: acquaintances, friends, neighbours, or the like; persons living in the same general locality and forming a more or less cohesive group.
This sense of community is what Ms Jane Hia, NUS Industrial Design alumna, sought to recreate as CEO and co-founder of popular local café chain Kith. Known for its fresh food, great coffee and relaxed, unassuming vibe, Jane built the brand on three guiding principles — simplicity, sincerity and honesty — principles that she personally lives by and which permeate every aspect of her business, from store design to service.
And it seems to be working. From a single humble bistro at Robertson Quay with two full-time staff in 2009, Kith today boasts 10 outlets across the island — including its latest branches in Bencoolen and West Coast — and a staff strength of 200, all in less than a decade.
Jane has always been a self-professed “foodie”. Even today, one of her favourite pastimes is to wine and dine with close friends and family. A student exchange programme in Milan, Italy during her days as an undergraduate at the School of Design and Environment (SDE) only furthered this passion and cemented her decision to venture into the food and beverage industry upon her graduation in 2007.
Jane carried the design knowledge and skills she had gained during university into her new entrepreneurial venture. This is reflected in the fuss-free and open design of Kith cafés, which feature wrought iron shelves that openly display the outlet’s fresh produce and modular custom-made furniture such as seats that can be moved around to encourage interaction or double up as a table or bench to maximise floor space and accommodate larger groups.
“My design background definitely helped when it came to things like designing the interior space, branding, preparing presentations and so on. My time as a resident of Eusoff Hall at NUS, where I was actively involved in sports and dance, also taught me the value of teamwork and people management skills. I am so grateful for my education there. All this helped in starting and growing my business. It was not just a matter of coming up with a Kith café, but creating a complete Kith experience,” Jane explained.
However, she also had to learn some things from scratch, such as how to make a good cuppa, something Kith is known for today. “It took a lot of practice and wasted coffee for sure!” she joked. Essentially, she had to learn how to run a business — from processing payroll to pricing menu items and buying a commercial vehicle. “People don’t usually think about these things when they have a beautiful picture of starting a business, but it doesn’t mean that these issues magically disappear. You have to learn and you have to do it. If not you, then who?”
Kith has since been featured in numerous international publications such as The New York Times, Monocle and LUXE City Guide Singapore, as well as local papers including The Business Times and The Straits Times.
Despite the outstanding success in a time when many food and beverage endeavours are shutting their doors, Jane doesn’t take anything for granted. “I am truly grateful to everyone around me who have helped Kith get to where it is today. I needed an army!” she exclaimed.
She also holds steadfast to the values she has built her brand on, that of community, which keep her going during difficult times. “I’ve created a family in Kith. We have a special bond and I’m happy seeing my colleagues grow and do things they never imagined they could achieve. I also love seeing happy customers and serving them a wonderful meal. Many of them have become friends too. It never gets old,” she enthused.
Up next for the straight-talking girl-next-door CEO — “Bringing Kith to the world”.
An inspiration to many, Jane is often asked about her secret to success. Her top three tips for other aspiring entrepreneurs? Recognise that you can’t pre-empt everything and things don’t always play out like you think they will; stay calm always and focus on solving the problem at hand; and remember that no decision is final, you can always make a new decision to right a wrong one.
“Success and time is relative to what you compare it with. I don’t think I’ve ‘arrived’ and I’m certainly not done. The journey is never ending and I’m constantly looking forward to writing new stories with my Kith family.”