Whilst an audio-visual technology lover at heart, Robert Chohan’s love of coffee lead to him founding Kopi House; the UK’s first and only Singapore Nanyang Kopi (coffee) company showcasing not only what the local coffee of Singapore has to offer, but how it is different to what many consider the norm here in the UK.
Since 2019, his Kopi House brand has partnered with some recognisable names in the Singaporean food scene such as Mei Mei in Borough Market and Old Chang Kee. The latter is a well-known street food brand from Singapore, attracting not only fans from South East Asian origin but the even typical coffee-loving Brit.
He strives to expose this unique coffee of Singapore to the UK coffee scene, challenging the notion that the Euro-centric world of espresso and filter-based coffee is the norm the world over.
Where did the idea for Kopi House come from?
In 2015 a small team of my audiovisual technicians and I were dispatched to Singapore for a work project, and that’s when I fell in love with the local culture: people, food and drink, architecture, tropical greenery and more.
I had seen Kopitiams (local coffee shops) during this visit but I had no idea what they were, and simply went to places that looked familiar to me (Western-style coffee shops).
It’s only when I went back again in 2016 as a surprise proposal for my girlfriend (now my wife!) that I tried the local coffee – Nanyang Kopi - for the first time.
I’m a lover of all things coffee and for me, it was love at first sip.
Having made many more trips to Singapore since then, I would always bring back the local coffee from different roasters. When I wasn’t travelling there, I’d ask my friends to bring back multiple packs for me.
I realised at some point that this wasn’t a very efficient way to do this. I would run out before the next supply!
So, in mid-Jan 2019, realising I had a little spare time on my hands, I played with the idea of creating a new Start-Up (I have an existing company in the technology sector) and after a little thinking time, I felt I wanted to get involved in one of my biggest loves – Coffee.
I wanted to offer the UK something new, something that couldn’t be found anywhere else, basically something different in what is already a very saturated market. I felt Singaporean Nanyang Kopi was the right product to fit those criteria.
I went through a few different names but ended up settling on the first which is also the easiest to remember – ‘Kopi House’, which literally means ‘Coffee House’ in the local Singapore dialects of Malay and Hokkien.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I work between two companies – Mango AV and Kopi House.
Mango AV is my first company and deals with residential technology and smart home systems.
With two completely unrelated companies that I’m involved in, I’m generally always busy. My schedule is mostly ad-hoc – I do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.
I do however keep most of my heavy workload for Mango AV to the earlier part of the week, and Kopi House to the latter. I find that if I plan more time-consuming tasks this way, I won’t have any clashes in my schedule.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive?
I don’t have any special habits or tactics – I allocate time simply based on importance and schedule everything directly work-related based on deadlines.
I apply the same to both work and private life, but I’m just more forgiving on the private life side if I don’t get things done.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Take more (calculated) risk.
I feel I could have started Kopi House a few years earlier but wasn’t ready to make that jump with the start-up costs.
I really enjoy the industry – Kopi House is the UK’s first and only Nanyang Kopi company, and being the first means we are the premier company representing the Singaporean coffee culture over here, and that’s rewarding in and of itself.
What is the one thing you do over and over again and recommend everyone else do?
To be transparent.
Being clear on what you are after and what you can offer saves a lot of time and hassle for everyone.
If you can cut straight to the point, you can find out if whatever you’re working on is feasible or not, and if it’s worth it.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
The coffee market is very saturated, filled with large commercial roasters, speciality roasters, micro-roasters, and everything in between.
If you want to enter a market, do so with a product nobody else has – differentiate and in turn make the competition irrelevant to your brand. Kopi House offers something outside the world of Western-style coffee.
It means you need to work harder, but if it’s different enough, you can carve out a niche for yourself and develop the brand and product to be recognised in the industry.
What's one trend in the F&B industry that excites you?
The focus on South East Asian food. It was bound to happen at some point and the early signs were there in 2018 when Singapore started to gain more attention on social media as a tourist destination.
With many cultures represented in the country, there’s a huge world of cuisine that wasn’t tapped into and promoted in the UK food scene.
This has started to change from 2019 and many more brands offering local food have started popping up.
What is the best £20 you recently spent? What and why?
I haven’t really bought anything other than food and sweet treats recently!
The last purchase worth mentioning was my polytunnel – I’m an avid allotmenteer so this was something I’ve been looking forward to for a while.
It’s certainly not £20, but definitely my best recent purchase.
What is your favourite quote?
It might sound incredibly cliché but I firmly believe in “Everything happens for a reason” – whatever may happen; good or bad, it happens to benefit you in some way.
Either it’s something you could directly consider a ‘reward’ or it’s a lesson to be learnt – again, something that will benefit you going forward.
What are some of your favourite places to eat at?
London has a lot to offer, the list would be endless. But honestly, I really do like places that offer cuisines based around street food, particularly so of Asian cuisine.
What's the best thing to order from Kopi House?
Our signature product – our Nanyang Kopi Powder.
It’s what I would call a modernised blend of the ‘old style’ of Singapore Nanyang Kopi.
Are there any exciting plans coming from Kopi House soon?
It has been a difficult year due to the COVID-19 pandemic so many plans were put on hold - there were ambitions to speak with some new brewing partners and demonstrate our products to them.
Now that we’re going to reopen from our lockdown, I’d like to hope you can see Kopi House at new brewing locations and retailers.
Plus, soon to be into our third year, we may be considering a limited-edition product!
Read about Dariush Sayyah, the Founder of Athlete's Brew next.