Opportunity won over timing for sisters Chelsea and Valerie Liew, who had been looking forward to setting up shop together. When they came upon a shoplot for rent last December, they grabbed it, Covid-19 notwithstanding.
“We really liked the location and the owner gave us a pretty good deal. We had been planning this for a year and didn’t want to miss the opportunity,” says Valerie, explaining why they opened Fine Coffee and Flowers in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur.
Chelsea, who has five years’ F&B experience, helms the food side of the business, with an aunt leading the kitchen team. Valerie is a newbie inspired to switch from selling fashion to flowers after accompanying a friend to floral arrangement classes about three years ago. They share the operations workload and are flexible: On busy days, everyone rolls up their sleeves and mum drops by to oversee things.
Having dual operations in one space makes good business sense. “We share the rent and customers. Those who walk in for food are drawn to the blossoms spread on Valerie’s side of the shop,” says Chelsea. And vice versa, her sis adds.
They chose ready, affordable but quality materials for the décor — concrete tops for the coffee and flower bars, and cement flooring. The chairs and tables were custom-made by local manufacturer PM Woodwork and the coffee cups came from Bangkita Ceramic Studio.
There was no compromise on how the interior should look: Neutral colours were used, with blossoms brightening up the place.
Not so long ago, flowers held little interest for Valerie. Now, inspired by stalks, buds and bouquets and after a lot of research and trial and error, she sees them as a chance to translate ideas into tangible creations.
“Meeting expectations is the most intimidating part of the business. Flower orders are made mainly online and Covid-19 has forced me to come up with new ways of doing things. As I go along, I get better.”
People like themed bouquets and bespoke orders because it means sending something thoughtful. Winter colours (pastels) and dried flowers are popular, she notes.
The café, which can seat 40, had a month of dine-in experience before Movement Control Order 2.0 and that was eye-opening. The Korean community around it has been supportive.
The siblings enjoy frequenting cafés at home and when travelling, to see how they are run. They are especially fascinated by such setups in Europe and South Korea, which reflect the cultures of those countries.
Movement restrictions kept them house-bound the better part of 2020, but also gave them time to think of what and how to sell, and work out their ideas. Now settled in, they are positive about coping even though “it’s trying times and we’re still improvising, coming up with new deals”.
On the menu are hot meals and baked treats, classic and comfort foods people look for when they head for a café. All their baking is done in-house. “We try to please,” says Chelsea. The flowers they use to plate savoury dishes or adorn whole cakes add aesthetics to taste.
As for the name of their business, the pair explain that it emphasises their signature coffees as well as the fact that in cooking, the word “fine” is associated with ingredients (for example, fine sugar or chop finely), texture, utensils (fine sieve), taste and quality.
Chelsea studied accounts and finance (Lancaster University programme) at Sunway University and Valerie did international business at RMIT University in Australia. The former has another café in Sri Petaling, a partnership with her cousin. She believes in starting small and developing with care. “I want to establish this space first and come up with new items,” she says when asked about a third eatery.
A personal banker before she ventured into F&B, Chelsea delights in watching patrons walk in. “I get joy from coming up with new dishes, cakes and bread and seeing the reaction of customers.”
Valerie adds: “It’s intimidating to change but we have to evolve. We want to attract followers who will be surprised with what we come up with.”
This article first appeared on Feb 22, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.