Conversations with Benjamin Tan

Benjamin is the founder of Rickshaw Coffee, a coffee delivery service that aimed to bring authentic drip coffee to audiences such as senior citizens. He has recently expanded his business to include Gosip, a community-based café that allows its customers to have rather free rein of its space usage! Benjamin tells us how it is like running a café that can serve as one’s jamming studio or dance floor.

By Luo Dan and Nicole Shiu

In the morning, I’ll always send my son to my mum’s place. I make it a point to get him with my parents or my in-laws because it’s important for the education of my son because family always comes first. 

Work is not just about what I’m doing here [in Gosip]. It starts from the moment you wake up. So it’s a discipline that I make that I educate my son with family values. To me, this whole business anchors on values so when I step into Gosip, usually what I start off with is making the first cup of coffee — that’s not for me — for my team. So we always practice that. We cook and we eat together. It’s important. No doubt we can’t do that for every meal because sometimes we’re busy, but we make it a point that the little family gathering is important. 

Right now we have 5. We just added one more. I don’t really look at us as a company, even with staff who have just joined us. What we take to heart is that it’s important for the staff to be owning the business. When I say ownership, I mean they actually care enough to act. It’s an intrinsic motivation that we’re looking for. It’s very automatic, even with our oldest employee, who’s 67, Aunty Jane. 

She used to be my boss more than 20 years ago when I was part timing at Starbucks. Now when she’s older, the tides have turned but she’s still like my mother and boss. She’ll nag at me and say, “Hey, Ben, you can’t do this. You must follow this and you must do that.” That’s what I appreciate a lot. Because sometimes when you’re running a business, your partners are all young so [with her], we’ll have a perspective that’s very different. The older people have experienced a lot. They’ve seen a lot so they’ll help things take care of the things you usually neglect. 

The people — the customers. The people in the cafe brings life to it. They make coffee taste good, not us. A lot of people think it’s about the technicalities of making a very perfect cup of coffee but for us, the coffee is not made good by us, and the pizza is not made good by us. It’s the people who make it taste good. A customer’s interaction with you will allow you to understand that better. In turn, when you put in effort, it goes into the food. I believe in that. It’s a philosophical thing we take in perspective. You can be like my pizza chef, Sebastian — if you call him to make pizza and teach someone the exact same techniques — you could follow the entire process step-by-step, the flavour will never be the same. It’s not that there is a secret technique. It’s about really always listening to the customers.

When we set up this business for Gosip, the initial business was Rickshaw Coffee, which we are still running. Gosip is a cafe space. The idea of our business is to always be community-based. A lot of people are now in the social enterprise sphere but in a community based business, your aim is to work with the direct community around you. We work with the stakeholders, like Pet Lovers Centre (a neighbouring shop), so everyone around you is a customer and a friend. When you become close enough, we all support each other. It’s not just about recommending customers, they come over to patronise from you, start conversations and share new information with you to help you with your menu. 

For example, when we started the stall, we left the wall empty, and we had no menu. We didn’t even have a fridge or coffee maker. And we just opened a blank stall. I didn’t even have a signage for two weeks. That’s when we invited the customers and they asked us, “What are you?” And we said, “What do you ​think​ we are?” Day by day, week by week, we added more things to the walls and tabletops. And they asked us, “Are you a cafe?” And we were like, “Maybe?” And then it came to the point where we put frames on the wall and people said, “Oh, you’re an art gallery.” “Maybe.” Over time, people started to define this space should be. Yesterday, when we were having a birthday party, a boy asked if this is a cafe and I said, “What do you think?” And he said, “I don’t think so.” This is a common thing that happens here in Singapore: we like to name something and make it ​that​ forever. A space can be transformed. A cafe space or a open space or a void deck can be transformed into anything. A home can be transformed into a cafe.

It’s a matter of perspective. From the business perspective, the idea is always to look at the strengths of, not only people, but also the spaces and the objects around you. Everything is a interaction that can connect people. That’s where Gosip comes from. We purposely dropped the ‘s’ in ‘gossip’ because it’s either ‘go sip’ or ‘gossip’, and it’s up to you to define it. 

