Ernest Tan Wee Kiat

The secret to good customer service is to be happy ourselves.
Discover SIM GE Running a café is a piece of cake for Samantha and Ernest When the heat and humidity gets intense, head towards Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP). At the main gate, turn right and walk to the sports complex and swimming pool. There’s a hideaway café guarded by a rocking horse where you snack on salted caramel tarts, cupcakes, green tea strawberry cakes and lemon meringue sweet as sin, baked by Sam, and sip fragrant-smooth java, brewed by Ernest. The couple who sat for their last RMIT Business Studies exam paper on a Saturday in October 2013, and opened their café the Monday after, have created a perfect home-away-from-home diner with thoughtful clutter and mementos of Audrey Hepburn, a grandfather’s clock and grandma’s lace cloth and tabletop sewing machine. “We liked the look and colour of old furnitures which we believe, helps to give the store a little character of its own. “Sam has an eye for the oldies, be it music or movies. To bring some colours to the store, we decided to print images of these iconic figures that she likes and hang on the walls,” shares Ernest. At the Cupplets Café, watch Sam dish a slice of creamy cake and Ernest prepare the smoothest cup of joe. But Sam’s cakes have not always tasted this good. “When I asked my mum what she thought of my effort, she didn’t answer but gave me a copy of Baking for Dummies book that she bought at Popular Bookstore,” Sam confesses. She tried the chocolate cake recipes in the book and gradually, with passion and verve and watching lots of Youtube video clips on baking, she now bakes stuff that makes you shut your eyes in order to concentrate on the flavour and texture. The couple were no strangers to the makan business. Back in 2009, both were studying in NP for a Diploma in Business Studies course. They submitted a proposal for the poly’s Entrepreneurial Scheme and won a $3,000 grant and the opportunity to be the first group of students to run a fully independent campus cafe for three years in one of the recondite study spaces on campus. They made a decent profit. However, not all journeys were smooth without hiccups. They sold a particular American chilli hotdog that quickly became a favourite with students. “Without warning, the supplier told us there wouldn’t be any more chilli hotdogs from the US,” Sam says. “The loss of the hotdog affected our business because it was the main selling item on the menu. We learnt the crucial lesson that a viable business must not depend solely on one product or supplier.” In 2012, both graduated from NP and went over to SIM GE to study the RMIT Bachelor in Business Management. Their poly diploma entitled them to several exemptions and they were able to complete the Bachelor programme in about one and a half years. While studying at RMIT, Ernest saw a tender notice published by Ngee Ann to run a café at the sports complex. “We submitted our bid and won the tender,” Ernest says. There was only a one-day weekend break between their last exam paper and the opening of the new outlet. Initially, with decorative knickknacks and the rocking horse at the glass door, passers-by mistook the place to be a gift shop, so business was slow moving. “In the first month, we were worried,” says Ernest. “So we added new décor items to emphasise that this was an eatery.” Getting The Word Out Through Facebook and Instagram postings and word-of-mouth, more people came. Today, Cupplets enjoys a steady stream of walk-in diners as well as online and phone orders. On many occasions, the couple could not afford even a lunch break. Their crew include current students from the SIM-University Of London programme, as well as students from NP. The student helpers work a shift that rotates around their timetable because both Ernest and Sam feel that study is more important and should not be affected by work schedule. “To be present behind the counter is an important part of service,” says Ernest. “It is an 'intimate' moment between the time when the customer places the order and the time the food or drink is ready. Within this period, the conversation that takes place is what the whole café experience is about,” Ernest adds. On the money side, the couple’s start-up capital was in the mid-$20,000. The grandfather’s clock, the posters of Audrey Hepburn, the sewing machine table, and even the fridge and oven were from the couple’s own homes. “My dad collects retro stuff and what you see around here are mostly from him,” says Ernest, waving his hand around the room. Oh yes, Sam and Ernest also pay themselves a salary based on market rates. As good students of Economics, they know opportunity cost, that they should pay themselves the rate they would have earned if they were working for somebody instead. What about the lessons they gleaned from their Bachelor course? “Our academic studies were certainly useful,” says Sam. “For instance, we learnt HR Management and applied some of the good practices in managing the temps.” They also express the same sentiments of many other SIM achievers, that is, academic studies build a strong theoretical foundation. Running a small business is almost a hundred percent hands-on. However, when you’re equipped with business management theory and underlying principles, you have inner clarity and you understand why certain activities and tasks are carried out in certain ways. A worker who performs a task with understanding, is always more productive. When asked if they have advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, Ernest says, “Not every idea, work or project is met with acceptance. There will be failure and rejection throughout any journey or process. It is a continuous learning process. For our journey, we are still learning and getting inspiration from things surrounding us such as art and fashion. In time, it will pay off.” Since starting Cupplets, Ernest believes the business and brand has transited through different stages and will continue to do so. “From where we started knowing very little about cakes and decoration, we see a significant growth in how we handle our crafts today.” As they look to expand in the near future, one thing remains certain: they will always retain that homely, cottage feel. Cupplets is open only from Monday to Friday Nothing classy like Breakfast at Tiffany with Audrey Hepburn (top right wall photo) Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home, with music and soft amber light Busy with customers’ food and drinks, Sam and Ernest sometimes have no time to eat Drop by SIM GE’s Social Media Booth (where the ATM machines are located) and treat yourself to cupcakes by Cupplets at our Open House happening on 9 and 10 March 2018. Updated on 06 March 2018