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What’s brewing at NTU’s latest hipster café

NTU gets a new buzz with its latest hipster café co-founded by a final-year NTU student. HEY! goes in for a quick caffeine fix
by Foo Jie Ying

For He ChongQing (right), coffee had never been his cup of tea.

It was not until an accidental stint as a barista during his polytechnic days – he was just looking for a part-time gig then – that left his love for coffee brewing.

Today, the final-year NTU economics student is the co-owner of Connect71, a new café at the Innovation Centre. As its name suggests, the café on 71 Nanyang Drive aims to be a cosy space where people can connect over a cup of joe.

ChongQing explains the concept behind the café: “We did a bit of market research and realised that most eateries or cafés in NTU feel very fast-paced, and don't invite you to sit down for too long. There wasn’t really a place here that’s cosy and welcoming, making it conducive to long, slow conversations over coffee. That’s how ideas are generated.”

The result is a warmly-lit, Japanese minimalist interior dotted with vases of eucalyptus stalks and sprigs of lavender. On the menu are three Japanese rice bowls and a dry soba dish that are quick to assemble without compromising on the taste.

Before you write off Connect71 as a place for coffee snobs, ChongQing says the café uses beans with a taste reminiscent of the Nanyang kopi found in coffee shops – a deliberate choice to help the kopi drinkers bridge the gap between traditional coffee and specialty coffee.

The result is a cup of coffee that is full-bodied, highlighted with earthy undertones and a smooth finish, with a hint of burnt caramel. This tinge of bitterness that lingers on the palette is what people refer to as the “coffee taste”.

Setting up the café was a serendipitous affair, says ChongQing, who recalls how it all started with NTUitive’s call in April for business proposals for a café. As the University’s innovation and enterprise company, NTUitive helps to build an ecosystem that fosters entrepreneurship.

After his six-month polytechnic internship at a bank, he knew he would never grind away behind a desk upon graduation. So when the opportunity to be an entrepreneur came along, he immediately roped in a friend and got cracking on a proposal.

“It was quite timely. My friend, Raymond Tan, who used to run two western food hawker stalls, was available. Both of us are interested in the food and beverage industry. So we thought, why not?” says ChongQing with a shrug, adding that his interest in food started growing as well during his barista stint.

With knowledge acquired from previous business management electives in NTU, he quickly put together a business proposal for the café within a week.

“I was ecstatic when our proposal was selected a month later. It was like the beginning of a new phase of life, and gave me a platform to put my knowledge and skills to good use,” says ChongQing. “I couldn’t believe how fast things moved.”

The business proposal was merely the tip of the iceberg. The backend work, from accounting and licensing, to sourcing for furniture and equipment and interior works, proved to be overwhelming.

“I asked my parents for a little help here and there since they are entrepreneurs themselves. They run a company in the marine engineering sector. But I didn’t want to rely on them too much. This is my own company after all,” says the second youngest of six children in the family.

Perks of being a campus startup

One perk of dabbling in entrepreneurship on university grounds is that help is always at hand.

ChongQing says: “NTUitive provided a lot of guidance and mentorship. For instance, they got someone on board to advise us. Along the way, we started to learn things like what kind of lights we should buy, how to install tables, and the intricacies of piping works. I think we became construction experts during this period.”

“Through this experience, I realised NTU actually has ample resources and a supportive ecosystem for students who want to strike out on their own.”

ChongQing is now giving the new venture his best shot, devoting his time to the café between 9am and 9pm, except when he shuttles off for classes. He works on school projects or assignments only after he wraps up at the café.

“Cliché as it sounds, starting Connect71 has actually helped bring theories I’ve learnt in economics to life,” he says.

Aside from the two co-owners, the café is run by two other full-timers, including NTU alumna Priscilla Tay, who helps out with the café’s front-end operations and business development. Six NTU students have been hired as part-timers, and ChongQing hopes they will be inspired the same way he was as a barista.

Running a café requires being hands-on, right down to the washing of dishes, but ChongQing sees this as a rite of passage for any F&B venture.

“If you want to pursue your passion in this industry, long hours is something you can’t run away from. Every job comes with its own difficulties, and F&B happens to be more labour-intensive,” he acknowledges.

Other than some teething issues such as longer waiting times during peak periods, it seems the café is off to a good start. In its first week of operation, the café earned positive reviews for its specialty coffee and grain bowls, including from popular food blog DanielFoodDiary.

“Starting out on your own is definitely tougher than working for somebody. But it all becomes worth it when people say that the food is good, or that they like the coffee,” says ChongQing.

A latté, anyone?