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Baro.cafe: Hidden smiles, hushed conversations hold back cheer in cafes

When Vivien Tan opened her own cafe on March 4, it was a dream come true. She had always enjoyed coffee and worked part-time in cafes on weekends for the past three years. In February, she finally left her job of seven years in information technology to launch Baro.cafe in Sri Petaling.
The two-level space is a labour of love, with comforting pastel hues for a relaxing state of mind. Upstairs, a mini playground seeks to ensure that the vibe is family-friendly. 
But today, her dream looks very different, with an often-empty space that’s struggling in its infancy, illustrating the plight of cafes that want to be warm and welcoming but have turned into destinations that many patrons remain reluctant to visit.
Baro.cafe shares its space with a separate businesss, Baroness, which specialises in bubble tea. Baro doesn’t have its own signboard yet, since work on that ceased when the Movement Control Order kicked in. Most people only know Baroness and think this is purely a bubble tea joint.
Upstairs, the play space with its bean bags lies vacant. A pool table and two arcade-style machines also go unused. For more than two months, the joy has been sapped from what was meant to be a place of cheer and celebration.
Baro.cafe reopened for dine-in on May 20, with full safety guidelines that limit its capacity to 12 customers. That means a space that should have been bustling with chatter is now mostly quiet.
Vivien is nonetheless relieved that operations have resumed, after two months of deliveries. “Surely it’s better to serve our food and coffee in the cafe,” she notes, explaining that customers sometimes encountered issues with inclement weather, late deliveries and difficult communication with delivery riders. She even took it upon herself to deliver some orders personally.
Baro.cafe has steadfastly made the effort to make customers feel appreciated. For deliveries, thank-you notes were often inserted, with reminders to stay safe and stay strong.
Now, as customers visit with their faces shielded by masks, the mood can feel muted. Smiles are concealed and conversations are kept short, undermining Vivien’s favourite part of running the cafe – the human interaction with her patrons.
“I like to let customers know that we serve good coffee with different flavours and characteristics,” Vivien says. “When they tell me that the coffee is nice, I want to explain it and discuss the coffee.”
As a new and relatively unknown cafe, Baro has its work cut out. Vivien, who doubles as barista, spends most of her time in the cafe, keeping the music on to ensure it’s not completely silent or sterile, and planning more steps to promote Baro.
The menu continues to expand, with savoury meals like Thai fish rice bowls to sweets like a moist lemon yogurt loaf and double-chocolate muffins. Beverages are also merry, with the frothy-foamy caramel shakerato as a young-at-heart highlight, complementing the more serious single-origin coffee with beans from Ethiopia, Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala.
“We still have a lot to learn,” Vivien notes. “We want to be consistent in our quality, so that the people who come will always enjoy their visits here.”
Reporting by EDKL writer Aiman Azri. Interview excerpts were edited for brevity. Images are courtesy of Baro.cafe.
Baro.cafe is one of nearly 250 restaurants and retailers on our online store for vouchers and subscriptions. Shop at eatdrinkkl.com/store
This is the 12th part in our series on how Malaysians in restaurants, cafes and bars are confronting their current challenges.
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