We could be wrong, but Mad Roaster may be the only hawker coffee stall we know that runs a pay-it-forward “suspended coffee” scheme in Singapore.
The reason it started is something we’ll come back to later, but what’s interesting to note is that the stall is run by a 27-year-old lawyer who quit her high-flying position as a corporate litigator to help refugees in Thailand.
And if it weren’t for love and marriage, Madeline Chan would still be there, assisting the displaced to process the paperwork needed to stay in a foreign land.
Madeline graduated from law school in 2015 and became a litigator, fighting cases in court on behalf of firms. In 2019, something happened to her at work which changed her perspective of what she wanted in her career.
Not wanting to delve into the details, Madeline would only share that she was placed in “quite a vulnerable position”.
“At that point when it happened, a lot of people stepped out for me to protect me or to fight for me. So after that experience, I realised that I would like to do that for other people in vulnerable positions as well.
“And as a lawyer representing corporations, I wasn’t really stepping up for anyone who really needed the support as big companies have a lot of resources on their own. So that’s why I shifted my focus to try to be a lawyer for the people who need that service.”
Against the backdrop of the Rohingya crisis which had recently unfolded at the time, Madeline decided that refugees were one such group of people whom she could help. Since there were no such organisations in Singapore, Madeline turned her sights overseas.
The locality had to be near home, in consideration of her long-term relationship with her then-boyfriend and now-fiance.
“I applied for jobs in Malaysia and Thailand, and I just so happened to get a job in Thailand,” she said. With that, she quit her job at the firm and flew over to Bangkok.
There, she worked for a non-profit organisation, helping refugees with their asylum applications.
“I earned as much as a Haidilao kitchen staff here,” she laughed, revealing that her pay was about $2,000. The amount wasn’t paltry by Thai standards. It offered her a reasonably comfortable lifestyle in Bangkok, “if you don’t mind not saving too much money”.
She was quite happy working in Thailand and would have stayed for more than a year, had her boyfriend not proposed.
Sounding almost reluctant, she shared: “He wanted us to settle down and get married, so I had to come back I guess, for that reason.” Madeline ruled out the possibility of moving to Bangkok due to the lack of opportunities in Thailand for her fiance, who is in private banking.
Lest one may think she’s an unwilling bride-to-be, Madeline confessed that she was the “classic irritating girlfriend” that had pressured her boyfriend to settle down. After a few years, she simply decided that “I’d just go to Thailand to do me, and when you’re ready then I’ll come back”.
Despite knowing she had to head back to Singapore, Madeline wanted to find a way to continue the work that she had started. And knowing that there’s no existing avenue in Singapore to continue her work, she thought of other ways to still fulfil that calling.
The idea of opening a hawker stall selling coffee took hold while she had a few months left in Bangkok. Armed with single-minded focus and a will of steel, Madeline knocked on the doors of several cafes in Bangkok and offered to work for free. She discovered that her offer wasn’t much of a draw, as labour costs in Thailand are already so low. But after a string of rejections, one cafe eventually took her in as a trainee.
She ended up working 14-hour days — first at her law job and then as a barista in the evening till 10pm. It got unbearable a few days into her punishing schedule and she harboured thoughts of quitting. However, she shared that “eventually your tolerance for a different kind of tiredness increases”, and she persevered in order to achieve the goal she’d set out in her mind.
“I knew I had to come back at the end of one year and I felt like I had no future in Singapore doing what I want, so this was my only option. So I just had to work harder to make it happen.
“In this way I can help refugees, I earn a bit of money for myself, and I’m in Singapore,” she reasoned.
With lawyering on the back burner for now (she took an indefinite no-pay leave from her part-time job in corporate litigation), creating livelihoods for refugees is her main focus for now.
How she does that is through stickers that are pasted on the disposable cups. Each geometric rooster is hand-coloured by a refugee. The name and description of the individual artist is also pasted on the back of the cup.
The stickers are printed in Thailand before they are transported over, and Madeline pays about 50 cents for each sticker.
“I was looking for something that had no barriers to entry,” said Madeline, after realising that not all refugees were able to “crochet things” or do handicrafts. “So I wanted to make something that was very, super simple that anyone can do.”
Madeline’s stall at Amoy Street Food Centre currently sells about 100 to 120 cups a day. This supports 11 refugees who receive about 3,000 baht ($130) every month. Her aim is to push that number up higher.
“If not for work from home I think we can support maybe 20 refugees from this shop alone,” she said.
Being able to provide them a stable income is also a reason why Madeline doesn’t believe in donating a portion of the profit to refugees.
“How our model works is that we put the stickers as a cost, under packaging. So even if we make a loss, or if this month we don’t profit at all, I’ve already paid them.
