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Ties That Bind In The Family Business: Santino Coffee Specialists

Their cafes might be a millennial favourite, but these caffeine specialists insist that their products are not a fad.

Ties That Bind In The Family Business: Santino Coffee Specialists

Anchor image: Katherine Chia, 55, purchaser & office manager, Santino Coffee Specialists, Kang Yi Yang, 27, co-founder, Two Degrees North Coffee Co & The Populus Coffee & Food Co, Charlize Kang, 32, general manager, Santino Coffee Specialists, and Ricky Kang, 66, founder & managing director, Santino Coffee Specialists

Ricky Kang started Santino Coffee Specialists in 1978 as a wholesaler of coffee and coffee machines. Today, the company encompasses 10 coffee factories across Singapore, Malaysia and Jakarta, as well as a coffee academy in Singapore. Santino supplies its products to many hotels, restaurants and coffeeshops.

Naturally, his family is just as zealous about coffee. Daughter Charlize, at 28, was the youngest Singaporean to become a certified judge of the World Barista Championship in 2015. Youngest son Yi Yang co-founded a speciality coffee wholesaler Two Degrees North Coffee Co (2014) and The Populus Coffee & Food Co (2015) with family friend Andrew Lek. Finally, there’s Ricky’s wife Katherine, who helps with purchasing and office management at Santino.

How has Santino evolved over the years?

Ricky During the ’90s, my company bought an espresso machine at a good price. After figuring out how it worked, we decided to enter the gourmet coffee business. We also became the sole agent for Nuova Simonelli (the brand of the machine we bought), among others. When Yi Yang joined Santino in 2013, he was tasked to diversify our business based on emerging trends in speciality coffee. I’d hoped the business could continue for generations but am now open to it getting bought over or listed.

Two Degrees North Coffee Co is also a wholesaler for roasted coffee beans. How do you not cannibalise each other?

Charlize Speciality coffee is only a small part of the business at Santino, we offer it to stay on-trend and to create variety for existing clients who want to diversify. Yi Yang, however, is famed for his championship roasting and speciality coffee is his mainstay.

Yi Yang My dad doesn’t entirely appreciate speciality coffee due to its complexity and acidity, but he understands the importance of keeping up with changes in the coffee industry. Two Degrees North Coffee Co’s niche is in speciality-grade coffee beans and coffee with a minimum score of 80. To showcase our coffee to clients who are cafe owners, we opened Populus. I see huge potential in the former’s wholesale business, which will be our focus going forward.

What is your business strategy?

Yi Yang Apart from Instagram, we don’t do much digital marketing. With speciality coffee, we can’t just send a bag of coffee beans to clients. After showing them how the coffee is calibrated for optimal extractions at Populus, they pick the blends they want and we calibrate the coffee at their cafes so they don’t taste over- or under- extracted, sour or burnt. We also look out for trends in drinking habits, and innovations in machines or new varieties from coffee farmers. We aren’t a fad; we want to make products of good quality and that are consistent.

This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue of A.

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