55 Square: Coffee shop that helps Filipino farmers

Kit Singson, a 26-year-old Filipina, transitioned from producing pages of a fashion magazine to brewing locally made coffee beans.

by Portia Ladrido

55 Square practices fair trade and support small-scale industries. ©Joanna Malinis

Kit spent years art directing photo shoots, creating magazine lay-outs, and looking for the best cover font of the Philippine’s pioneering fashion glossy. She headed branding and design innovations within and outside of the company, and in (what looked like) a snap, she quit this professional life she was dearly accustomed to and started a life-long dream: own an independent coffee shop.

55 Square coffee shop practices fair trade and support small-scale industries ©Kit Singson

Inkline: How did you transition from being an art director/graphic designer to being a coffee shop owner?

Kit: It wasn’t a huge transition at first. Since I was already practicing design and branding, naturally I created the branding, the company profile, and the image of the café. I had been dreaming of putting up a coffee shop for a lot of different reasons, including of course that I love coffee, so it was just a matter of marrying the two together, my branding expertise and my vision for the coffee shop.

After all that initial design-driven stage of the process, it was all very new to me. I had to incorporate the business and all the legal procedures just gave my right-brain mind a beating. It was less “I can do this, it’ll be easy—just follow the steps” and more “I got no choice, gimme the crash course now, I’m opening in four weeks!”

The corporation was started in May 2016 and I opened in mid-July 2016. It was a taxing two months of construction, purchasing, hiring, and making sure I kinda knew what to do on the daily operation level. I am also the café store manager.

One cup of cappuccino to go, please! ©Kit Singson

I: There seems to be a lot of artisanal coffee shops popping up across the globe. Hence, aggravating competition. What made you still pursue this?

K: I think it’s because my pursuit of the business is founded on passion and optimism as opposed to wanting to be trendy. Yes, it’s a bit commonplace now, giving the “artisanal” title less sheen than it deserves, but I believed I had a side-mission to accomplish (the main mission is to bring excellent and underrated local coffee to the contemporary discerning market)—it was to build communities within the café and outside of it. Build a community with our farmers, employ fair trade and support small-scale industries in the country.

Trivia: all our suppliers for coffees and desserts are either self-employed or hobbyists: we are partners with Ephemera Traders and Plain Sight for our coffees, and home-bakers for our cakes and cookies.

The 55 Square team ©Kit Singson

I: What gave you the confidence and drive to build your own business?

K: I have a background in design, branding, and marketing, and a good circle of media networks which I can utilise to bring the coffee to our market. I knew it was going to be—I’m not going to say easy because it never is—slightly unproblematic because I had some of the resources already within reach.

It was the business sense that I lacked. I knew the basics, and I was a little businesswoman myself back in college when I made charms and jewellery and sold them. My partner then and I used to do the whole nine yards: production, photoshoot, launching, and marketing with ambassadors, selling online and joining bazaars. I enjoyed it and it went well. But I still lacked the numbers side. Thank god I have my current partners to help me understand it more. Having them throughout the initial process and even now during our “birthing pains” period, gave me the confidence that I needed.

Exquisitely arranged flat lay showing a bit of Kit’s art directing skills ©Kit Singson

I: What was the moment that you said ‘okay, I’m going to quit my design job and start now’?

K: That moment was when my business partner said, “If not now, when? We’re gonna help you.” Best fyeah moment in my recent memory.

I: What sorts of research did you have to go through to build this?

K: I had to refresh myself with coffee in general, and research coffee in the country. I knew a lot about it from my college research but there were a lot of development and changes since then. I had to research how to incorporate a business, the characteristics and legal/illegal things in a corporation, consult a couple of lawyers, and an accounting firm. After which I found suppliers who fitted my business model (which is fair trade, direct trading with our farmer fellowmen, ethical and sustainable coffee farming and production), come up with a menu, and of course, research of location and the market.

I: What scares you the most when going through the process of building a business?

K: Because I’m not law-literate, I always get anxious that I might be doing something illegal, or evading SOPs. That’s super scary for me, because I believe one of my qualities is integrity.

I: What makes 55 square special? Where does the name come from anyway?

K: The name comes from its square area, which is 55 square meters. It’s a space of coffee, conversations, contemporary art. We share the space with Vongarde Art Gallery, a contemporary art gallery, so the pieces on the walls change every few weeks. We serve handrewed local coffee from the highlands of Bukidnon and Benguet. And, like a Room of Requirement, the space can be anything you need it to be: a café on regular days, a gallery on show nights, a theatre, a venue for spoken word and music nights, or simply a personal nook where you can do some work, leisure, and where you can have conversations over coffee.

Kit with the gallerist Dan Villacruel ©Kit Singson
55 square and Vongarde Art Gallery sharing a lovely space ©Kit Singson

I: What was the most difficult risk that you had to take?

K: It was downgrading my pay by more than half, and knowing that when the café needs it, I had to shell out money from my own pocket. But everything else, I knew that with a strong direction and passion to build the business, the risk decreases.

I: Favourite moment with your business?

K: All moments are special at the café, but my favourite would be the moments when I get to talk to the customers and talk about coffee, talk about their own inclination to coffee. It’s in telling my story and listening to theirs that I get to learn so much more.

I: Can you share any future plans with 55 square?

K: Since we want to be a place of conversations, we might have a talk series held at the café by next year. This is in addition to our regular spoken word nights and performances. We also plan on partnering with more student organisations who are looking for venues for their creativity and interests. Of course, a second branch is always in the plan.

A sample of their pub material for their regular spoken word nights ©Kit Singson

I: What should young people like you keep in mind when wanting to start their own biz?

K: It is always a risk but it must be a calculated risk. We grew up as a generation of big risk takers and empathisers. We know that there are far greater things in the world than our own bubbles, and we live our lives reaching out to others, playing our part as caretakers of culture, nature, and society. We are idealistic and sometimes far too aggressive in our stand. But all these qualities are what start-up businesses should have. Young people who want to start their own businesses must imbibe these and more.

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