“Whereas if for example I donate five per cent of my profit, if the profit is low means the donation is also low.”
Madeline hopes that with the assurance that they will definitely earn 3,000 baht every month, the refugees can do the necessary provisions for their families and not be living anxiously from month to month.
“For the refugees under our livelihood program, no one is giving them a handout. Their fate is not dependent on whether I feel generous or not today. If there’s food on their tables, it’s because they earned it. And in a situation where they have so little control over their future, I hope this makes them feel like they have at least some control over their lives.”
Building a sustainable business
Expansion plans for Mad Roaster are on the horizon, once Madeline gets the current business to be “independently sustainable”. With the “unstable manpower” currently at the stall, which employs one person and has two volunteers, she’s had to be more hands-on than she’d like. And on days where staff are not available, her parents get roped in as well.
Madeline’s average day begins before dawn at 6am to prepare, even though the stall only opens at 8am. At around 10am, she will head home to make brioche — the only food item offered at the stall. The whole baking process ends at 5 or 6pm and Madeline busies herself with backend work and stock ordering for the rest of the night.
“We wanted to be like a kopi-and-toast concept, but as a hobby baker, I only knew how to bake cupcakes, cookies, that type of thing. I knew we had to have bread, and luckily I had the cafe experience in Thailand and the circuit baker period to learn and perfect the skill (of making brioche).”
She half-jokingly shared that she rues the day she chose to sell this buttery baked good, due to the time-consuming process and double-proofing method needed.
Madeline’s stall Mad Roaster (‘Mad’ being her nickname) opened in November last year, after a space for a drinks stall opened up at the popular business district hawker centre. Madeline sank in more than $20,000 of her savings in the venture, due to the machinery and unexpected cost of renovation and electrical works.
She’s able to break even and make rent every month, she says, but profit is marginal.
The stall’s interesting concept has also caught the attention of a former refugee, who dropped by to patronise their stall one day. And that’s how the pay-it-forward scheme was born.
“He really wanted to support us so he gave us $50, and said to ‘pay it forward for whoever else’s drink’. And that’s how we started the pay-it-forward scheme.”
Calling the response “amazing”, the fund now has about $500 because even as people have claimed free coffees, just as many have also donated.
The tags are hung on a board in front of the stall for anyone to claim a free coffee worth $4 or a slice of brioche that’s $2.
And even though the scheme is naturally thought to be for the underprivileged, Madeline doesn’t discriminate against anyone who chooses to take a tag. So yes, they have served free coffee to even “very well dressed” customers.
For Madeline, “creating livelihoods for refugees” is her main focus for now.
“When I was working in Thailand, there was a family who kept coming to us for rent. Month after month… and after a while a kind of fatigue sets in where you realise how unsustainable it is for one person to feel personally responsible for keeping an entire family afloat forever.
“And what about the many other refugees who also need this kind of help? That’s the reality for most refugees. Their problems are long-term and systemic. And so the solution must be long-term and systemic as well. I could be a lawyer and donate, or I could try to create a more lasting solution.”
But she is not intending to completely divorce herself from her law practice.
“Lawyering pays the bills, and I know it is a useful skill. Like when I went to work in the NGO (non-governmental organisation) in Thailand, I was the only one who had the big law firm kind of experience, while others had more of the academic qualifications.
“I think it’s still valuable to be in practice because it trains you, especially if I ever want to go back and do law for refugees again.”
The food: Coffee and brioche
The menu at Mad Roaster is simple — espresso-based coffees that range from $2.80 for an Americano and $3.80 for a latte, to cold brews (priced between $4.50 and $5.50) and their specials, honey butter latte and matcha latte ($4 each).
Despite the aircon-less hawker setting, it’s still reasonably value-for-money.
The coffee, a signature blend featuring quality Ethiopian arabica beans, is surprisingly good. We learn later that papa Chan is a coffee aficionado who linked her up to a local roaster. The pulled shots are full-bodied yet aromatic with a hint of chocolate, going beyond the usual floral notes of coffees from hipster cafes.
The honey butter latte had a nice caramel flavour to it and is a good choice for those who like their coffees sweetened, but we much preferred the regular latte which was not too milky.
The chocolate babka was hands down the winner of the two breads (the other being a cinnamon brioche), with each slice generously topped with sweet-salty and crunchy chocolate streusel.
The breads go for $2 per slice at the stall, or $18 per loaf if you pre-order.
Where: Mad Roaster, 7 Maxwell Road, #02-107, Amoy Street Food Centre, Singapore 069111
Opening hours: Mon to Fri 8am to 3pm, Sat 10am to 1pm, closed on Sun
This article was first published in AsiaOne.