Coffeeshops are usually open-air affairs, some resembling mini food courts that are packed with a handful of food stalls, and usually on the first floor of the ubiquitous government-built apartment complexes that span whole blocks. While Singapore coffee culture today also thrives in hawker centers — essentially, sprawling outdoor food courts — and in a growing number of spiffy, sometimes air-conditioned, where the setting at such places tends to be colder that builds the eating and drinking perfunctory.
They hardly resemble the coffeeshops that first proliferated in this former British colony in the 1900s, created when Chinese men who had been hired to cook in expat homes began leaving and opening coffee shops to offer cheap meals to a growing working class. These Chinese cooks introduced the British habit of drinking coffee to Singaporeans, along with staples like toast and eggs for breakfast. The coffee served in Singapore was unlike any found in Western coffee shops because the cooks could often afford only cheap beans. Thus, they enhanced the coffee aroma by wok-frying them with butter (or lard) and sugar.
To operate a coffeeshop was a tough calling. Long hours, low profit margins, and the constant search for suitable labour was a source of worry and stress. Most coffeeshops therefore started as, or became, family-run businesses -- often husband and wife assisted by children or close members of the family. Structure and operation was typically that of a traditional family business, and therefore thin on formal planning or training. Often, the business would be handed down father to son.
From the turn of the 1900s to the Depression Era of the 1930s, Singapore was in economy slowdown, and many hotels closed. Many Hainanese and Hokkien who worked for the British, and had accumulated some savings, decided to seize the opportunity. They took over the vacant buildings left by the Japanese hoteliers at a low rental, and set up coffeeshops to cater to the average- and low-income workers.
During the early years when employment rate is low, and in order to survive, migrants then come together with a start up. Its operating timing can start as early as 5am and to only call it a day during the night around 11pm. During that period all workers will be wearing white t-shirt or single and pocketless pull-string pants to work. The main reason for not having a pocket is to prevent the coffee boys during those olden days to steal the money collected.
They sold coffee and tea, cakes, breads, and half-boiled eggs. The startup costs were minimal, as the coffee shop interiors were kept fairly basic with simple marble tables and chairs, a cashier counter, ceiling fans, and a large glass display cabinet with an assortment of heavily-creamed cakes. The most crucial appliance of all perhaps was the Rediffusion radio. This toaster-size box exerted a pull out of all proportion to its size: with a continuous stream of news in several dialects, folk tale reading, and music, it was the cable TV of its time that attracted the workingman in droves.
The coffeeshop “concept” took off. A charcoal fire was used to toast slices of bread in the coffee shop, and the coffee pot was kept warm by being placed over the grill. Prices were cheap, and those who were on a really tight budget could even order a half-cup for economy. The tea served at the coffeeshops was normally brewed not using tea leaves but tea powder at the lowest of grades that are disguised with the flavor of condensed or evaporated milk. Ovaltine and cocoa were beverages reserved for the rich or a luxury for special occasions. Milo and Horlicks were yet unheard of.
During those days, besides having coffeeshop, there are also vendors selling food such as Wonton noodle, chicken/pork porridge, etc. along the streets which is also well known back then as street hawker.
Besides selling food and beverages, coffeeshops back then would also organize events such as Bird Singing competition. Bird owners who won the competition will win prizes such as coffee, toast or biscuit from the coffee shop owner himself.