International Women's Day 2021: Interview with Denise Lum, Maxi Coffee Bar

This International Women's Day, we caught up with foodpreneur Denise Lum about founding Maxi Coffee and her advice for women who want to start their own F&B business.

In honour of International Women's Day, we want to shine the spotlight on successful female entrepreneurs in the F&B spaces. We start with Denise Lum, a former corporate lawyer and one of the co-founders behind Maxi Coffee Bar, which has since left behind its digs along Club Street to open a much larger space on the bustling Ann Siang Hill!

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What made you get started with Maxi Coffee?

I think I’ve always dreamt of opening my own business, and I knew I wanted to do it in the F&B space. I think coffee is one of the products that fortunately or not, a lot of us need to have every single day. So it’s kind of my means of engaging with my customers every day and telling that story every day. So that’s why I kind of chose coffee as that product. Before that, I was a corporate lawyer for about 6 years so it was quite a change. But so far I’ve really enjoyed running my own business and no regrets.

Why coffee?

I really enjoy it, as a lawyer I was very highly dependent on it so I thought why not just get my own supply. But yeah, I think, as I said right, it’s a very informal way of engaging with your customer. If you look at most other F&B models, you would probably visit once a week or once a month. I think coffee is something that you wanna have every day. And that’s the kind of means through which I can, I guess, deliver a brand of daily hospitality, which is what I care a lot about.

Who's your female role model in this industry?

Well, my partner in Maxi Coffee Bar, Joy, is definitely my female role model in this industry. She is happily slaving away in the back while I get to do fun things like this. Kudos to her! She’s been in the coffee industry a lot longer than I have. In fact, all the years I was practising law, she was already in the cafe industry. She’s seen the cafe industry through its turns, you know the advent of the speciality coffee industry. And I’ve really learnt a lot from her. We balance each other out a lot, so she’s definitely a role model.

What's an important trait to have as an entrepreneur?

I think it’s definitely having a very clear vision for what you set out to achieve. I always tell myself, “Paint the universe and then set out a roadmap to achieve it”. And that might mean having to break it down into stages, baby steps and curveballs like COVID and everything that has happened, all the uncertainties since. But I think as long as you are very clear about what you wanna achieve, and you’re very clear about chasing your dreams, that is a very essential trait for me. I think it’s also a very fun, vibrant industry to be in.

But equally, there are a lot of distractions along the way. And of course, lots of exciting things to pursue on the side. But I think having quite a single-minded focus for what one wants to achieve, and the kind of experience we want to create, is for me key.

What's your favourite part about being an entrepreneur?

The people, for sure. I think it’s the community we have created around us and just being in the beautiful neighbourhood of Ann Siang Hill and get the benefit of some amazing neighbours. We share the space with Junior The Pocket Bar, which is a bar behind us. Which is also very dangerous for me. And we have loads of cool people doing cool things in the area. No day is the same, I feel very very inspired by the connections we make behind the coffee bar. And it kind of really excites me to explore new opportunities.

Which item of your menu are you most proud of?

It's hard to pick a favourite, it’s like having to pick a favourite child! I am very proud of the selection of coffee we have managed to offer since we started at this new space in September. I mean, the way we set up our coffee programme is not very traditional. Instead of offering beans based on origin, we actually allude to a feeling. So it’s either a choice of comfort, or adventure. And whatever you pick, the bean selection will always rotate. But you can be assured that you will have a cup for the day that kind of hits the spot.

Do you have any advice for women who want to start their own F&B business?

I think, don’t ever set your feelings and emotions aside. Actually, I think your feelings can actually be the most powerful tools to drive you, and it gives you the passion. When you have passion and you are that emotionally invested, I think that’s really where the magic happens. When I first started Maxi and especially when I was going to do something with Joy, one of my longtime close friends, everyone was like, “Okay, make sure you set your feelings aside.”

But actually I would say that the feelings that we have and the emotions that we have, coming together into this partnership and into this business helped drive us to greater lengths then we would ever achieve. So I think, never disregard your feelings and harness it in very special ways.