That’s the idea behind it. We don’t want people to name this a cafe. We want them to define the space as what it is. Parents can come here to relax if they need, and they can come here to do work if they need. People can come here to work, meet friends, or be an artist for the day, just draw on the wall. If you want to break dance, we’ll clear the tables and you can dance in the middle, and this will be your dance floor. This is the old basketball court wood (referring to floor). Maybe you want to magnet things on the wall and do a marble run, make this place a science lab. Maybe you want to make it a jamming studio so you add some drums and piano and start to jam; play some music and change the atmosphere again. That’s what defines us as people — being able to create. It’s not just about consumerism. It’s about creating value.

Yes. So when we started, we brought in some gramophones. I placed art materials in another corner. Different tables had different things that is just random. We had interest books, magazines, art and craft materials and colouring books. Then we started to observe and see what people picked when they stepped in. So this process iterates every day. Even when I’m here, we notice what the customers are trying to do. In essence, we’re a dance studio. We provide a blank space, and the people fill it up. They create what it should be, and what it can be. 

I suddenly see that people have started writing at the sides of the tables, which happens. It takes time for people to understand how you can play with the space. If you sit here long enough, you’ll notice parents don’t walk in first, the kids walk in first. Because kids don’t have preconceived notion of play. If you observe how children play, they’ll teach you a lot. For you to feel comfortable in a space, you need to understand it first. Kids take to a space immediately. Why? They don’t have understanding of the boundaries that this is a cafe. They don’t see a boundary because this floor is different from the floor outside. It’s all the same to them. It’s called a floor. Just walk in. Do as you wish. 

Many a times now, people feel like an invitation must be given to come into a space. Kids actually cross this boundary and create what this invitation should be. They sometimes don’t seek permission. Sometimes, we put too much restrictions on people to the extent where they wonder, “Should I step into this space? Is it safe to even step into a space like this?”

That’s how we decide who our target audience can be. The idea is that if you’re curious enough to ask “Why is the ‘s’ missing?”, you will step in. Or if you’re curious enough to find out what’s on the wall because you see a duster sticking there. Curiosity then sparks creativity. Many a time, that’s the thing that lacks so what we want to do is arouse curiosity and the kid in everyone again. So the learning becomes natural so you don’t need a program, or facilitation or some to say, “Sit down. Learn.” It will become so natural that you will start to pick things up to interact and start to play. Do you see the way that [those kids] are playing? These are the things adults wouldn’t do. 

Balancing books, finance and operations of the cafe, to even set up this space in the initial days, like raising capital, and to even articulate this concept. Because it’s totally new to people. We had to build the confidence of everyone. Even when I told the others that we’ll be having pizza here, they asked, “Will people even eat pizza in this small space? People don’t seem to be eating pizzas.” End of the day, it was growing the audience. That’s something that people have to understand is the toughest part of the business. The first and second months, you have to build up that audience and talk to and educate the customers, and get them to understand and be familiarised with our concept and philosophy that we have. Once you get through to them, they become your friends. And what we’ve learnt is that there are a lot of retired educators, teachers around the area. They are very attracted to the space because they’ve seen these (referring to interior decoration) for 40 years of their lives. These are actually from old basketball court; timberwood is used in all school halls in Singapore. They’ve seen whiteboards for 40 years of their lives-it’s because they see things very familiar to them, that’s why they step in.

