Singapore ice cream fans were surprised when Creamier announced on Instagram on Mar 19 that it would be closing its pioneer branch at Toa Payoh by July. But it wasn't just frozen treats that Creamier brought to this particular part of Toa Payoh.
When it opened in November 2011, it brought new life to the quiet HDB estate. “Our immediate neighbours then were a very old Indian barber, a hair salon and an incense shop," said Khoh Wan Chin, one of the three founding partners behind Creamier.
"It was really charming because no one would think that this space would have an ice cream shop."
"We have brought more traffic into the area and created more optimism," Khoh added, "but I don’t think this could have happened without the new residential blocks".
It also helped when other F&B players moved into the area. First in line was bakery and cafe Niche Savoureuse, which opened next to Creamier in June 2014. Froyo chain Frozen By A Thousand Blessings set up shop in early 2015, replacing a bookstore in the unit located furthest from Creamier. They were joined by sandwich and coffee joint The Daily Press later that year.
“When Daily Press and Frozen opened, we were quite happy because people would generally flock to a place where there are many food options,” said Khoh. “We didn’t really see them as competition because there’s no way you can eat at Creamier every day.”
The Daily Press closed last March and Frozen ceased operations in October the same year. With Creamier’s exit, Niche will be all that remains of a short-lived era of gentrification.
THE DECISION TO CLOSE
Was the decision to shut the result of dwindling business? Or was it the rent that took them out?
Well, it was a rental issue – but it wasn't about money. Creamier's elderly landlord, who lives just above the ice cream parlour, wanted "peace and quiet", "especially with all the construction going on everywhere," said Khoh. “But as an F&B (establishment), I cannot have peace and quiet, especially on weekends,” she said, laughing.
It was really charming because no one would think that this space would have an ice cream shop.
“We have been continuously renewing the rent but this time, she wants her space back and it's non-negotiable."
Khoh and the team are taking the hiccup in their stride. "Gratitude goes to our landlady, who has given us this opportunity to fulfil a dream to spread happiness through ice cream," she said. "We take it positively – being forced out of your comfort zone is a constant when operating a business.”
CHASING THE ICE CREAM DREAM
When CNA Lifestyle visited Creamier at lunchtime on a Tuesday, the midday heat had created a long queue of mostly office workers that stretched along the stall’s walkway. “Normally, it gets crowded but you can still close the door,” said Khoh.
It’s hard to believe that some eight years ago, Creamier had to offer free samples to attract customers. “When we first opened, very few people dared to step in. Some people thought we were a lighting shop,” said Khoh, attributing the impression to Creamier’s elaborate bare bulb fixtures.
A big thank you for having us here and believing in our brand, a brand built from scratch.
Customers were so few and far in between that part-time staff were sent out to hand out flyers. “When it rained heavily on some days, I even considered closing the shop early,” recounted Khoh.
Prior to Creamier, her first F&B venture, Khoh ran a design agency for 11 years with one of her two Creamier co-founders, who wishes to remain anonymous. To complete the trio, she roped in Audrey Wang, a former advertising professional with a love for baking.
The founders, who are all in their 40s, had a “naive” mindset when setting up the pioneer outlet in Toa Payoh, admitted Khoh. They had signed the lease before even checking if the unit could handle the electricity supply needed to operate an ice cream parlour.
Built in the 1970s, the ageing HDB void deck unit needed major electrical work, costing the new owners “three times more than expected” in renovation costs.
Creamier has gone on to set up two more outlets in Gillman Barracks and Tiong Bahru. In 2014, the owners launched a sister brand, dessert cafe Sunday Folks, located in Chip Bee Gardens. These outlets will remain in business.
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
In response to last week’s announcement, Creamier has received an outpouring of support online. Among the messages of encouragement was one unusual request from a couple: To have a wedding photo shoot done in front of the Toa Payoh outlet.
“It’s actually the second wedding shoot that we’ve seen at our stall," said Khoh. "This is where memories are built."
As Creamier prepares to leave its first home, Khoh reflects on the stall’s impact on the heartland community. “I think one of our proudest moments was actually having this auntie who operates one of the stalls in the market bring her friends over and say, ‘Wah! This one, ah, better than Haagen-Dazs, you know?’ And that was in our early days.”
It’s fair to say they have achieved their brand vision: To bring quality and affordable ice cream to the neighbourhood. “Honestly, we are so grateful to our earliest supporters who still come today,” said Khoh. “A big thank you for having us here and believing in our brand, a brand built from scratch.”
There might be hope yet. “We’re trying really hard to locate another space in Toa Payoh. We just have to take it positively," she said. "When one door closes, another one opens.”