I hardly dine-out. As a matter of fact I find most commercially-prepared food repulsive, laden with oil, salt, sugar, and countless mind-boggling unnecessary condiments that mask the taste and beauty of the actual food itself. Consider this report of a survey of the eating habits of the working class in the Asia Pacific region. Singaporeans spend an average of S$324 a month dining out. Food courts are the most popular choice (90 percent) with a patronage rate of 15 times a month (this works out to once every other day!) Second most popular are mid-range family restaurants and cafés (85 percent). I find it mind-boggling how and why people choose to dine-out when meal-making at home can be such a breeze (simply blanch vegetables, bake sweet potatoes etc.)
I do not, however, write this post to lambast Singaporeans and their food choices; food is a highly personal choice. What I am interested in is why and how people choose their dining places, what makes a place instill loyalty and draw repeat customers. This piece of baby research may be useful in the future if I open my own café (and for aspiring cafepreneurs), and also in the immediate state as a resident sales, marketing and operations manager at my work place. My favorite and most frequented café is Afterglow (three times and counting; thank goodness for the one and only raw vegan restaurant in Singapore! Hint: may I be the second one?) As such, I will use Afterglow as a case study on why it is my favorite café based on the framework put forward by Debenedetti et al. (2014) – familiarity, authenticity and security (FAS).
Familiarity – to know a place intimately like a friend, this may involve knowing the names, professional backgrounds, hobbies and personal stories of the social actors. There is mutual recognition; customers know the staff but are also known by them. To create this atmosphere of conviviality and porous boundary, conversations must not just be limited to the products but also extend into personal and lifestyle matters i.e. “get to know your customers”. The notion of service inextricably comes into play. At Afterglow, the service was consistently top-notched, efficient and friendly but not overly so. Being a niche restaurant concept (raw vegan) which is unfamiliar to most, they made extra effort to explain to us everything patiently, the menu, ingredients etc. Glasses were refilled on point as if there were a water sensor to notify staff whenever the volume fell below a certain level. The Afterglow team is an advocate of the “support local” movement – from procuring ingredients to furniture – and you can see their passion through regular updates of their activities on their Facebook page. Critical to their success of being accessible to the masses is this: to prioritize being a lifestyle destination that serves raw food rather than being a raw food deli in and of itself. And this vision is manifest in their industrial chic furnishes.
Authenticity. Debenedetti et al. writes that an authentic place is one that is genuine, irreplaceable and not limited to commercial intent. A good café should be more than a mere transactional space and move beyond the traditional laws of supply and demand. Exuding an industrial chic, new-age hisperish vibe with wood tables, metal lamps and a vintage bicycle hung up on the back wall, it may first come across as another one of those pretentious café. But I assure you not. This place is closely run by the owners Carmen Low and Lionel Ang (they are almost always at the café) and I like that they collaborate with local start-ups and strive towards creating awareness through agro-tourism programmes to visit farms in Singapore and the region.
Security – a safe haven, such as to be among people similar to themselves and to be protected from the intrusion of market-related risks of high and unexpected prices, disappointing service or low-quality products. The pricing of the food at Afterglow is pretty reasonable considering its location at the heart of the city. I could devour their entire menu and their service is consistently good as noted earlier. I like that Afterglow provides security for clean eaters and vegans in Singapore.
In sum, Afterglow has become a special place for me where I get to experience a sense of “homeyness.” Not only it has and will continue to draw repeat visits, it is a gem that I seek to share with my non-vegan friends and family. On the first visit I went alone, second with my sister and third, with half my family! This connection arises through an accumulation of personal experiences that aim to foster familiarity, authenticity and security. May I start a second raw vegan cafe in Singapore? How would I differentiate it?
24 Keong Saik Road Singapore 089131
Debenedetti et al. (2014)
Place Attachment in Commercial Settings: A Gift Economy Perspective.” Journal of Consumer Research: Feb 2014.