When Muhd Farhan Azama received a call earlier this year to be amongst 34 young entrepreneurs to fete His Majesty on Youth Day, the 27-year-old’s overriding thought was why me?
“We were so grateful to have the opportunity,” says Farhan, who brought in Thai tea band ChaTraMue to Brunei in 2016. “But as a franchisee, I didn’t expect it. I believe… we just got lucky.”
Farhan may be right to a certain extent – he was the only business with a franchise model present at the gathering. But is luck really all she wrote?
A Geography graduate from Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Farhan’s family background isn’t entrepreneurial. He was the first in his family to start a business; opening a small shoe cleaning operation in Centrepoint, Gadong, with his close friend Muhd Auji Azizi back in 2014 when they were both still uni students.
“We had next to no capital to start the business – just the down payment for the rental (of $500) which we shared,” said Farhan. “We really believed that it would work. But ultimately it was just a few of us cleaning the shoes; we had trouble finding staff – so we never managed to scale and grow.”
Farhan still had another experience he was banking on; prior to opening Sneak Smith, he had spent six months in Thailand for his Discovery Year where he interned with an investment firm – where he also met his future wife.
“Cha yen (Thai tea) was something we had wherever we would go, it was like their Milo,” said Farhan, who began to research for tea manufacturers.
ChaTraMue is undoubtedly an F&B pioneer in the land of smiles, but their focus has traditionally been supplying to supermarkets and businesses rather than operating their own chain of cafes.
“ChaTraMue was only operating smaller kiosk-like locations and were more interested in just supplying,” said Farhan. “Researching the Brunei market, there were no major supermarkets carrying ChaTraMue products at the time. So I thought this was the perfect opportunity.”
Farhan’s first move after graduating was to set up Embassy Enterprise, a distribution company to import ChaTraMue and other Thai products. But as a newcomer without industry connections or a track record of successfully supplying, Farhan’s sales and courtesy calls to major retail stores went unanswered.
“At that point, we just had a pile of ChaTraMue products stocking up at our house,” said the 27-year-old. “It was a lot more difficult than I first thought it would be. My next option was to contact ChaTraMue about opening a storefront to sell the drinks directly instead of supplying the tea, but I wasn’t able to get a response.”
Despite his inexperience, Farhan – who is unassuming during our first meeting – has proved to be quietly persistent; delivering a surprise to ChaTraMue’s management as he eventually locked down a deal to open arguably the brand’s first lifestyle cafe internationally.
After failing to get a response from ChaTraMue about opening a cafe through emails and calls, Farhan boldly decided to fly to Thailand as a last resort – doorstepping their headquarters in Bangkok to make his case.
“Most of the ChaTraMue outlets were takeaway counters/kiosks or very small cafes with a waiting table or two,” said Farhan. “I shared with ChaTraMue that I envisioned more of an open lifestyle cafe, like Starbucks, where people could have meetings, do work and hang out.”
The 27-year-old might be the protagonist in this story, but he has a clear mind that he isn’t its hero.
His mother Hjh Hasniah Hj Badar, a HSBC assistant branch manager who had been laid off as part of the bank’s Brunei exit, was his real backer – investing her severance to allow her son’s dream to take flight.
“We knew the brand’s quality had a lot of potential but at the same time there was a lot of risk,” said Farhan. “The drinks and cafe market is quite established here with many bubble tea and coffee franchises. On top of that, we’ve seen franchises with a lot of backing that have come to Brunei and failed. But we were determined to show that we had something unique to offer Bruneians.”
Their first branch in Delima opened in December 2016 and was an immediate hit with millennials. Its warm, minimalist interior made it comfortable to lounge, backed by strong, freshly brewed teas that were competitively priced and served in large, distinctively designed 650ml cups that customers saw as worth keeping.
By consistently selling more than 150 cups a day, Farhan was able to finance the opening of another two branches; their largest outlet in Jerudong earlier in February and more recently a takeaway counter at Giant in Rimba.
He’s finally managed to wedge his way into supplying ChaTraMue’s packaged products to retail stores as well, though the brand’s quick rise in the Sultanate has been accompanied by an influx of parallel importers.
More importantly, he’s trained and built up a team of 24 along the way – all Bruneian youth – a rare feat in the country’s F&B retail, although it’s not necessarily a detail you’ll find Farhan espousing.
“We see that he (Farhan) has a plan and is serious about growing,” says 21-year-old Abdul Warith Mohd Hanifi, a recent tourism diploma graduate from Institute of Brunei Technical Education, who serves as Delima’s head barista.
“And I think the most important thing to us is that he values what we have to say. Even though he’s our boss, he always makes time to hear out our suggestions and feedback. And we can see that it’s more than just listening – we can see the improvements that he’s made.”
ChaTraMue is located at [email protected] Building, Unit. 8, Spg. 94 in Kg Delima, Giant Hypermarket in Rimba and Unit 7, Ground Floor, Block B, Spg 49-8-6 in Kg Jerudong.