Covid-19: How a thriving coffee business in KL fought to survive even as it was planning to open a bakery

Kenny Mah
Joey Mah of Three Little Birds has worn many hats throughout his career: barista, coffee roaster and café owner – Picture courtesy of Prestine Davekhaw

KUALA LUMPUR, June 7 – When times are good, it makes sense to expand and to diversify. Certainly it seemed that way to Joey Mah of Three Little Birds Coffee and Artisan Roastery at the beginning of the year.

He has impressive credentials: from freelancing as a weekend barista in 2012 to running his own coffee roastery and cafés. Along the way, he has even coached two Malaysian Barista Champions; three-time winners Jason Loo (2014, 2015 and 2017) and Keith Koay (2016, 2018 and 2020).

So it’s no surprise this millennial whisperer would set his sights on a bakery next. Another feather in his cap of Instagram catnips. It even had a cutesy, meme-ready name – Dou Dou – and was scheduled to open a few months ago.

Then, just as things were coming together, came the Covid-19 pandemic and with that the ensuing Movement Control Order (MCO).

Mah shares, “Due to the lockdown, we are unable to complete the renovation. It’s about 70-80 per cent complete but the Covid-19 situation complicated things. Suppliers, contractors, shipping and also manufactures are affected and we are unable to proceed to finish.”

The Three Little Birds outlet at D7 Sentul – Picture by Choo Choy May

Beyond the troubles caused to a new business that was about to launch, now Mah had to worry about his existing businesses. Besides the Artisan Roastery, which retails their roasted coffee beans, there are two Three Little Birds cafés – one at D7 Sentul and one at Desa Parkcity.

With movement severely limited during the MCO and the public still wary and staying at home even as restrictions have eased, serving cups of coffee and selling bags of roasted beans became a huge challenge for Mah and his team.

“We saw a drop of 90 per cent in our wholesale arm and both cafés saw a 75 per cent drop as we are not on any delivery platform. And we felt it was a bit too risky to just jump onto the delivery bandwagon as we are not familiar and not planned for it.”

To compound the challenges, there is the issue of rental as theirs is a brick-and-mortar business. Even if walk-in traffic drops drastically, they still have to pay rental and the various overhead costs accordingly.

For some food-and-beverage (F&B) operators, there have been landlords who offered rental discounts in view of the calamity that has affected one and all. Everyone succeeds and fails together, right?

Mah shares, “With Desa Parkcity, they had been good to us. We had a discussion group where everyone was informed about how bad it is. End of the day, if we are hit, they will be affected as well. But as for Sentul, it’s been rather difficult. We are still in discussion and hopefully the management will be more open to discussion rather than saying it’s their policy.”

Then there is the staff to take into account. Manpower is one of the highest operational costs of a business, particularly for the F&B service industry. Mah recalls, “On the first month, we didn’t see the need to speak to them as we were able to cover the expenses but in the month of April, it was tough.”

The company saw a further drop by about 5 per cent. The dreaded talk became unavoidable: Mah had to speak to his entire team about taking pay cuts to manage the financial bleed.

“But this reduction was based on their ability – from 10 to 25 per cent pay cut. Some may be able to take more than others. And each month I will have a financial review and show them the numbers and how behind we are and we will only cut when we need. It’s important to be transparent and open to them as they are working tirelessly to make things work.”

While Mah had been away about a month before MCO started, he had plenty of time to ponder the situation and plan. He says, “We took a few steps to improve our online presence by introducing more products, bundles and wider range of coffee beans. We also started to bring our producers closer to our customers as we have online sessions to keep them excited of what’s coming.”

Coffee and dark mocha concentrate for home baristas – Pictures courtesy of Three Little Birds

To bridge the gap of any sales drop, Three Little Birds introduced products such as coffee concentrates and big format drinks that are convenient for customers to take away. The idea is for customers to stay at home and be their own barista.

Beyond pure coffee concentrates, available at both outlets, Three Little Birds have also produced a limited release of dark mocha concentrate for those who like a hit of cocoa with their coffee.

Cold brew from Three Little Birds in “big format” one-litre bottles – Pictures courtesy of Three Little Birds

Their signature cold brew beverages made with seasonal beans from Artisan Roastery continue to be popular. To celebrate the recent Hari Raya, they used a washed Ethiopia Arsi to create their cold brew with notes of Fuji red apples, peach tea and dried lavender. These are sold as one-litre bottles as part their “big format” experiment.

As for the future, Mah is cautious. He says, “I think it will never be the same for at least until the end of the year. We have to learn this new way of doing business and survive. We are still unsure how things will change over these few weeks as the government is still trying to figure things out and how to open the economy.”

Mah observes that many of their wholesale customers are opting for delivery platform to push sales. He says, “The reality is not every business can thrive under it. Some margins are lower, and some products won’t be the same when delivered. So it’s a very tricky situation.”

A more pragmatic way forward would be to handle each product line according to the demand of the area and segment. Mah explains, “If we do what we used to do and hope things will be better, we may not be able to survive this. A new way of thinking must be adopted; we have to be smart and think of what’s best for our staff and business.”

And that has to come first beyond any disappointments, something Mah is all too familiar with. Perhaps the cruellest irony is that, even as everyone quarantined at home were busy baking during MCO, he couldn’t open the bakery of his dreams... yet.

Understandably, he was very upset at the beginning but ultimately saw the challenge as an opportunity: from doing more deliveries of their baked offerings and even adding groceries such as flours and cheeses into the mix.

Flours from Dou Dou are used for the wonderful breads and pastries available at One Half x ilaika – Pictures courtesy of One Half x ilaika

Today, flours from Dou Dou are used for the wonderful breads and pastries available at One Half x ilaika, including organic flours. Some are freshly milled from organic wholegrain. Home bakers can even purchase Dou Dou’s flours from the café located in Taman Paramount, PJ.

Where there is a will, there is a way, right? Mah says, “For now, we are producing pastries for One Half x ilaika so we can break even. It’s been tough but I think things will be better soon. And I hope it will be.”

Learn more about Three Little Birds and purchase Dou Dou’s baked goods & flours from One Half x ilaika. For more stories about coffee and cafés, visit lifeforbeginners.com/coffee/.