“Everyone deserves a better cup of coffee.
Ghostbird Coffee Co. is a name that is likely to ring a bell with most specialty coffee lovers in Malaysia.
Established in 2015, Ghostbird Coffee started off as the roasting arm of The Owls Cafe and has now expanded to supply other cafes and bakeries.
We recently interviewed Thomas Ooi, founder of The Owls Cafe and Ghostbird Coffee Co. and he graciously agreed to share some insight into his cafe and roasting business with us.
Tell us about yourself. What do you do and how did you get into the coffee industry?
I was in the IT industry and I co-owned a company involved with building network servers.
Coffee has always been my passion and I started experimenting as a home barista since 2010. In 2014, my wife and I took the leap and opened the first Owls Cafe in Bukit Jalil.
The idea back then was simple and sweet – my wife is in charge of desserts and I’m the coffee guy. Looking back now, it was a rather daring venture as both of us had literally zero F&B experience.
The initial two years was really tough and we had to go through a lot of trial and error to get to where we are today.
What made you decide to expand into coffee roasting?
With the expansion of my cafe operations, I wanted to ensure the consistency of the coffee used by my cafes and also to drive down the supply cost.
I quickly learned thereafter that the cost of venturing into coffee roasting was way more than the supply cost saved.
Thankfully, one of my coffee suppliers, Darren was kind enough to be my roasting mentor and I was able to reduce the cost and time needed to learn the ropes.
What inspired the name “The Owls Cafe” and “Ghostbird Coffee”?
Even before opening my first cafe, I have a hobby of collecting figurines and artworks related to owls.
When I needed a name for my cafe, Owls seemed like the perfect theme as coffee keeps us awake at night like an owl!
The inspiration for Ghostbird is simpler. It is the direct translation of “burung hantu” the Malay term for owl.
In 2019, you have just launched the 7th branch of Owls Cafe in Kuching. How did you manage to grow so quickly and stay profitable?
I attribute the success of my cafes to teamwork. Having an efficient and trustworthy team of managers, roasters, baristas, kitchen and floor crew is essential for the success of any cafe.
That’s why I have always believed that it is worth the time and money invested in training and laying out a career pathway for my staff.
Happier staff, less turnover, better customer service and profit will follow.
How has the coffee scene changed in Malaysia since you started?
Consumers are now more informed. Back then, most customers were not able to even differentiate even cappuccino from latte.
Nowadays, people are more discerning about coffee quality and will request for more information about our coffee and food. We have to train our staff to engage with our customers and identify their preference.
For example, previously, we would only ask if our consumer prefers a black or white coffee. Now we go one step further and recommend different blends based on whether they prefer coffee with low acidity and rich body vs bright acidity and more flavors.
What is your roasting principle?
We believe that everyone deserves a better cup of coffee. By better here, we are referring to more than just the flavor.
We consider that a better cup of coffee essentially boils down to not only taste but also food safety. Coffee is an organic produce that is vulnerable to molding and contamination during the entire process from harvesting, processing, storing and roasting.
Our principle is to always ensure that our coffees are safe for consumption through responsible sourcing, storage and proper roasting before embarking on the quest for better flavors.
If someone is interested in opening their own cafe, how would you suggest they begin?
Firstly, I would highly recommend that they examine the reason they wish to start a cafe. It should be more than just for the profit or for a relaxing work environment.
The first few years of running a cafe is tough and one has to be willing to endure long working hours with little to no return.
Once you have ascertained your drive and passion, the next step would be to work out the numbers – rental, cost of supplies, wages, etc. Make sure your investments are enough to weather through at least 1 year of business without any profit.
Also pay attention to human resource management. Hiring your first staff is a daunting process but a good startup team can make or break any business venture.
What’s next for Ghostbird Coffee? Any plans on the horizon that you’re able to share?
Coming from my experience as a cafe owner, one of the biggest headaches is the high staff turnover rate, which makes ensuring that my cafes are manned by well-trained crews at all times difficult and costly.
Our solution to this problem was to conduct short and informal coffee classes at a regular intervals for our staff. In addition to being able to maintain the quality of our staff, we found that these classes also boost their interest in coffee resulting in lower turnover rate.
Recently, we have started opening these classes to our wholesale customers for free. We hope this added service may help solve our customers’ major pain points and improve the coffee knowledge in our industry as a whole.