From Birmingham to Kiulap: the couple behind Two Sons Coffee

Meet the married couple behind this miniature cafe with a panache for specialty brewing and baking

With just three tables and a counter taking up half a shop lot, the new Two Sons Coffee in Kiulap might be a quaint, understated operation – but it’s been generating a healthy buzz over social media since opening earlier this week on Tuesday.

Sharing a space with Nollybook at Seti Kenangan II, Two Son’s specialty coffee and freshly baked pastries – especially their jam and cream filled donuts – have been slowly building a following since they first appeared at a Belait pop up event at Pusat Insani in February.

Bruneians might be consuming more coffee than any other country in Asia, but with dozens of cafes already operating in the surrounding area, why is there such a fuss over this miniature cafe?

Customers have found that the married couple behind Two Sons – Sal Zailani and Alex Starkovs – can brew a cup of joe just as good as any coffee house out there; their resume, which includes managing an award-winning cafe in the UK for several years is indicative that their small opening is destined to leave an imprint on the growing local coffee scene.

“I was spending so much time at a cafe called Six Eight Kafe (6/8) in Birmingham that I went up to the boss and asked him if I could get a job,” said Sal, a Bruneian who had previously studied in the UK. “That’s how I got my start as a barista back in 2012.”

For their espresso-based drinks, Two Sons currently imports from Sabah-based Crack.Inc, who roast beans from around the world. “We make sure we are always brewing from fresh roasts (under a month) old,” said Starkovs. For their pour overs, the cafe uses a wide range from different roasteries.

6/8 was amongst the first independent artisan coffee shops in Birmingham when they opened in 2011, very much tied to the coffee industry’s third wave focusing on sourcing high quality, ethically farmed beans that are carefully roasted and brewed.

Over the course of three years, Sal worked her way up from the front counter to become 6/8’s operations manager, overseeing 6/8’s expansion to a second branch. An equally important development however, was her meeting Alex Starkovs – a Latvian with fine dining experience – who walked in as a customer and struck up a conversation.

“I joined (6/8) not long after,” said Alex, who quickly became 6/8’s head barista. “Me and Sal, we really found each other over coffee.”

After the couple had their first children – two male twins whom they’ve named the business after – Sal left 6/8 and Starkovs moved onto working with other establishments in Birmingham, including fine-dining eatery The Wilderness. At the start of 2018, they returned to Sal’s hometown in Belait with a dream of starting their own specialty coffee shop to be part of Brunei’s small but growing third wave.

Starkovs is the main chef and barista, while Sal handles the overall operations. “We’re up at 4am to bake the pastries in time for the store’s opening at 9am,” said Starkovs. ” It seems obvious, but there’s a huge difference in quality when it’s coming in fresh.”

“We didn’t immediately have the funds to go and open a big cafe so we started with small pop-events. From there we were able to engage the community, get connected and started doing daily orders for people working at places like BSP and BLNG,” said Sal.

Two months ago the couple were considering moving to the capital, and learned from a friend who runs the local bookstore Nollybook, that they would be relocating their Kiulap branch, and were looking for a tenant to share the space with.

“It was a perfect fit for us and was within (our budget),” added Sal. “Hopefully from here we’ll be able to grow Two Sons.”

And what about the filled donuts?

“We always get asked about them!” exclaimed Sal. “I think the idea (for filled donuts) came when we first came to Belait,” said Starkovs. “I remember going into Supa Save and not seeing them (filled donuts). So I came up with a batch to serve to customers along with the coffee. Honestly, we were really surprised at how much feedback they’ve gotten. The style of filling, it’s quite similar to the donuts you’d find in the UK.”

Two Sons is locate4d at C8, Setia Kenangan II in Kiulap (same row as Pepper Lunch) and opens from 9am to 6pm from Tuesday to Sundays. Follow @twosonscoffee on Instagram for the latest updates.

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