03 Jul 2019
Prospects are tough for ex-offenders re-entering the society after months or years out of the job market. In an effort to improve their chances of landing jobs that offer fair wages, ex-offender Matthew Poh and ex-prison officer Hilary Lo came together to open The Caffeine Experience, a social enterprise café to provide second chances to at-risk individuals.
Their first café opened in April 2018 and the chain has been expanding since. Its third and latest outlet was recently launched on 2 July 2019 and is located at The Centrepoint’s food street.
We speak to both Matthew and Hilary to find out more about themselves and their plans for The Caffeine Experience!
Matthew (left) and Hilary (right) with Bruce, their ambassador, at their newest The Caffeine Experience outlet.
What inspired you to open this café?
Matthew: Going into prison was a life-changing moment for me. When you are trapped, and living in a cell with seven others, you gain perspective of your life. I was remorseful and I wanted to change for the better. Finding a good paying job when we get out has always been a worry for myself and my cellmates, who are like brothers to me, in prison. I’ve had a lot of experience running my own business and I decided I would do something to help other ex-offenders that are looking for a second chance.
Hilary was my supervising officer in prison but we never spoke much at the time. He was kind and approachable, much like a “mother figure” to many of us in prison, and I felt that he would make a good business partner. I came up with the business idea on a small piece of paper while serving time and shared it with Hilary.
Hilary: When Matthew first presented the idea to me, I needed a long time to think about it. In my 17 years working in prison, I met all kinds of people. Most, if not all of them are looking for a second chance in life and are willing to start over. Working in prison, I saw the life they were living inside. I decided to quit my job to join Matthew and make a difference to the kind of lives they could lead outside the four prison walls.
Can you share some of your experiences or interactions with others after you left prison?
Hilary: Ex-offenders still face much prejudice, and because of that, it is difficult for them to rebuild their lives. Some of them stay out of prison, but some return because life outside was more difficult than life inside the prison where they receive shelter and three meals a day.
Matthew: When I first presented my business idea to potential investors, it was extremely difficult for me to gain the trust needed to raise funds. I don’t blame them though because it is not easy to trust an ex-offender, and I took it in my stride and carried on.
Why did you decide on a café that specialises in coffee?
Making the perfect cup of coffee requires skill.
Matthew: I used to run my own interior design company and while I did try to get that up and running as a social enterprise, I realised it required a lot of skills.
Coffee-making skills are easy to pick up, but there is still a level of mastery needed to make the perfect cup. This helps provides the baristas with a sense of achievement.
How do you hire your staff and how do they benefit from working here?
The Caffeine Experience team at The Centrepoint.
Matthew: We have contacts with various agencies that link us up with individuals who are looking for a second chance at life. Some also hear from us through word of mouth, and reach out to join the team.
At The Caffeine Experience, we don’t judge anyone’s past. No one is ostracised, and we work hard to impart positive life skills and provide a supportive working environment for our staff so that they can have a stable income and reintegrate well into the society.
Part of the proceeds from each purchase goes into the training of the baristas, counselling sessions for staff, and other areas of staff development.
Hilary: To add on to what Matthew mentioned, we also empower our staff by letting them run the cafés. For example, each café manager is responsible for handling the cash flow at their respective outlets. By placing our trust in them, we remind them that they are capable individuals that are welcomed back into our society.
What are your future plans for the café?
Matthew: Expansion plans are currently in the works and we have 6-7 cafes lined up to open within the year. Our goal is to open 30 outlets within the next 5 years.
We will also be launching different concept outlets that focuses only on one speciality. Building on the concept of The Caffeine Experience, we will also have The Salad Experience, and The Lokal Experience, which will offer local Singaporean dishes such as laksa and nasi lemak.
We are very excited to collaborate with partners that can help to make this happen.
Check out what The Caffeine Experience has to offer at their Centrepoint outlet.
Besides selling drinks, The Caffeine Experience offers food items such as their TCE Burger, which is only served at their Centrepoint outlet. Don’t forget to drop by for a quick cup of coffee or a place to hang out with your friends the next time you are in town to support their cause!
The Caffeine Experience is located at The Centrepoint, #01-58.