Singapore’s Central Business District: on any given workday, hundreds of thousands of urban professionals will flock into the densely packed city centre for the day’s trade. Their coffee choices—for the sake of convenience—will typically be limited to whatever is available in the office pantry, along their morning commute, or in the vicinity of their office building, with fancier cups having to wait till the weekend. That’s just the way it goes.
Until now, that is. Unbeknownst to the throng, an audacious new concept has been taking shape over the past year. One that could seriously change the way specialty coffee is consumed locally. It’s aptly named The New Black.
Recently, I had the chance to sit down at The New Black's startlingly pretty new “concept outlet”, and have a chat with Will Frith, the director of coffee for this ambitious new endeavour. Trying to sum it all up, Frith declared: “we are a design-driven company focused on creating solutions and celebrating the artisan roasters behind this drink we all love.” The company is a new project from acclaimed designer Phoa Kia Boon, architect of The New Black's extremely considered branding.
“The idea for the company was heavily influenced by our founder’s experiences working in corporate environments, walking into fancy buildings, sitting in beautiful conference rooms but being served mediocre (at best) coffee and tea,” said Frith. “So many urbanites today go to work in office towers and suffer through whatever coffee is…in the basement of their buildings. The New Black wants to make specialty coffee more accessible to those people who may only get to enjoy it on the weekends when they visit their favorite neighborhood café.”
The concept is simple but bold: design and create a standard module that fits into the lobby areas of corporate buildings, and serve coffee from some of the world’s top roasters.
Frith sees a lot of potential in this new model: “by locating our tiny footprint (we only require 100 square feet) in high-traffic corporate lobbies, and having highly trained baristas that can deliver a speedy latte or talk at length about the origin and processing of the different roasts, we hope to fill a niche that has been underserved.”
The New Black concept outlet, open now in a tower a block off North Bridge Road and the Singapore River, is the first installation of their coffee modules, designed by Kia. Beholding ‘Bench 001’ and ‘Cabinet 001’ at The New Black Concept Outlet, I was in awe.
“The first thing you notice is that we look different,” said Frith. “Although the team loves the traditional design of modern coffee shops, we aim to create an approach that is more industrial design focused, highlighting clean lines, bright materials, and glass.”
“The bench and cabinet are designed to blend seamlessly into the modern corporate lobby setting, hence all the glass, chrome, and stainless steel.” Frith continued, pointing out that “every tool and piece of equipment has a specific place, making for a very clean and organized workstation. The inspiration for the module is the carpenter's workbench and tool cabinet, while drawing elements from surgical tool cabinets and watchmakers' tool boxes.”
On the bench, the sleek under-counter Alpha Dominche Steampunk Mod brewer is being used for filter coffee and tea. For espresso, the Modbar under-counter system was similarly chosen for “its flexibility and ability to blend in so seamlessly.” Frith acknowledges that “of course the design element is a major reason for our choices, but we also made sure these were quality choices.” Both the Steampunk and Modbar are known for their high-tech wizardry, and Frith says that “having custom recipes (via each machine's user interface) at our fingertips also helps, as we're brewing coffees that are very different from one another.”
Back in the cabinet unit, two grinders are at the disposal of baristas. The Mahlkönig K30 is the “mainstream” grinder—for customers who just want a latte or cappuccino, without having to navigate the menu. For all other coffee selections, Mahlkönig's EK43 is on hand not just for what Frith calls its “obvious sex appeal,” but also for its flexibility in grinding for both espresso and filter coffees “with a quick twist of the wrist.”
True to their design-focused ethos, the bench and cabinets were replete with numerous ingenuities. Some of the more conspicuous items included the custom designed takeaway cups (one lid fits all) and carriers, chef-inspired barista jackets, and a flavor infographics system on iPads at the counter. There are also some less obvious but equally brilliant design elements—like an in-house designed milk-dispenser, custom Alpha Dominche plunger cleaner/rinser integrated into the counter, as well as a custom chiller made to fit in their cabinet unit, which holds their milk and trays of their perfectly spherical ice. Also of note is their cashless operation; they use Shopify for their Point of Sale system to keep operations running efficiently.
As if all that attention to detail wasn’t enough, there's also the coffee menu. The current collection features coffees from nine roasters, representing four continents—“each playing a specific role toward the diversity in coffee we want to showcase,” according to Mr Frith.
For espresso, there was:
– Workshop Coffee UK – Cult of Done, Version 19, Guatemala
– Small Batch Roasting Co. Australia (Melbourne) – La Loma, Costa Rica
– Olympia Coffee Roasting Co. USA (Olympia, WA) – Asterisk Decaf, Ethiopia
On the filter side, there was:
– Single Origin Roasters Australia (Sydney) – Manantiales del Frontino Geisha, Colombia
– Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters USA (Lakewood, CO) – Aricha Natural, Ethiopia
– George Howell Coffee USA – La Bendicion, Guatemala
– Olympia Coffee Roasting Co. USA (Olympia, WA) – La Pastora, Costa Rica & Asterisk Decaf, Ethiopia
– Nylon Coffee Roasters Singapore – Dumerso, Ethiopia
Frith said that The New Black hopes “to maintain long-term relationships with each and every roaster, as our seasonal rotation will shift the focus to different places around the world. This will allow us to keep the menu alive and diverse, while introducing our guests to coffees from roasters they may have only ever read about online.”
Given the relative youth of specialty coffee in Singapore, The New Black’s offerings can be decidedly diverse. According to Mr Frith: “The local coffee drinking market is not set in its ways, and specifically there aren't many preconceived notions of what specialty coffee is or should be. This gives us the opportunity to set the tone and truly showcase the diversity that is inherent in specialty coffee.”
“We don’t roast coffee and have no intention to ever do so,” stated Frith. “This allows us to roll out collections three or four times per year and celebrate different roasters while offering up a menu of espresso and brewed coffee that we feel gives a nice representation of different roast styles, origins, and processing methods.”
For those more inclined towards oolongs, rooibos, black teas and the like, there is also a range of teas sourced from Chicago’s Rare Tea Cellar and Japan’s Hojo—with both hot and iced teas available. As an added treat, the drink menu also features a coffee cherry (cascara) tea from UK roaster Has Bean: Finca David Vilca Cascara, from Bolivia.
Complementing the vast beverage selection at The New Black Concept Outlet is a small selection of croissants from Christophe Grillo, founder of Singapore-based Bakery Artisan Original. Patrons currently have the choice of plain, chocolate, or almond croissants to snack on.
Sitting there, awestruck, I couldn’t believe that all of this was just the start of The New Black's plans.
“Fundamentally we have built this organization to scale. Our hope is to bring our benches and cabinets to office lobbies all around Singapore and greater Asia thereby expanding the reach of specialty coffee,” explained Frith.
With negotiations already underway to introduce their modules to corporate lobbies as early as the first quarter of 2015, it looks like The New Black is poised to make a big splash in Singapore and beyond.
All imagery courtesy of The New Black.