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Foreword Coffee - Coffee with a Mission

The team on rethinking disability in the F&B industry, and where they go to recharge

Within moments of stepping into Foreword Coffee, we realised that it’s not your usual cafe. When we asked the baristas if Wei Jie was around, we were greeted by smiles, followed by gestures from the baristas indicating that they couldn’t hear us.

Customers order by pointing to what they’d like on the menu

Foreword Coffee’s mission is to use high-quality coffee as a medium to bring people together. Foreword Coffee not only employs persons with special needs as cashiers and baristas, it takes pride in being a place where persons with different types of special needs interact and work together. Here, human potential is realised in every cup of coffee.

We had a chat with Lim Wei Jie (Founder and Director) and Nadi Chan (Director) to hear their story on how they started down the path of founding a business with a strong social mission, and what they do to recharge.

What were your first steps in starting Foreword Coffee?

(Wei Jie) The social cause came first. I wanted to find something [to] create interaction. There’s not enough visibility, and that’s why the stigma is there.  It has always been asking the question ‘how do I create interaction?’

I got the idea to use coffee later. I dove in to learn about everything. I went backwards to learn how to roast my own coffee. No other place has the same coffee as us — we import our beans directly and we roast the coffee ourselves. If people don’t like the coffee, there’s no more business to talk about. Also, instead of investing money blindly to open a cafe outside, I started the cafe in NUS (National University of Singapore). It doesn’t matter if it fails because it’s very small-scaled.”

Foreword Coffee roasts their own beans in small batches. Photo from Foreword Coffee.

(Nadi) The first step is to literally take a first step. Honestly if you only look at the end-product, it’s very very daunting. But if you take things in small pieces, it’s easier. For me, I never had interactions with persons with disabilities; I never worked with social enterprises; I barely even did F&B. It’s a very steep learning curve, but it’s something you’ll pick up along the way. Ultimately, everyone is still learning, it’s a matter of how much, and how steep the learning is.”

What are some challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

The Foreword Coffee team. Photo from Foreword Coffee.

(Nadi) Mixing disabilities is unchartered territory. Usually, people hire one kind of disability and stick with it. There’s quite a lot of disbelief, people don’t see a potential in what we are doing. But once you prove them wrong, their perspective changes. [Here at Foreword Coffee], 70% are persons with special needs and 30% are people without disabilities.”

Melvin, the chirpy cashier who loves to interact with customers.

(Wei Jie) We leverage on [our staff’s] strengths to help them work together and help each other out. Like maybe a person with autism needs to follow instructions, and those who are deaf can give instructions. People with cerebral palsy may be slower in movement, but we can make use of technology to help them perform better.”

(Nadi) Some of them are also very social, they just don’t get the chance to interact with people. In fact, they may be even better at customer service than some of us. If that’s the case, we put them at the cashier — they can talk to people and they are so chirpy that they can put a smile on faces.”

What’s your favourite memory from Foreword Coffee?

Inclusion is not just a buzzword at Foreword Coffee. Every staff has their unique roles and responsibilities.

(Nadi) When my barista taught me sign language. This barista is not deaf, she has autism. We had an event — I was talking to her and she was like, “Do you know sign language? I want to teach you!” And so we did ABCs together for an hour. It was basically my barista teaching me to be more inclusive.”

What are your hopes and dreams for Foreword Coffee?

(Wei Jie) We are working on providing certification for people with special needs and disabilities. That way, they are more recognised in the market.”

(Nadi) Beyond just our cafes, we want to impact the entire F&B industry. Ultimately with our cafes, our impact is only so much. If we can convince for-profit organisations to incorporate persons with disabilities into their workflow, that’s where the main social impact is.”

It must be exhausting running your own business. Where do you go to recharge?

Wei Jie's favourite place: Tampines Eco-Green Park. Photo by CheekieMonkie.

(Wei Jie) I like running at the park near my place [in Singapore] — Tampines Eco-Green. There are no lights inside, so you can only be there in the daytime. This make it a very natural habitat for the animals. I’ve seen snakes, big monitor lizards, and seasonal birds. It’s pretty much an undisturbed plot of nature.”

Tioman Island Diving with Blue Reef Scuba. Photo by Blue Reef Scuba.

(Nadi) I’ve been to Japan, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand for diving, but I always end up back in Tioman [Malaysia] with the same dive operator, Blue Reef Scuba. Beyond the actual dives, it was fun hanging out with the other divers under the stars — think choppy internet and plenty of authentic conversations over prata! Even today, we still recognize each other even though we might not have spoken in years!”

What change do you wish to see in the world?

Nadi (left) and Wei Jie (right) sit down to share more about their hopes for the world.

(Wei Jie) I do think that we can be more inclusive and more understanding of people who are different from us — not just in terms of people with disabilities, but also people from different race or religions etc. Sometimes we can be a bit too quick to judge. If we can think twice before judging, then I think we can be in a happier place.”

(Nadi) That’s a big question. I think basically I want to see more people trying out new things. Usually ideas just stop as ideas in the mind. You just need to take small steps at the start. If people will have more guts, and be more willing to try out new things, then hopefully more change will happen in the world.”

Foreword Coffee has 2 outlets at the moment — one in Buona Vista, and one in Tan Tock Seng Hospital. They will be opening their third outlet in Dhoby Ghaut sometime in April 2019, give them a visit to find out more about their mission! Also, check out their website, Facebook, and Instagram for more information :)

Civil Service College Buona Vista

31 North Buona Vista Road, Singapore 275983

Monday to Friday 8:00AM to 4:00PM

Ng Teng Fong Centre for Healthcare Innovation (CHI)

18 Jalan Tan Tock Seng, #04-01, Singapore 308443

Monday to Friday 8:00AM to 5:30PM


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