Woon Tien Yuan, 33, is the current director of Killiney Kopitiam, a Singapore heritage brand that has been around for 101 years. (Photo: Kelvin Chia)
Heritage brand Killiney Kopitiam may be known for its coffee and toast, but second generation business leader Woon Tien Yuan is guiding the family business beyond the traditional bricks and mortar stores.
For many Singaporeans, a breakfast of crispy butter and kaya toast, watery soft-boiled eggs and a cup of kopi is somewhat of a morning ritual. Even as the city modernised and transformed through the decades, the kopitiam breakfast has proven to be a cultural mainstay.
Killiney Kopitiam is one of Singapore’s oldest coffee shops, established in 1919 by a Hainanese immigrant from China. Formerly known as Kheng Hoe Heng Coffeeshop, it was bought over by regular customer Woon Tek Seng in 1992, who renamed it according to its location on Killiney Road.
Woon Tek Seng, along with his three brothers, eventually transformed Killiney Kopitiam into a chain of mass-market coffee shops. Today, there are 30 Killiney outlets in Singapore, most of which are franchise outlets with the exception of three that the group owns and operates.
The traditional coffee and toast breakfast may be here to stay, but Killiney Kopitiam has had to modernise aspects of the business to keep up with the times. Leading the charge is 33-year-old Woon Tien Yuan, nephew of Woon Tek Seng and the company’s current director.
PASSION FOR ART
Contrary to what some may think, a role at Killiney was never handed to Woon on a silver platter. In fact, his father discouraged him from joining the company, citing the many challenges that come with running F&B businesses, such as high rental and manpower costs.
“He used to tell me that working in an F&B business is not a fantastic opportunity, and if I had better options outside of the Killiney, I should explore them,” Woon shared.
Instead, after graduating from NUS Business School, Woon started off by managing the family’s art foundation, where his passion lies. The Woon Brothers Foundation seeks to promote art education, art collecting and support the needy. Woon is an avid art collector himself, with his own private art museum located on the second floor of Killiney’s Lorong Telok outlet.
Woon, an avid art collector, got his start in the business by first managing the family's art foundation. (Photo: Kelvin Chia)
“My uncle had a private home museum and I spent many weekends there. That’s where I gained exposure to different kinds of art,” Woon recalled. Woon started off by collecting cultural pieces from around the region, but he has since incorporated modern art into his collection.
A “TWIST OF FATE”
Woon describes his venture into the Killiney side of the business as a “twist of fate”. One day, he was out jogging when he bumped into childhood friend Yau Png Ow, who runs food tech start-up, Hoow Foods.
“At the time, Killiney was having some problems with our instant coffee supplier. I asked if Hoow Foods could replicate our current formula, or even come up with a better version,” Woon recalled.
During a family weekend dinner, Woon brought up Hoow Foods to his father and uncles. “Since we had this problem in the business, I asked them to give my friend’s start-up a chance to prove if they could produce a better product.”