|Ng Keng Leng, the founder and CEO of Dessert Merlion Cafe in Seoul, poses inside the cafe. Opened in 2014, it is the first Singaporean-style coffee shop in Korea. / Courtesy of Dessert Merlion Cafe|
By Yi Whan-woo
When Ng Keng Leng opened "Dessert Merlion Cafe" in Seoul six years ago, it never crossed his mind that the cafe would become a hotspot for those wanting to reminisce of their past trips to ASEAN countries, especially in the time of COVID-19.
"At that time, I realized that it was not easy to find foreign food, in particular, Southeast Asia's cuisines, desserts and beverages in Korea," Ng from Singapore told The Korea Times in an email interview this week. "It came to me that it would be very exciting if I could introduce those food cultures to Koreans."
Named after Singapore's iconic statue of a half lion, half mermaid creature, the cafe is the first Singaporean-style coffee shop in Korea.
Located in Seoul's bustling entertainment district of Hongdae, it offers a variety of beverages and desserts that are available at "kopitiam" ― a traditional coffee shop in Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern part of Thailand.
The menu ranges from kaya toast ― a classic Singaporean breakfast dish ― to coffee, milk tea, pandan chiffon cake, pork floss bun and more.
The interior of the cafe is designed to bring more local flavors, with pictures and decorations from Singapore plus travel guidebooks for those who are interested in the city state.
The marketing strategy is in accordance with demand for vicarious satisfaction among Koreans who want to travel to Southeast Asian countries but can't because of the pandemic.
"If one is looking for a real and authentic Singapore coffee, toasts and desserts, our cafe is the only one which they can find in Korea," Ng said. "We will be glad to be able to make a link between Korea and Singapore by creating awareness and giving a first step introduction of Singapore's food and culture to Koreans and others."
Dessert Merlion Cafe was no exception in following takeout or delivery only orders in accordance with the heightened social distancing measures imposed by the government.
Ng still said his customers "find comfort in foreign eateries as they can still enjoy foreign tastes without having to travel abroad."
"We are proud to be part of their comfort zone during this pandemic period," he added.
|Ng Keng Leng, the founder and CEO of Dessert Merlion Cafe in Seoul, is interviewed by a Korean media outlet during the ASEAN Culinary Festival in June 2017. / Courtesy of Dessert Merlion Cafe|
A former office worker, Ng travelled to Korea multiple times before he decided to stay here for business.
Ng had some food and beverage business experience, working on catering for an airline company and helping his family member who used to run a restaurant.
Nevertheless, he said he had to "start from zero" to create his own menu to fit to the Korean market but not to lose the authentic tastes at the same time.
The lack of ingredients and food imports-related issues with Korea's customs authorities added to his difficulties even before coming up with a menu.
Now, the cafe, as described by Ng, "has gained some recognition around Hongdae," with the customers being Koreans, expats ― including Singaporeans ― and tourists.
The customer base has expanded to Busan, with the cafe taking orders regularly from residents there.
The cafe even received offers from discount store chains and other big Korean companies for joint business.
"However, due to some operational issues and complicated procedures, we decided to place this idea on hold," Ng said.
Asked about memorable moments, Ng picked the visit of Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife to his shop in November 2019 and participation in the ASEAN Culinary Festival in July 2017.
Accompanied by Singaporean Ambassador to Korea Eric Teo Boon Hee and the ambassador's wife, the prime minister came by while he was in Korea to attend the 2019 ASEAN-Republic of Korea Commemorative Summit.
"The words of encouragements from our country's leader have given us a boost to go further." Ng said.
The 2017 festival was hosted by the ASEAN-Korea Centre to mark the 50th anniversary of the 10-member ASEAN.
"We were proud to be invited by the Singapore Tourism Board in Korea to participate in the festival," Ng said, adding the festival "showcased the finest of ASEAN culinary traditions."
Ng expressed hope that the pandemic situation will subside so Dessert Merlion Cafe will be able to flourish. "We truly hope that worldwide recovery will come in no time, and we could expand our business in terms of cooperating with other parties and branches of new shops."