PETALING JAYA, July 15 — There’s nothing quite like sitting in your favourite café and soaking up the ambience. If you’re a regular, the baristas know what coffee you’re going to order before you’re even seated. They know what pastries to recommend based on your taste.
That scenario seems a lifetime ago by some measures. Perhaps it’s because most of us are cooped up at home or perhaps it’s because we’re too focused on what we’re missing.
But what about the good people at your favourite café or restaurant? Do we know how they are faring in this challenging period or how they are facing every new onslaught of uncertainty?
I certainly didn’t, or didn’t know much beyond hazarding a guess that things haven’t been easy. So I reached out to Derry Teh, the 26-year-old owner of Ground Coffee in Damansara Uptown.
The sunlit interior of Ground Coffee, back when dine-in was allowed, would always draw me in with a sense of calm. The profusion of greenery and the aroma of fresh coffee. And the always affable and attentive team that Teh had assembled.
Teh is no slacker himself when it comes to hospitality. Partly due to his family background in F&B (food and beverage) but largely due to his passion for the industry, particularly artisanal coffee — a journey that began a decade earlier during a trip to New Zealand.
He recalls, “I was there for a month with my dad and cousin, on a budget trip cycling around the North and South Islands. Back then, a 250ml bottle of mineral water cost around NZD4 (RM11) while a coffee only cost NZD2, so we started drinking coffee instead of water!”
As Teh realised he didn’t know how a cup of coffee was prepared, his curiosity got the better of him. He says, “I would walk to every coffee bar to see how they prepare their coffee. Obviously the latte art got my attention.”
When Teh returned to Malaysia, he immediately started looking for part-time jobs during his school holidays. After working at a few places, he then decided to start up a small coffee business in 2014.
Teh shares, “My first café was called Caffeinated Cabin. I was only 19 years old so I had a super small capital of RM15,000. Over time, I wanted to learn more and grow, so I worked in a few more places such as Melaka, Johor and finally Singapore.”
Securing a job at Atlas Coffeehouse in Singapore helped Teh learn more than merely making coffee but also the business side of running a café, something he felt he lacked with his first attempt.
“I grew a lot as a barista and as an F&B worker. I was surrounded by good people, and eventually became the head barista. Ultimately it was meeting many people in the F&B industry that allowed me to gain different perspectives.”
When Teh returned to Malaysia in 2019, he started searching for a suitable space to launch his second attempt at running a coffee shop. He recalls, “When I was in Singapore, I always knew that I’ll be back to my own country and refine my experiences into a concept. It has always been a dream of mine to own a café serving artisan coffee accompanied by good pastries and food.”
That dream came true on July 30, 2019 when Ground finally opened its doors in the cosy neighbourhood of Damansara Utama, not far from the Uptown hub. Teh says, “Our shop’s design leans more towards the industrial vibe, with rough and rustic cement. And enough windows for sunlight to blast in.”
One way to accelerate the startup phase of a business is by building a team of those who already support you and leveraging on their strengths. Teh shares that Ground’s fresh pastries are made daily by his father, who is an artisanal baker.
He also roped in his sister Pin Li and his best friend Ryan An as business partners: “We all have different strengths. I handle the operations, Pin takes care of the pastries and desserts while Ryan handles most back-end stuff.”
Having a background in F&B — “I was born in it,” he notes — means that Teh has always had a clear idea of what his café would offer. Nothing overly fancy or fussy; he wanted customers to always feel comfortable, not only with the space but with the food.
There is no attempt to reinvent the wheel. What’s more comforting than seeing trays of butter croissants, pain au chocolat and almond croissants in a café?
Their bomboloni — Italian filled doughnuts — call out to your inner child. The pillowy soft dough, the creamy custard filling and a gleeful crust of sugar… one bombolone won’t be enough, surely?
Some of Ground’s local delights — whether it’s their chicken rendang pastry or their fragrant ondeh-ondeh cake — would make for very sedap additions to any Malaysian teatime.
Their hot foods menu is simple but formidable: from pasta and burgers to juicy beef meatballs slathered with a savoury brown sauce and sweet fruit jam that would rival any Swedish take.
Another favourite is their Spanish style Gambas al Ajillo: succulent shrimp cloaked in olive oil, garlic, chilli flakes and herbs. Ground’s signature Chicken Parmigiana, in particular, is outstanding — crunchy, well seasoned and made with love. You couldn’t ask for more from a chicken chop.
Of course, given Teh’s strong barista training, great coffee is a no-brainer with not one, but two house blends at Ground —The Grounded Blend and The Pink Panther Blend — that have very different tasting profiles.
“The Grounded Blend is a blend of Indonesian, Brazilian and Colombian beans,” he says. “It has a rich, dark chocolate tasting note balanced with citrus acidity and sweetness. The Pink Panther Blend is a blend of two Colombian coffees, one of them with anaerobic process.”
Anaerobic processing, where coffee is fermented without oxygen, means that Ground’s Pink Panther Blend is super sweet but more acidic than one would expect. With distinct notes of strawberry and vanilla, it makes for a great cup of black coffee such as an Americano or an intense espresso.
For filter coffee, Ground sources from different coffee roasters, preferring single origin beans that are more floral. Be it food or coffee, Teh is proud of what they serve their customers: “We are super confident with the ingredients we’re using and the quality of our products.”
Perhaps more importantly, Teh’s clear-eyed view of his business and the F&B industry as a whole means he is able to adapt Ground’s menu accordingly when market demands shift, sometimes rapidly as with the current lockdown.
To adjust to the ongoing travel restrictions, the café has pivoted to delivering happiness to their customers in the form of pastry boxes and bombolone boxes, on top of their usual offerings.
The former are available in boxes of five or eight assorted pastries, while each bombolone box comes with nine bomboloni in three flavours — Chocolate, Chocolate Waffle and Homemade Custard.
Teh explains, “We’ve experienced a sales drop of 70 per cent. It’s definitely a tough time for everyone, but we got to figure out something to sustain the business. We’re turning two years old this month so we will be having a promotion too.”
To celebrate their second anniversary, Ground will be offering 50 per cent off any second coffee ordered from July 16- 31.
Thus far, Ground’s pastry and bombolone boxes have been a hit, especially for customers who send them as gifts to their friends and families. Teh adds, “Also, companies would send pastry boxes to their staff. Some customers request for vegetarian pastries; we can work anything out for them!”
Despite the ongoing pandemic, Teh remains optimistic about the future. Planning for better days while persevering during tough times seems to be his pragmatic approach for the business and life in general.
“We’re looking into roasting coffee and expect new products to be offered frequently. We’re also passionate about educating the public, from our current baking classes to conducting coffee classes in the future.”
Supporting small businesses such as Ground goes beyond ensuring your favourite coffee and pastry shop survives these trying times, beyond guaranteeing you can still order your flat white or pain au chocolat when the situation improves.
It’s also about showing these brave food providers and entrepreneurs that you believe in what they are doing, in their hard work and sacrifice; it’s your way of telling that friendly neighbourhood barista and baker and cook to keep fighting for the best yet to come.
No. 27, Jalan SS 21/34, Damansara Utama, PJ
Open daily 10am-6pm. Call 03-77315334 or WhatsApp 010-260 2988 to place orders. Pre-order cut off time at 3pm daily.