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Take a Break at bræk.: Exploring the Journey of SMU's very own Student-Founded Cafe

Did you catch yourself frequenting bræk. during your breaks? Writer Moe Yin speaks to the founder of bræk., Tristan, on his journey as a student entrepreneur. Read till the end to join our Acai giveaway!

When the pandemic hit Singapore, the Food & Beverage (F&B) industry took a severe blow, with many establishments struggling to survive. The once-lively F&B outlets on campus lowered their metal shutters, casting a shadow of melancholy over us, the students. However, not for Tristan, a Year 3 SMU student who is the founder of bræk., previously known as Fei Mao. He saw an opportunity in the gloomy post-pandemic F&B scene. Immediately, he enquired about the rent and the rest was history.

Tristan's initial business idea entailed launching a Mookata establishment within SMU. Regrettably, this proposal was rejected due to the school's restrictions on open frying activities within F&B ventures. Undeterred, Tristan gravitated towards a fresh concept – an economic bee hoon eatery, a choice deeply influenced by his personal fondness for the dish. That was the birth of Fei Mao, offering pre-cooked economic bee hoon and beverages as its flagship offering.

Fei Mao’s Menu. Credits: bræk.

As a newbie in the F&B scene, Tristan encountered a multitude of hurdles during the nascent phases of his business journey. Among these challenges, the greatest struggle was to grasp a comprehensive understanding of the market. Relying on his personal preferences to represent the student population turned out to be inaccurate.

“What I have learnt is that I am a pretty lousy gauge [of the student population].” he chuckled.

Being at the store day and night, he had a chance to closely observe his customers. It became evident that his understanding of the market was incomplete. He noted a distinct pattern: those purchasing drinks were not inclined to buy bee hoon, and conversely, those opting for bee hoon did not show interest in beverages. Clearly, there was minimal correlation between the products he offered.

A typical afternoon scene at bræk.

He also found that he had overlooked the seemingly trivial aspects of running an F&B business. For instance, the layout of the store wasn’t given much attention. This resulted in customers congregating in awkward spots within the store, inadvertently obstructing counters and entryways. To rectify this issue, he went on multiple trips to cafes in Chijmes, observing the seating arrangements and layouts.

Operating Fei Mao, there were challenges every single day. It was through these challenges that taught Tristan and his team about the harsh realities of entrepreneurship. The greatest milestone for him was the rebranding of Fei Mao to the cosy space we endearingly know today as bræk.

Students queuing up at bræk.

“When we first started, we were all over the place…we tried to sell snacks, drinks, and so on…”

With no distinct brand image of Fei Mao in the customers’ minds, Tristan learnt the importance of specialising and focusing on certain segments of the market. There was a paradigm shift from focusing on price-conscious customers to value-conscious customers. bræk. shifted to offering beverages with alternative milk and acai, with a focus on providing a place for students to unwind and rejuvenate.

When asked about how he manages his time, he confessed that his GPA has dropped ever since this venture began. Tristan often had to study at night or over the weekends, on top of grappling with the changes and demands of his business. He laughed as he told me he personally would not advocate juggling an internship alongside running a business.

Tristan and staff of bræk. preparing their offerings.

So, does the founder of bræk., actually get a break?

“Not really ah…” he laughed. “But it’s actually quite fun […] I am quite happy doing this.”

Thankfully, things have become more manageable for him with the help of his part-time staff. The operational facets of bræk. now flow more smoothly, allowing him to step back from the store.

bræk. employees making acai bowls

Tristan attributed his friends and family as invaluable pillars of support throughout his journey. In the early phases of his business, his brother lent a hand by tending to the cashier. During periods when Fei Mao faced staffing shortages, his friends generously stepped in to wash dishes, and some even made trips to nearby convenience stores to procure ice when supplies ran low.

In particular, a standout figure in his journey was his co-founder, Zen. Zen played a pivotal role in reshaping the business with her expertise in marketing and branding. She ideated the design of the store and their overall brand identity. She was also the mastermind who incorporated acai into their offerings. Her influence extends to crafting the aesthetic appeal of the products sold at bræk. as well, an area where Tristan found himself less adept.

As our interview drew to a close, Tristan imparted two valuable pieces of advice that he would offer to budding entrepreneurs.

Credits: bræk.

“You never understand the market until you’re truly in the market…”

It was only through a continuous cycle of operational adjustments nearly every week that he began to discern a suitable product-market alignment. He underscored the importance of being honest with oneself and acknowledging the potential disparity between our initial perceptions of the market and its actual dynamics.

Secondly, the longer your business lasts, the higher your odds of survival. He believes that his budgeting skills had allowed for his business to survive one whole year. For instance, he saved as much money as he could during the renovation phase; painting bræk. himself with his friends and sourcing for cheaper furniture on Carousell. This enduring tenure provided the opportunity for prolonged experimentation and market exploration.


Acai Giveaway!

Tristan’s remarkable entrepreneurial journey is a blend of unwavering persistence and adaptability. Take inspiration from his experiences and embark on your very own entrepreneurial odyssey. But before you set sail, don't miss out on our ACAI GIVEAWAY—participate right here!

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