orders in the local coffee lingo after perusing the menus plastered on the tiled walls. The scent of roasted coffee beans wafted through the air.

Yutes, a 27-year-old Singaporean visiting from Australia, had on a multicolor wig and bold pink lipstick. She was a sharp contrast to what many might imagine a typical kopitiam's clientele might be.

"It's bloody good, try it," Yutes told her two friends. She told me it's difficult to find authentic Singaporean kopi in Australia, so it's the first thing she has whenever she's home for a visit.

Min, a 21-year-old Australian of Vietnamese descent, told me she enjoys kopi more than the Western-style coffee in Australia.

"It's really strong, and it's similar to Vietnamese iced coffee," Min said.

The kitchen at Kiliney Kopitiam.
The kitchen at Killiney Kopitiam. Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider

A disappearing trade

As chunks of Singapore's traditional coffee shop scene fade away into history, they're being replaced by the same big-name stores you'll find across the globe.

Glossy chains like Starbucks and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf are popular in Singapore; Luckin, a major Chinese coffee chain, has started popping up in the city.

Killiney is one of the rare, small outliers that has managed to cement a spot for itself. It has expanded to 35 outlets across Singapore — most of them in shopping malls — and several overseas, including one in Palo Alto, California. The chain plans to open a second store in the US early next year, Oh said.

But that still doesn't mean it's easy. As Woon put it, "Coffee shops are a dying trade."

killiney road kopitiam
The 67 Killiney Road in Orchard Road. Courtesy of Killiney Kopitiam

Woon's nephew, Tien Yuan, has taken over the reins as the company's director. He said his goal is to keep growing the business while staying true to kopi culture.

"Killiney has always prided itself as a truly homegrown heritage brand that many Singaporeans are proud of," Tien Yuan, 36, told me in an email.

The shop in Orchard maintains its old-school style. Tien Yuan said it's how he'll continue to keep a piece of history alive.

"We kept the old-school look of 67 Killiney Rd outlet to maintain the traditional Hainanese heritage. We think people still look for authenticity," Tien Yuan said.

As Woon prepares for retirement, he hopes Killiney will leave a lasting legacy.

"It's really difficult, but we've built a name for Singapore kopi and made kopitiams popular again," Woon said.