Singapore's oldest cafe was about to open in Palo Alto. Then, the coronavirus hit. | Peninsula Foodist | Elena Kadvany | Mountain View Online |

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Singapore's oldest cafe was about to open in Palo Alto. Then, the coronavirus hit.

Uploaded: Apr 8, 2020
When six Bay Area counties first ordered all residents to shelter at home for three weeks in mid-March, Killiney Kopitiam, a Singaporean cafe in downtown Palo Alto, was gearing up to open after months of delays.

The 552 Waverley St. cafe was one day away from the final building and planning inspections it needed to open to the public, said Steve Imai, who's overseeing the project for owner Amanda Steckler, a Singaporean native who previously lived in Palo Alto. Killiney Kopitiam is Singapore's oldest cafe; this will be the chain's first U.S. location.

Killiney Kopitiam's opening in downtown Palo Alto was stalled due to the coronavirus shutdown. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

The Palo Alto Killiney Kopitiam was, and still is, meant to be the first of several franchised locations for the Singaporean chain, with plans to expand throughout the Bay Area and Southern California.

The space was mostly finished after the lengthy renovation required to convert an office supply store to a restaurant. (Steckler had originally hoped to open in September 2019.) The dining room and an outdoor seating area on Waverley Street was set with tables and chairs. Menus advertising Killiney Kopitiam's signature kaya toast and Singaporean coffee were posted in the windows and a "coming soon" sandwich board sat outside. Imai had hired and was in the midst of training about 30 people, including managers, a chef and staff who would run the counter during breakfast, lunch and dinner. They were planning a private friends and family event to give the staff a trial run before fully opening.

On March 16, hours before the shelter-at-home order would take effect at midnight, Imai wrote in an email that the cafe was moving forward with its "third contingency plan" to open as takeout and delivery only concept in early April.

"We were pretty much ready to go," he later said.

Then, the City of Palo Alto suspended non-essential commercial projects after the county issued a new order banning all public works projects that are not deemed essential to government operations. Killiney's inspections were canceled and they halted in-person staff trainings.

The finished space of Killiney Kopitiam, the first U.S. location of a popular Singaporean cafe chain. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

The cafe is now on hold as the coronavirus has wreaked unprecedented havoc and uncertainty on local restaurants, which have either temporarily closed or shifted to delivery or takeout only as a means to survive the shutdown. Imai is still hopeful that Killiney Kopitiam will open when the shelter-at-home order is lifted but it remains to be seen when that will be and what state the dining industry will be afterwards. (One longtime local restaurant, Clarke's Charcoal Broiler in Mountain View, closed last week, citing challenges related to the coronavirus.)

"Unfortunately in the restaurant business, we'll be the slowest to recover," said Imai, who has run other food businesses in the area, including Onigilly and Gong Cha. "It's tough enough in the business to start a new concept and be successful."

Killiney Kopitiam, Singapore's oldest cafe, is well-known for its coffee and traditional charcoal-grilled bread toast but the menu expanded has over the years to include curries, rice and noodle dishes. Photo courtesy Killiney Kopitiam.

Imai said he would "absolutely" open Killiney Kopitiam for delivery in the interim, but can't without those two final inspections.

Killiney Kopitiam is still paying all staff partial hours based on a projected opening schedule, Imai said. Managers are checking in with their teams through one-on-one phone calls every two weeks to provide any updates. They're working through an unusual challenge during COVID-19 — remotely building a work culture for a restaurant that hasn't yet served its first customers.

Imai is continuing to work on the administrative side of things, like selecting back-of-house management software and developing order guides for staff. Team leaders are meeting remotely on Zoom.

"As much as we would have loved to open up it's really more about the overriding thing now is the safety and health of everybody," Imai said. "We'll be ready to go when the stay-at-home order is lifted."

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Delay is the Palo,alto motto, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Apr 8, 2020 at 3:24 pm

In any other city this place would have been open months ago. But with our cities drawn out approval process it was probably setback by months. I am surprised that the usual “neighborhood activists" didn't find a way to delay the opening also�"- I.e. the place was a quarter of a parking space short.

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on Apr 9, 2020 at 12:51 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

Wasn't that also briefly the site of day one the new mom store founded by my former gunn classmate Andy Zenoff formerly my breast friend?

Posted by Monica Yeung Arima, a resident of Professorville,
on Apr 10, 2020 at 11:53 am

I love Singaporean Food. Welcome to Palo Alto!

Posted by Monica Yeung Arima, a resident of Professorville,
on Apr 10, 2020 at 12:01 pm

Monica Yeung Arima is a registered user.

I love Singaporean food. After Strait Cafe closed down, I was just waiting for another one to open. I would definitely try your coffee and toast. Welcome to Palo Alto!

Posted by Quantum Bread, a resident of Palo Alto Orchards,
on Apr 11, 2020 at 8:28 am

Quantum Bread is a registered user.

It seems plausible for a final inspection during SIP. A modification of the inspection protocol for safety could protect all involved. Imagining a Zoom meeting over mobile between Inspector and Owner while maintaining "10 ft. pole" distance. After inspection, both parties wash hands. Whoops, Dept. back office processing halt may also be a problem.

Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Apr 15, 2020 at 5:08 pm

It breaks my heart to know that so many restaurant workers, both those working “in front' and those working “in back" are now either unemployed or working short hours. How difficult it must be for them! At best, as everyone knows, the restaurant business is already very tough; among the many that open, many close, and for many reasons.

So, this unexpected crisis is devastating to this industry and we do not yet know for how long the crisis will continue and how many restaurants will remained closed or struggling to stay functional with a carry-out service and skeleton staffing.

The best thing that can be said is that we are now all learning the hard way how much we enjoyed their availability with this harsh lesson due to their sudden compulsory absence.

Let us all hope and pray for the end to the pandemic and a re-opening of the restaurant business for all us foodies.

Thanks, Elena, for staying on top of all this.



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