When growing up, Mr Tan Tiong Hoe was a rebellious child - he hated studying. His mother feared that he would mix with bad company. So one day, she spoke with the supervisor of a Dutch coffee company called Mirandolle Voute & Co (S) Pte Ltd and convinced him to take Mr Tan as an apprentice at the factory to roast coffee.
Mr Tan’s coffee journey began in 1960, when he was accepted as an apprentice at a tender age of only 16. Life as an apprentice back then was tough, many of them came from families with poor backgrounds. They had to learn to repair delivery trucks, coffee machines and many grunt work, on top of learning how to roast coffee beans. Thanks to his employer, he was exposed to great opportunities, meeting industry experts and coffee aficionados alike. An avid learner, in that short span of time he had worked with the company, Mr Tan picked up valuable knowledge on the art and science of coffee and coffee roasting.
At the age of 19, he started his own coffee business under the unregistered name of Tiong Hoe & Company, aiming to provide quality coffee beans to households and small Food & Beverage establishments. As a young and ambitious businessman, Mr Tan believed that he knew everything about making coffee. He took shortcuts and used a lot of unconventional methods to try to grow his business. Regrettably, the business didn’t progress until he was 30.
Mr Tan finally realized that he must return to his roots, to understand humility and to know that he is not always right. Thus, he started putting work into truly learning and striving to perfect the craft of making coffee. He began embracing his team’s opinions and empowering others with what he had assimilated. And that was when things start to change.
Back in the 1970s, due to the massive increase in raw coffee prices, the trend of mixing coffee with maize, margarine and sugar became a common popular industrial practice among local traditional coffee roasters in Singapore. However, Mr Tan was determined to provide quality coffee to his customers. Applying the knowledge that he had acquired from his former employer and through his own research, Mr Tan insisted on the traditional method of roasting 100% pure coffee. He was gradually recognized for his unrelenting persistence in providing premium quality coffee beans and services to his customers.
In 1975, Tiong Hoe Gim Kee Trading Co. (THGK) was registered. The company grew with its penetration into the hotel and clubs industry, cafés and restaurants, caterers and wholesalers, airlines and shipyards, supermarkets and offices, government sectors and etc. His coffee was everywhere.
In 1985, Fresh Café Distributors was set up as a subsidiary of THGK in the move to create a new image and provide added services to meet the needs of new businesses. Fresh Café Distributors started supplying Fully Automatic Coffee Machines. And in 2010, Fresh Café Distributors became a registered member of the “UTZ CERTIFIED Good Inside Program”. UTZ carries the meaning of “good” in the Mayan language. “UTZ CERTIFIED” is a worldwide certification program that sets the standard for responsible coffee production and sourcing.
For the past 50 years, Mr Tan has unceasingly been reading up, polishing and developing deeper knowledge in coffee and coffee roasting. While at the same time, he continuously imparts invaluable knowledge to the younger generations who are keen to learn. He now has many disciples under his wings.
Recently featured in CNA Insider Going Places documentary, titled Growing Coffee in Laos, Mr Tan lends his knowledge to Jeremy Choong who has inherited a coffee plantation in Laos when he married his wife. New to coffee and coffee planting, Jeremy did not know how to properly harvest its potential. Mr Tan was invited to the coffee plantation for a week to contribute every single knowledge that he has accumulated over the years. From the terroir and the soil fertility, to the coffee shoots, sapling and the trees, to the harvesting and processing of coffee cherries, then to the storage and roasting of the bean all the way to the final cup of coffee, there was no knowledge left hidden. This was done all in the hopes of improving the quality of the coffee plantation.
This is not the first time Mr Tan has done in terms of nurturing the future generations, and it will definitely not be the last of his guidance. Even today, despite having retired, you can find Mr Tan in Tiong Hoe Specialty Coffee cafe, sharing his thoughts, knowledge and culture to customers and friends alike. Through his passion and efforts, Mr Tan hope that more Singaporeans will discover and appreciate the art of making coffee.
As a traditional family business, Fresh Café Distributors is now inherited by Mr Tan’s son, Mr Jacob Tan. Since young, Jacob was shown the ropes on repairing coffee machines and now handles all the technical aspects of the business. He was also taught on the art and science of coffee roasting as well as coffee tasting. Slowly, Jacob developed his own roasting philosophy, focusing on providing the best quality coffee beans to the customers. While simultaneously running the family business, Jacob co-founded Tiong Hoe Specialty Coffee as a step forward into the world of the Third Wave Coffee.