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 – and even homemade ice cream is not so rare any more. 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: building a place that feels like home, and a community that feels like family.

He Knows His Regular’s Names, and How They Like Waffles Crispy

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. At the time, he was popular as a celebrity blogger and one of the finalists of  Campus SuperStar, a reality singing competition on Singaporean TV. Despite the high profile and media celebrity, Renfred turns the spotlight on his customers, and serves them wholeheartedly.

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Renfred delivering a Latte Art workshop. Via The Milky Way FB

“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 regular customers. 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.”

A Family Business, Where The Customers Are Family

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.”

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A fancy birthday celebration at The Milky Way. Via FB

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. Families come back every year to celebrate birthday parties, and new families start — with a latte art proposal.

The story of The Milky Way 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. The cafe is housed in one of the oldest estates of Singapore, lending an air of nostalgia to the place. Coupled with the cosy atmosphere of the cafe, Renfred says his customers feel very close, and very welcome when they come to dine. 

Great Ingredients for Great Food

Of course, chief among its successes is also the offerings on the menu. Prices are kept fairly affordable for a scoop of 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 notes.  “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.” 

You can see the earnest hard work that goes into the ice cream, but it’s much easier if you taste it.

As for the coffee, they are brewed in-house as well with locally roasted beans from Brazil, Sumatra and Guatemala. Renfred even shares his craft with Latte Art workshops. And since their opening, The Milky Way has added delicious mains for those looking for a full meal, including all-day breakfasts and regional delicacies like Tom Yum MAMA noodles and Fish Maw Bee Hoon.

Listening To The Customers – Even When They Rant

Despite the cozy and comforting atmosphere of the cafe, it is just impossible to please everyone. For Renfred, negative customers are part and parcel of the F&B life. A diner might have had the worst day of his life, and no amount of niceties will perk him up.

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”. Separating the soft, luscious scoops of ice cream from the crisp, steaming waffles was one trick a customer suggested.

“We definitely take comments from our patrons very seriously and will strive to improve our products.”

But he also acknowledges that some customers don’t really understand what it’s like to be a merchant. What does he do with customers who don’t really know what they’re talking about?

“What we do is, we will just listen, let them rant and just reply them as politely as we can.” Sometimes that’s the only way to keep customers happy.

For Renfred, it’s all about delivering a great customer experience:

“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.”

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 treat him like family.

Editor’s Note: Since we conducted the interview, Renfred has also opened a new Japanese restaurant, Monzen@Gardens.

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.