A sip of success at 57

Tasteful design… 1degreeC’s founders, Richard Koh (above) and his wife, Ong Bee Yan, produce their own unique blend of cold-brew coffee and cold tea, selling them in glass bottles with minimalistic designs to appeal to millennials. 

RICHARD Koh was a white-collar worker for most of his life until his circumstances changed in his 50s. He was retrenched from his job of 10 years and that was when he changed his perspective.

A former regional business manager in the IT industry, Richard longed to run his own business but he hesitated as he had a family to support. When he was retrenched in 2016, his golden parachute turned into a golden opportunity. 

“When I learnt that I was retrenched, I was shocked. My first reaction was to look for another job, but given my age, it was not easy. I was concerned about money and supporting my family. That was when I thought of being my own boss,” he shared. 

“My age made me think twice about the venture, but I didn’t want to live life knowing that I hadn’t tried. If I fail, at least I know that I have tried my best.”

His wife Bee Yan joined him as his business partner and the elder-preneurs took a leap of faith to start their cold-brew coffee company, 1degreeC, in November 2016. The name is a homage to Singapore’s location on the world map – one degree north of the equator – and also positions the coffee brand as uniquely Singaporean. Richard added that the “C” stands for “Cold Coffee Company” and “Community”. And they have a rather clever logo as well.

“If you tilt the logo 90 degrees to the left, you’ll see a coffee cup and a spoon!” Richard said with a grin.

Richard and Bee Yan invested a five-figure sum into the business and for six months, they researched extensively on cold-brew coffee by watching YouTube videos and speaking to café owners. The couple also experimented with different types of coffee beans and brewing techniques, and conducted focus group discussions to test their recipes. 

Richard explained that cold-brew coffee is produced from steeping the coffee beans in water at room temperature or cold water for over 10 hours. The result is coffee that is “sweeter, less acidic and gentler on the stomach”. 

Surprisingly, coffee was hardly Richard’s beverage of choice when he was younger. An avid tea drinker, he became a coffee enthusiast after Bee Yan’s love for the beverage rubbed off on him.

He said: “I met Bee Yan in my twenties and we often visited cafés as she is a coffee lover. I gradually learnt to enjoy the drink.”

Like most start-ups in the notoriously difficult food and beverage industry, the couple faced a fair number of challenges.  

“Initially, we wrote in to many café owners to ask if we could supply them our coffee. However, nobody replied; it was very disappointing,” he said.

The resilient duo kept at it and knew that they had to market their product to the millennials through social media platforms. Richard even attended photography workshops conducted by tech giant Apple and a food styling workshop by local food blogger Miss Tam Chiak. 

Soon, Richard and Bee Yan saw the first sprouts of success as customers who tried their White and Black Cold Brew Coffee came back for more.

White cold brew coffee
Thirst quencher… 1degreeC’s best-seller is the White Cold Brew Coffee (centre), which Richard describes as “creamy with a nutty aftertaste”.

At the 2017 Singapore Coffee Festival, they worked hard to attract customers to their booth by adding LED lights to their signboard and hawking their coffee to the crowd. By the end of the three-day festival, they were sold out and had media attention.  

Then the cafés called them. 

Today, 1degreeC has six coffee and four tea flavours that can be purchased online or at The Social Space and Zeppelin and Co. cafés. Unique flavours for the cold-brew coffee include Almond Milk and Masala, while tea-lovers can enjoy the Blue Pea Cold Tea, Basil & Mint Cold Tea, Beetroot & Cardamon Cold Tea, and Bergamot & Cinnamon Cold Tea.

Richard hopes that the brand will become synonymous with cold brew coffee in Singapore.

“Our dream is for 1degreeC to be a household name and eventually, expand overseas. I’m not sure how we’ll get there. For now, I’ll let our coffee do the talking and take things one step at a time,” he said.

For the elder-preneur, running a business is just like enjoying a cuppa – savouring the process, bittersweet though it may be.

You can grab your sip of cold brew coffee or cold tea at www.1degreeC.com.sg.

Article published on 16/05/2019

Special thanks to Central Singapore CDC for making this interview possible.