Mouss Kamal opened Penny University in November 2012, after years of working in the corporate world.
Although the artisanal cafe has been opened for almost five years now, not many know the story behind Penny University. In an age where halal food delivery is picking up, we talk to him about the experience of having coffee and cafe food in a proper cafe.
1. The cafe owner and head barista, Mouss Kamal was trained in cafes who started the coffee culture in London (Remember, British people love tea!).
When working in London, Mouss loved hanging out at Flat White, it was one of those places where he would go to first thing in the morning to start his day, and then one of the last stops he would go to. He picked up the taste of coffee at Flat White in London, where he used to work. They were one of the pioneers of good coffee scene there (London lacked a strong independent café/coffee culture ten years ago), bringing what they learnt from New Zealand. As the owner was willing to teach him, he volunteered his time to help out at the cafe.
Most of what he learned was from a café in Soho, London, called Flat White. The owner taught him a lot about the different taste profiles—why coffee from different regions tasted differently and how various methods of pulling shots affects the taste.
The other café in London that he learned from was Prufrock. They taught him the technical aspects of coffee—the calibration, brew ratio, pulling the shots, effect of shot profiles on taste of the drink, and preparation of the milk. Prufrock offers coffee tastings, training and events.
The café that influenced him the most, however, was Monmouth. I used to go there all the time and got to know the baristas who shared with me more about coffee and roasting.
2. After picking up the knowledge, he practiced making coffee for everyone around him. That is passion.
“When he came back from Singapore, I bought myself a La Marzocco GS/3, a home machine that allowed him to practice whatever I have learned in my own time,” said Mouss.
He started making Coffee Sundays where he invited neighbours and friends over to be one of the first people to test his coffees, to the point that his neighbours kept coming over just to get a cuppa from him!
He then brought his coffee machine, the GS/3 to the office to share his love of coffee to his colleagues, clients, and even for those from the neighbouring offices!
“All these experiences making coffee for others trained my palate, which to me, is the most difficult part about being a barista, but not many youth nowadays know that. They come in and want to go straight into making coffee because it’s cool to be a barista and work in a cafe. I ask them to take a step back and just drink the coffee that I make. That’s how I train them,” says Mouss.
According to Mouss, there are so many factors that go into making a good coffee, like the calibration, the steam, texture, and pour of the milk. For him, no two coffees can taste the same, even if the same barista makes it.
[alert style=”darkred”]Read till the end to find out how to learn to make coffee at a workshop by Mouss and his trusted baristas![/alert]
3. Frustrated at not being able to find and taste good coffee, he decided to do it himself.
“Back then in the early 2000s, I was quite frustrated in not being able to taste good coffee. So I decided, I’m going to make and introduce to people what good coffee should taste like. So I sourced for beans from local roasters and decor and ingredients for my food from the neighbours, I try to make everything locally. I decided this has to be a full-time thing, I can’t do it with a day job. So I quit my job back then, and never looked back!”
4. Mouss believes Penny University should be good neighbour, so he trades with them.
“I want to trade from people in the east of Singapore, from around this area, so my carpenter is from Telok Kurau, I collaborated with fluff bakery.”
“Today 60% of his customers are regular, while the rest are new. The crowd is also diverse, with expats and local Muslims making up the mix.”
“For the regulars, we remember their usual orders when they ask for customisation so we may have the “Alex Breakfast’ for example. The crowd here is also diverse with locals, Malay/Muslims, and expats.
5. The experience of the sit-down cafe makes the coffee taste better, along with the company.
With food delivery being all the rage now, and even halal food making up one-third of foodpanda’s delivery, what does Mouss think of the longevity of walk-in, sit-down cafes?
People like to come here and let their guards down. We are heartened especially when they say they make a detour especially to come here. I think in the age of food delivery, good baristas will always be in demand, there is a sense of belonging, familiarity and comfort when you go in to the cafe and a barista remembers your name, and asks about you. For us Muslims we don’t go to pubs so I go to a cafe and get to know the baristas there. This human connection is not something that can be felt through delivery. The food, presentation, and taste fits their lifestyle.
I have a customer who is one of the Heads of Production from Discovery Channel and every time he comes to Singapore, he will drop by Penny for coffee and breakfast. When Discovery Channel wanted him to work in Singapore long-term, he chose his apartment around here. So we really like what Penny Uni has grown to be.
6. He trains every new barista how good coffee should taste like.
New baristas need to be trained so that they are able to taste. When they come in to work, we don’t let them make coffee, we let them taste first. But some people are very impatient, so we don’t like that kind of baristas. They would be wanting to leave after a few days.
You can get 10% discount on food and drinks at Penny University during the weekdays with the FRIENDS for halalfoodhunt.com Rewards Card! It also gives you discount at over 60 halal places in Singapore! Find out more here.
7. Owner Mouss has a good heart.
Moustaffa also opened Brothers in Fine Food at Tampines West Community Centre. So why did he open Brothers in Fine Food? Why not open another branch of Penny University?
“Yes a lot of people asked me to open another branch of Penny University but I sat down and thought that I can’t possible recreate this place somewhere else. And I thought that Penny’s identity was complete too and wanted to try something else.”
“I thought Penny was already heartland enough but when I saw Tampines West CC I realised how much more ‘heartland’ it can go. Since I opened alt yard with fluff bakery previously at Tampines West Community Centre, the management there asked me if I wanted to open another cafe/restaurant over there. I realised there is a different style of communication and marketing there.”
“I wanted to contribute to opening good halal food in Singapore because as I travel, I realise there is so little halal food. Singapore has a lot of good restaurants but not many are halal so we are missing out. Tampines West CC management also asked me to consider a social impact angle for example like hiring youths who would otherwise be at-risk. I considered it because the rental the is lower so I can really make some elevated dishes at a lower price for the community. If you come in to look at our kitchen all our apparatus are really chef-quality.”
“The difference between Penny and BFF is that food at BFF requires more preparation. Every single dish has a different preparation. We want to have a small focused menu but distinct dishes, and we plan to change the menu regularly, so we can afford to be more experimental with the food there, we do more R&D there.”
Any advice for new F&B business owners?”
Do this if you are passionate about it. But passion alone won’t be able to sustain it. Khow the cost of every single thing from overhead into margin, to wastage. Have a business model, that is the fundamental. If you have all these costs at your fingertips, you are in a better position to do business. And have useful collaborations with others!
Want to learn from experienced coffee baristas? Sign up for a coffee expresso workshop!
1. Minimum 3 people to start a class.
2. Classes are held in the evening after 6pm at Penny University.
3. The workshops cost $50. Get 5% discount if you register with code SIFTED, or 10% if you show them that you have a FRIENDS Card upon payment. If you are signing up with 2 other friends, only one of you need to show the card. Discount valid till 30 April 2017.
5. To sign up for your classes, email your interest to email@example.com.
You can get 10% off your food and drinks on weekdays at Penny University with the FRIENDS of halalfoodhunt.com Rewards Card!
Penny University is located at 402 East Coast Road, Singapore 428997.
For opening hours, refer here.
Penny University is verified halal as it is Muslim-owned, and listed on halalfoodhunt.com
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