From Coffee Boy To Boss Of Over 80 Outlets (Kopitiam Empire)

Let us take a look at how a Singaporean started off being a coffee boy to the boss of a Food Empire, spanning 80 outlet in Singapore.

Kopitiam boss Lim Bee Huat first started work as a kopi kia (coffee boy) at the now-defunct Esplanade Food Centre in 1962.

Juggling both work and school, it was indeed hard for the nine-year-old boy. Going against the wishes of his parents, he would clean the spittoons, wipe the tables, and serve coffee every day after school for $1 a night.

From an initial daily wage of a mere dollar, Lim worked hard and finally convinced his boss to raise his pay to $1.50 within a year. And many knuckle knocks on the head from his boss later, he fetched, carried and bargained his way up to $3.50 a night by the time he had finished his ‘O’ levels.

The millennials of today would probably just pack and leave when the going gets tough. But for Lim, he had no choice but to stick to the job because of his family’s poor financial status.

According to his recount from the book SG 50 Living The Singapore Story, he said: “Every morning, my parents would leave seven five-cent coins on the table for each of my brothers, sisters and me. Even then, five cents couldn’t buy you anything.”

He would pool the money and buy a French loaf, which costs 10 cents. In more desperate times, he would even eat the roadside food offerings left by worshippers during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

“When you’re hungry, that’s what you have to do. I had to think of survival. With school opening, I needed shoes, books, uniforms. I had to come up with solutions myself.”

“My thinking was that working hard was a way of life. Enjoy now, suffer later. Or suffer now, enjoy later.” 

The latter was an obvious choice to him.

Towkay At Age 18

In 1970, when he was enlisting in National Service, the Government revamped the Esplanade Food Centre and Lim started to see the potential of a bigger and better business at Esplanade.

With his hard-earned wages, he would scrimp and save till he was finally able to cough up enough money to buy his own stall.

He tendered for the drink stall there (the one where he used to work at) for a rental of $1,250 a month – a substantial sum back then – with the help of an older friend because he was too young to be eligible.

He outbid his former boss and took over the business, even employing her brothers to work for him.

“I was more gutsy than the owner, but she had no grudges against me,” Lim said in an interview, which was later published in S-Files: Stories Behind Their Success. 

So at age 18, Lim became his own boss – while also being a soldier by day.

He went on to take another four stalls at the Esplanade by age 23, and this formed the foundation of his hawker empire.

Business was so lucrative that during National Day in 1973, he sold over $6,000 worth of bubur cha cha (coconut and red bean dessert) at 25 cents a bowl.

It paid for his first car, a second-hand Datsun 100A costing $3,000.

Thereafter, Lim went on to celebrate his birthdays with a new coffeeshop takeover every year – from Rochor Centre, Victoria Street, Clementi, Whampoa, Toa Payoh, Clementi, Tampines, and even an AT&T canteen.

“It’s the Chinese businessman disease – if you have one, you think of two. If you have two, you think of three. And if you have five, you think of 10.”

His strategy, which is still relevant today, is to dominate the drink and dessert stall, while renting out the food stalls.

“People can’t just come in for food. If a foodcourt has 50 stalls, it will take you 50 days to patronise all the stalls. But you have to come to me every day for drinks or desserts. I think my game is quite clear,” he said.