Optimist Coffee destigmatises mental health issues, one cup of coffee at a time

The café also annually raises funds for suicide prevention hotline Befrienders KL.

Trev Ng, CEO of Optimist Coffee & Bright Side Sandwich Bar (Photo: Kenny Yap/The Edge Malaysia)

The caffeine dependent only truly come alive with that first cup of coffee, a sentiment Trev Ng can appreciate. That blend of aroma, body, flavour, acidity and bitterness can stir the soul and uplift or ground emotions, depending on need. For many, it is a sacred ritual, a pick-me-up or a moment of me-time before or amid the madness of the day. For Ng, it can also be a beacon of hope and well-being.

On his way to work, first at an intellectual property firm and then in the corporate social responsibility department of a large company, Ng used to grab a can of Milo and a Gardenia sandwich as an affordable breakfast but always felt options could be better. After working part-time at a café to get a feel of things, he left the corporate world to pursue a dream: opening his own coffee business founded in the philosophy of mental well-being. Optimist Coffee made its debut in December 2014 at Ampang Park LRT station, targeting commuters and pedestrians in downtown Kuala Lumpur. 

Artisanal coffee was not yet a huge movement at the time, but Optimist Coffee immediately differentiated itself by its spirit of positivity. The takeaway cups and chalkboard on the sidewalk feature messages of positivity, while the word “Believe” crowning the kiosk is much larger than the brand name itself. 


Optimist Coffee in Bukit Bintang (Photo: Optimist Coffee)

“I wanted to be a voice that encourages people to have faith and to believe in themselves,” says the founder. “And this comes across not just in the words we use, but the intangible experiences that we call value-added services. Our coffee is consistently at a high standard, of course, but you need more than just good coffee to survive as a small brand. But that is also where our strength lies. As a small business, we remember our regulars and their orders. We take the time to say hello and how are you, and listen closely to your answer. You leave our kiosks not just with coffee, but also hopefully in better spirits.”

Business was promising enough to spur sister outlets at the Kerinchi LRT station and in Bukit Bintang, as well as the complementary The Bright Side Sandwich Bar at Ampang Park LRT station, which offers a small menu of hot, healthy and affordable sandwiches.

“Choosing that name was intentional,” laughs Ng. “We wanted people to say, ‘Let’s go to The Bright Side for lunch’. Even just saying the name reminds you subconsciously that there is a bright side, there is a chance for things to turn around or for the dark days to get brighter.”

The cause is not a marketing gimmick but a genuine attempt to reach out to strangers who hurry by every day, carrying their quiet burdens. Some of his customers have even come onboard as staff after enjoying their encounters with the brand. One part-timer had such severe social anxiety that the simple act of ordering coffee used to make her panic. Gentle interactions with the Optimist Coffee baristas eventually won her over, and she joined the team for two years and slowly blossomed in confidence with their support.


Trev: "You leave our kiosks not just with coffee, but also hopefully in better spirits." (Photo: Optimist Coffee)

Ng himself had grappled with depression early in his career and wanted to do his part in eliminating the stigma around mental health by shedding light on the issue and normalising such conversations. 

In 2015 and 2016, Optimist Coffee ran the When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade positivity campaign in which customers could trade a lemon for a black or white coffee. The lemons were used to make lemonade, which customers could purchase at any price they like, and proceeds were channelled towards select causes. The lemons were also used to bake treats that were brought to orphanages and welfare homes the team visited. A 2019 collaboration with Lilin+Co resulted in the Optimist Lilin candle. As the local candlemaker advised against a coffee-scented candle, they instead used the glass jars as canvases to spread assuring messages. 

Optimist Coffee also annually raises funds for suicide prevention hotline Befrienders KL through sales of cute and quirky merchandise. During Mental Health Awareness Month in May, they work with the organisation to promote facts about mental health.

“It is important that we break the stigma around this,” says Ng. “There is nothing to be ashamed of in deciding you need help and seeking it. If you don’t feel well, you see a doctor. It’s really the same thing. Statistics show that one in four Malaysians have experienced depression at some time, so it’s a widespread issue. We really need to have these conversations.”


A 2019 collaboration with Lilin+Co resulted in the Optimist Lilin candle. All proceeds went to Befrienders KL (Photo: Befrienders KL)

Urgency around the cause increased when Covid-19 swept our shores and the long-term effects of the pandemic began sinking in. Befrienders reported that over 40% of their calls last year were lockdown-related as businesses, families and individuals struggled with the strain of the prolonged crisis. Ng himself found it difficult to wade through this period but gave himself time and space to acknowledge and accept the situation, and act accordingly.

“What were once the best locations are now the worst locations,” he admits. “Our outlets are all in high-traffic venues, which are now quiet and empty. We had to make some very tough calls, including changing our product offerings and closing certain outlets. Maintaining the team’s spirits was the hardest thing to do with the many uncertainties and financial difficulties, but I cannot motivate the team if I as a leader do not practise what I preach. Mental health is just as important as physical health during a time like this.”

As more Malaysians confront the debilitating effects of poor mental health during these uncertain times, it is more vital than ever that these conversations are held in the open. Optimist Coffee is still promoting Befrienders KL while working on new ideas to encourage those suffering in silence to seek help. 

“We are a small business and our reach is therefore limited,” says Ng. “We might not raise the most funds — just a few thousand ringgit each year — but we really want to use our platform to create more awareness and destigmatise mental health issues. Sometimes just knowing you are not alone can help. No one can do everything but everyone can do something.”

Find out more about Optimist Coffee here. The café is also available on Beepit, Foodpanda and Grab for online deliveries, while The Bright Side Sandwich Bar is on Foodpanda and Grab.

This article first appeared on Jul 5, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.


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