Even between independent cafes, there is nothing but healthy competition.
Zekry Mohd Nor, 30, one of the founders of independent coffee shop Mollydookers in KL, says they even share baristas with some cafes.
“The community is still new, so we tend to talk to each other and share tips,” said Zekry. “We talk a lot on social media, and we visit each others’ shops, just for support.”
One of the best examples of how well independent food businesses in the Klang Valley work together is the time Mollydookers did their first event, a hot air balloon fair in Putrajaya.
“That’s where we first met The Last Polka. They were there with their chiller and ice-cream bell,” he recalled.
Disaster struck when Mollydookers’ coffee machine broke down, right on the busiest day of the fair, when it also started to rain.
“It was total chaos. There was a really long queue building up, so May and Ee Vee offered to help. They tore up pieces of cardboard and started going through the line taking orders for us!” said Tsarina Tajuddin, who alongside Zekry and Hashraf Hashim make up the trio behind Mollydookers.
Tsarina also said that many independent bakers had given them free cakes as samples for their customers along with their business cards. If the customers like what they’ve tasted, they could surf to that baker’s website to order more.
One of the main ideas behind starting an independent food business might be small scale productions, but that means big work loads.
Whisk, for instance, is open from 10am to 10pm. After they close up, they go home to bake stuff for the next day, and they deliver everything themselves in the morning.
“Being indie isn’t about being cool, and getting to do whatever you want. There’s still a bottom line, it’s still a business. A lot goes in to it. We don’t have the freedom to leave whenever we want,” said Nora.
The good thing, however, is that the financial barrier to entry is relatively low with independent businesses. Zekry says it took them around RM150,000 to start Mollydookers, and most indie businesses would not even need a physical store like theirs.
Michelle Pong, 25, who owns independent restaurant Fat Spoon in Petaling Jaya, adds that she didn’t have to spend anything on marketing – everything just happened on social media.
“All of (the marketing) happened through blogs and word of mouth. They really helped, versus what my mother wanted. She told me to print flyers and hand them around, but I said, ‘save your money’,” she said.
What you do need to invest in, however, is knowledge.
“We bought books on how to start a cafe, and I even signed up for a barista training course in Melbourne. Before that, I used my BonusLink points to redeem a small coffee machine to practise, and tried to learn as much as I could from YouTube,” said Hashraf.
But of course, at the end of the day, no matter how tough it is, chances are you’ll enjoy the ride.
“It’s all about discovering your potential, about being creative,” said Ee Vee. “You’ll probably work more hours (in an independent business) than you do in a corporate job, but you’ll have much more satisfaction. It’s better to have taken the risk and failed, than to have not tried at all.”