By Elena Kadvany
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."