A Quick Chat with Leon Foo of Papa Palheta
Nothing perks one up from the numbing incapacitation of slumber, quite like the bright notes of a fresh cup of coffee. As we herald the coming weekend—2 precious days given over to an ethos of carpe diem (or bust!)—we speak to Leon Foo, one of the OGs in Singapore’s third-wave coffee scene, and learn a few things about the drink, the business of it, and the man behind it all.
HNW: “There are few things I care about less than coffee. I have two big cups every morning: light and sweet, preferably in cardboard cup. Any bodega will do. I don’t want to wait for my coffee. I don’t want some man-bun, Mumford and Son motherf*cker to get it for me. I like good coffee but I don’t want to wait for it, and I don’t want it with the cast of Friends. It’s a beverage; it’s not a lifestyle.” This statement by Anthony Bourdain railed against the perceived pretension and fetishisation that has come to be associated with coffee culture. Is there still space to say that you enjoy coffee in its various forms without having to become a purist about it?
Leon Foo: Coffee is very much a personal beverage and drinking experience. It goes very much in a cycle where people can start off as purists and eventually want to explore other elements of the drink, and the same can be said for the other way around. From an industry point of view, there will always be different concepts offering customers different ways to enjoy specialty coffee. But regardless of the concept, we all must remember that we are in the hospitality industry, where it’s the customer first, before anything.
Craft culture tends towards those who have the privilege of time, money, education and resources to support these interests. What are your thoughts on a culture of privilege in specialty coffee?
Coffee is an affordable luxury.
Does third-wave coffee culture in Singapore have its unique characteristics?
Singapore’s very much influenced by what’s happening in Australia but recently we see more locally-inspired trends like incorporating local Singapore-style coffee beverages.
What is your best ‘first moment’ of experience with coffee?
When I travel halfway across the globe to visit the farm, and tell the farmer that everyone in Singapore enjoys his coffee. The prize moment is when I hand him a bag of his coffee that we roasted at Papa Palheta in Singapore, and subsequently enjoy a cup together.
You used to be a banker. What made you become an entrepreneur, besides a love of coffee?
It was a leap of faith, but with a fair amount of calculated risk. I also had youth on my side, then.
What is your daily motivation/mantra in life and at work?
I thrive to make a difference—in good and small ways, and sometimes in big ways, if I can. If not, then I question my purpose on earth and the work that I do.
What is your ultimate dream for Papa Palheta as a company?
The company is constantly evolving and pivoting. ‘Ultimate’ is a strong word, but in a greater sense, we seek to connect people with coffee, fostering a sense of belonging across communities.
How do you create and maintain an inclusive and progressive culture at Papa Palheta?
I would like to help make coffee a non-gender and non-sexuality biased industry. Having an empathic approach to your customer, support team and staff is everything. Holding meetings and activities during and after work help, as well as encouraging staff to build strong interpersonal relationships among themselves.
What is a key objective in running your business?
I try to have my staff learn that good service comes from the heart and understand that we need to think of ourselves as a hospitality business when working.
How would you profile the millennial worker in your experience?
They can be challenging to work with, but I love the challenge. Understanding them and molding them as workers is a challenge we took on a few years ago.
Has navigating the gig economy posed any particular challenges for your F&B/service-oriented business?
Manpower issues are a constant in F&B, so we need to take it as part of being in the business, or else think out of the box. But most of our roles still require training and continuity, especially in building good relationships with suppliers and customers, so it is not ideal.
You closed Loysel’s Toy, Coast and Company, and most recently stepped away from Stellar M. How do you know when to scale back and call it a day?
I think with all ventures, knowing when to scale back and up, at the right time is important. One needs to be objective and less emotional about closing businesses. I’ve learnt that trusting people and empowering them is key in handing companies over to new leadership. It is also super important to mentor and soldier in the ranks with them before handing them the baton.
How do you balance being a working father of two young children? What’s the hardest thing about the experience?
I have to constantly keep myself in check—whether it’s spending time on the business or with my family. I wish I had more time in this world.
Take a gander down to Chye Seng Huat Coffee Bar at 150 Tyrwhitt Road, Singapore 207563, open Fridays & Saturdays (9am to Midnight), Sundays & Tuesdays to Thursdays (9am to 10pm) for a good meal and cuppa.
Or choose to make your own at home, and consider a class in coffee roasting, latte art or barista skills at Papa Palheta.