Singapore is home to a plethora of ice cream joints. From Udders to Creamier to The Daily Scoop, many of these cafes are well-loved and well-established. So how can new brands or family businesses stand out against the big names and achieve success?

For The Milky Way, it all boils down to just one thing.

Established in 2014 as a family business, it focuses on bringing home-made ice cream (as well as coffee and Belgian waffles) to the tables of its visitors. But more than that, it brings a dose of warmth and friendship to the people that step through its doors.

When it first opened, it gained a healthy amount of publicity – some of which is due to the fact that the cafe is owned by none other than Renfred Ng, one of the finalists from the inaugural batch of Campus SuperStar (a local reality singing competition that aired on Channel U in 2006). At the time, he was also a signed celebrity blogger.

Renfred Ng

Despite his somewhat high-profile life, the humble ice cream shop is anything but. Instead of shining the spotlight on himself, he turns it towards the customers, taking every opportunity to get to know them as individuals.

“We are on a first-name basis with most or all of our customers,” Renfred shares.

Coming from nearby churches, offices and apartments, most of The Milky Way’s diners are families that live around the area. It hosts young couples and groups of friends as well, who have over time made this their go-to hangout.

The entrepreneur adds: “We always approach them with a big and warm smile. Always trying to remember their orders too for the regulars. We sometimes ask the customers if they want to separate their ice cream from their waffles to prevent it from getting soggy. It’s the little things that matter always.”

This degree of heartfelt hospitality became the building blocks of a genuine rapport between patron and proprietor. And with time and consistency, The Milky Way managed to attract a mass of regulars (visiting as often as thrice a week) who have become more like family.

A particular family has been spending their Sunday afternoons at Renfred’s cafe since the very first day. A weekly affair that they’ve never missed (not even when there’s a thunderstorm outside), The Milky Way is very much a part of their lives – and vice versa.

“We have watched their two sons grow from babies into little kids,” Renfred recalls. “They host their birthday parties with us every year as well. So we treat them almost like family too, buying pastries for them every Sunday to bring back for the next day’s breakfast and all.”

It is precisely this “family treatment” that makes The Milky Way so special and beloved. You can say it’s the cafe’s brand identity, although it’s a lot more organic than a well thought-out marketing plan.

It all started with a vacation in Australia and America, where Renfred and his family discovered a coffee culture that was wholly unlike the one in Singapore, fuelling their passion to bring it back home.

Eventually this dream crystallised in the form of a modestly sized space along Tanglin Halt Road. And the entire family hopped onboard.

“As a family, we each have our own roles,” he explains, though they often juggle multiple hats. Renfred and his brother, Alfred, handle the coffee and ice cream production, while at times fronting the store. His mother takes the cashier as well, while overseeing the making of the ice cream.

It’s not often that you see a family running such a modern business, as opposed to a more traditional practice that’s been handed down for generations. This time, the children take charge.

Still, the challenges of working with your family remain the same, Renfred admits.

“We’ve got to ensure each and every one of us do our part and cover whoever’s role when needed. In that way, there will be more work done and lesser conflicts,” he says.

Having each other’s backs is what families are for, and it is the same courtesy they extend to their customers, whether old or new.

Coupled with the cosy atmosphere of the cafe, which is housed in “one of the oldest estates in Singapore” (thus lending an air of nostalgia to the place), he says, “I know it makes them feel very close and welcoming to dine here.”

Of course, chief among its successes is also the offerings on the menu. Prices are kept fairly affordable at $3.80 for a scoop of regular ice cream, which is handcrafted and made right in the store.

“Our ice cream uses fresh full cream milk, instead of UHT milk, therefore giving a fresher taste, and we do our ice cream slightly less sweet as compared to other ice cream parlours,” Renfred offers.

“We also try to use the freshest and best ingredients available to craft our ice cream, and we do not add any preservatives to our products.”

As for the coffee, they are brewed in-house as well with locally roasted beans from Brazil, Sumatra and Guatemala.

As much as it sounds like The Milky Way has mastered the art of customer service, it is just impossible to please everyone. A diner might have had the worst day of his life, and no amount of niceties will perk him up.

For Renfred, negative customers are part and parcel of the F&B life.

He says, “I believe quality is the utmost important aspect, followed by customer service to gain the loyalty of your customer base. To maintain quality is the hardest issue in the F&B industry in my opinion and customers are not forgiving at all. Once quality is compromised, they know it right away and may never come back again or at least for an extended period.”

While most of his diners walk away with satisfied tummies, “some would come challenging us on the ice cream or waffles, telling us what is wrong and how we should do the items according to their methods”.

He continues, “We definitely take comments from our patrons very seriously and will strive to improve our products. However, some customers just want to be funny and challenge us, but they have no idea what they are even talking about. So, what we do is, we will just listen, let them rant and just reply them as politely as we can.”

Thankfully, for every negative experience Renfred faces, he receives a hundred more positive ones from his nearest and dearest – and that includes loyal customers who will always have his back, just as he has theirs.

Angela Low

Posted by Angela Low

Angela is a lean, mean writing machine, a self-proclaimed Swiss Army journalist, who writes about anything from parenting to design.