Very simple-talk to the old folks. We started Rickshaw coffee giving coffee to old folks in the community. There was no intention to make it a business. This rickshaw (referring to rickshaw placed near entrance of cafe) was actually from the same place where we started our business at St Luke’s ElderCare all the way at Pandan Gardens. They actually bring old folks out for rickshaw rides. The guy on the rickshaw (printed on the coffee bag) depicts how we started the business. We were going out to make coffee for seniors. When we started off we used a paper drip bag that we hooked onto a cup. We thought that was convenient for them because they wanted a Kopi O Kosong that was really good, so we bought an authentic blend for them. Then when it started to drip at first the first thought that we had was that old folks had a lot of time because they are retired. Truth be told, we were told off-”You guys think we’re very free? No, we’re very busy people with our schedule lined up for the day, having to take care of the grandchildren and cook for the family. Old folks need something fast and snappy. So the people who had time for such things are the youngsters, the moms and dads.” That’s when we realised we had to make a coffee that was almost like an instant coffee, except we use pure coffee grounds. So that’s when Rickshaw Coffee started to make bags. As we progressed and started to go into different communities, they started to tell us that maybe we should consider making this into a business. The structure of the delivery services we started off with was actually from the guy on the rickshaw, who is not me. He was a criminal I used to arrest; I was a police officer many years ago. His name is Lee. He used to take bicycles to run away from us because he was selling heroine, but he delivers heroine in packs, so that business model was his. Now he’s fifty plus. He rides this rickshaw (referring to rickshaw in cafe) now to bring old folks around in communities. The same trait that you have can be used for both bad and good, so it’s about knowing yourself. When you’re doing bad things it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person.

I have a lot of values in my value system, but if I pick the top three, the first one is always integrity. I think integrity has helped me throughout my life-when you don’t know something, just admit that you need someone to teach you and help you and be willing to learn. If you try to bluff your way through, people will know and they won’t be willing to teach you anymore. 

The other value is kinship. I value family a lot, my family is beyond my immediate nuclear family. To me family is a community and family is another value. To me, a community exists only when everybody cares about the space-no matter what, even a criminal will care about his space. For example, if somebody is selling heroine in one area, and you have another one that’s trying to come into his space, he will bother to report the fellow to the police. Why? Not because of his clientele, but because his own family is in the area. In adversity, people start to realise what’s actually important to them. Right now if your house is on fire, your neighbours would definitely come to help you, not because of the worry that the fire would spread to them but because people do care about one another. Some things we neglect and only see them in certain moments. That’s what I do in my work a lot-I push for people to be aware about such things because when you do it in times when it is bad, it’s too late. You need to build that social capital way before, and I hope people realise what community is about. If you have that in you and the time is right, the spark happens, that actually creates exponential growth in anything that you do. It’s not just family related, it can be in business or in life.

I don’t look so far into the future, but we’d probably have Gosip! with another exclamation mark at the back. I’m hoping that our business would grow into an advocacy piece that would reach out to more people. Maybe we’ll be expanding beyond food, going into more of play, because the idea of playing and having fun is still more key than food alone. But of course you’d still have to serve food, that’s the basis. I hope that other people will see us as an inspiration, to see more people doing similar things and innovate. It doesn’t have to be under us or with us.

I wish I was advised to start earlier. I actually first wanted to go into this line of work 20 years back when I met Aunty Jane working at Starbucks. That was when I was only 19. I considered starting my own cafe immediately, but then I went to NS and joined the police force, where I spent about 8 years. I wouldn’t call that wasted time, but when you’re younger, you have more tenacity and energy to do more things. For example, at this age, when I write on the wall [in Gosip] or draw murals, I get body ache the next day. Being in the F&B business can be very physically draining and this is something I think a lot of people don’t understand until they’re there. Besides physical stamina, you’d also need to multitask–after making a cup of coffee, you’d have to jump back to doing your accounts. The focus level you have for one task is less, meaning a task that you could have taken one hour to do may now take twice as long. These are things that are actually highly draining over time, so I think that’s something that’s good to know. If I can give advice to my younger self, I would also want to tell myself to dabble more in the arts. I wanted to become a comic artist but failed. If I can rewind the clock, I wish I had the opportunity to further explore the creative side of myself. I nearly lost all my abilities to draw, but after starting Gosip and drawing to decorate the place, I realised there was so much potential I could explore. That’s why now I also provide Gosip as a platform for the younger ones to draw, be it with the materials provided or on the chalk walls.