From becoming a barista to earn extra income, to starting his own café, to dealing with the pandemic, and now, training others in the art of coffee management, Michael Tan has seen the ups and downs of the coffee business and still, cannot imagine himself anywhere else. This is his coffee story.
Based in the beautiful capital city of Malaysia, Michael Tan (on Instagram as Mike.talks.coffee), a born and bred Malaysian, has been in the coffee industry for 14 years. He currently works as a wholesale coffee manager at JWC Coffee Roastery, a micro coffee roastery in Kuala Lumpur. He didn’t get here by merely wishing; he had to pull himself up and, thanks to people around him, he was able to find his way.
“I hope to inspire young baristas and coffee lovers that the coffee industry is the best industry to be in.”
He needed a job right out of high school and was told of an opening at Starbucks. His simple decision to go for the interview set his life on a path he would never regret. He took the barista job to earn extra money, but gained even more experience than brewing coffee; he understood the value of community and management. He worked diligently, enjoying the life lessons he gained from customers and other employees until one incident occurred. An incident that changed his coffee journey forever.
While Michael worked at Starbucks, an office-type customer came in with a downcast look on his face. After greeting and getting no response, Michael decided to make him an Americano—black, and gave it to the downcast customer, saying, “I noticed you might be having a bad day, so this coffee is on the house. I hope it can brighten your day.” The customer then looked up at him and said, “Son, thank you. I indeed had a rough morning, but your smile and kindness made my day. Thank you for your kindness.”
This experience made him affirm his desire to remain in the coffee business, and he gave himself the tagline: Barista for Life.
“I went back into the coffee bar, with tears coming out of my eyes because I realized that with this simple cuppa, I could bring change and put happiness into other people’s lives, connecting with the customers and bringing more kindness to the world. ”
Since then, Michael has spent quite some time in the coffee industry, making coffee and training young baristas on how to make the perfect cup of coffee. Michael took the lessons he learned at Starbucks, improved on them, and applied them wherever he worked, which made him quite popular with coffee enthusiasts in his vicinity.
One of his fondest memories of a really good cup of coffee was at El Salvador – Finca La Fany. It was an espresso brewed by one of the pioneer baristas of specialty coffee in Malaysia. He described it as “The Godshot” as he was mindblown by its taste and he could point out its flavors, aroma, and texture.
He worked at other coffee shops in Malaysia and Singapore, where he met new people and tried different forms of specialty coffee. He is fond of introducing himself as a barista during his travels, as other baristas always ask about the coffee community in Malaysia and how their coffee is brewed. He loves having a sitdown with other coffee lovers and visiting old and new cafés (which is also part of his job) to share ideas and concepts to move the coffee industry forward. He also adores the fact that he can dress freely and listen to the music he loves while working.
His idea of success includes having the ability to pay off commitments, being able to travel the world to experience different café cultures, continuously sharing coffee culture with the community, hosting coffee events, training, and inspiring new baristas to break through and progress in the coffee industry. His daily inspiration also flows along these lines:
“Having the ability to provide for my daughter and family a better life by being in the coffee industry.”
He has been in the coffee industry long enough that he remembers a time when specialty coffee was really difficult to find and enjoy. Now, however, a lot of coffee shops have sprouted up, which makes the coffee experience a lot more accessible.
Things haven’t always been rosy, though. He started his café, Alpha Brew Coffee, in 2016, but closed down due to the high administration costs that came along with it. He remained in the coffee business and worked with other coffee shop owners who were excited to hire him because of his experience, network, and all-around great personality.
Just like most of the world, he was affected by the pandemic in 2020. Malaysia was in lockdown and customers were no longer visiting coffee shops for coffee. It affected him, especially because he was paid based on commission and needed to retain and get new customers. He had to find means of communicating, to keep his network informed on the changes the company made, and solutions to the challenges they may be facing. He got help from podcasts and clubhouse chatrooms by other entrepreneurs and leaders from other walks of life, which helped him in his communication with clients, giving him what he considers as his proudest achievement in the coffee business:
“In my past employment, during two years of total economic lockdown in Malaysia, my wholesale team and I grew from 89 to 210 wholesale clients across Malaysia. We never thought we would sign on and assist so many wholesale clients, even in a total economic lockdown.”
Michael is always available for a chat about specialty coffee, latte art, and generally having a good time. He believes that coffee has this magical ability to inspire positivity, connect people, comfort one’s heart and mind, and curate wonderful stories that we can share among the community. He uses his social media platforms to talk about the coffee industry (or hospitality, as he calls it), the uniqueness of specialty coffee, and how coffee lovers can approach it in a friendly manner.
Coffee cups aside, he loves listening to music and watching movies. He also jogs daily, so in case you come across him on your morning jog, don’t forget to say hi.
His advice to others:
“Never give up hope despite the challenges. Remember that in all hardship, there’s always a silver lining to everything. Let’s make Coffee Fun Again!”