Remember [email protected]? This is the story behind the beloved neighbourhood coffeeshop-bistro
by Christine Leow // October 21, 2022, 4:57 pm
[email protected] fast became the hub of the neighbourhood, drawing the community with their special brand of hospitality. All photos courtesy of the Lims.
The man had come with a friend to dine at [email protected], a coffeeshop by day and bistro by night, in Bukit Timah. As the meal came to a close, they waved for the owner to come to their table.
“I thought they wanted the bill,” said owner Lim Yau Boon, 53, or Boon as his friends know him.
Instead, the pair reminded Boon of what he had told them on their first visit to the place.
“One of them said, ‘Do you remember me? You said you pray for people. Can you pray for this guy?’”
Boon listened to the man as he related his dire situation.
“I prayed for him. After I prayed, he cried. I encouraged him, ‘If you have the time, open a Bible app and listen to it. It will help you, encourage you.’”
“If we can’t bring people to the church, we bring the church to the people.”
A few weeks later, the man returned. Again, Boon prayed for him.
“After praying with him, he said, ‘I’m ready to receive Jesus into my life.’”
Boon was “tongue-tied”, he said. He had not expected this because he had not shared a single word of the Gospel with him. Boon led the man in a simple prayer to welcome Jesus into his life.
But he did more than that. He contacted his friend, doctor-cum-food blogger Dr Leslie Tay, because Leslie had a men’s fellowship group. That very night, Leslie went to meet the man and invited him to the group.
In the three-and-a-half years that [email protected] was in business, many more would come to be prayed for, hear the Gospel, participate in charity events or simply chill to good food and live music knowing that they were in a special community of Christian love fostered by Boon and his wife Cheryl, 52.
“We wanted to try a new expression of church. If we can’t bring people to the church, we bring the church to the people. We called ourselves a ‘missional outpost’,” said Boon.
Who is my neighbour?
For years, the Lims had been “very outreach focused”. They had been pioneer members of a church plant started in the late 1990s by their home church.
“We had lived in the neighbourhood for 10 years but we hardly knew anyone.”
Said Boon: “We joined almost any kind of Christian outreach programme made available to us. But the return on our effort was not great.
“So, we thought: Maybe we got it wrong. So, we started to look at making outreach simpler and more effective. We tried to simplify the Gospel to try to fulfil the first and second commandment – love God and love your neighbour – and then make disciples.”
But they had a problem. How could they love their neighbours if they did not even know them?
Said Cheryl: “We had lived in the neighbourhood for 10 years but we hardly knew anyone.”
Added Boon: “Our kids were in a primary school in the vicinity. So, for several years every morning, we saw the same faces as we crossed the bridge from the estate to the school and back.
They organised cycling trips and picnics to get to know friends, hoping to share the Gospel.
“We just said ‘hi’ but we didn’t know how to engage them further. We couldn’t stop them in the middle of the bridge to ask them for their names.”
Instead, they reached out to their two children’s school friends and their families. They organised cycling trips and picnics to get to know them, hoping to share the Gospel and then to invite them to church.
But most of the families lived in the Bukit Timah area and the Lims’ church was in Woodlands.
“We realised it was difficult for us to invite them to Woodlands. No parent would release their children to us for those few hours,” said Cheryl.
So, they asked their church for a sabbatical to attend a church near their home with the aim of bringing both their children’s friends as well as Boon’s mother to church.
Said Boon: “We wanted to give her no excuse to say, ‘No, so far away.’”
All this while, the Lims were on the lookout for a better platform to engage their community.
“We had a nudging to do something closer to home,” said Cheryl.
Then, in 2014, they went to the US for a holiday. While there, they visited their friend Wolfgang Fernandez, the Director of Next Step. Wolfgang is actively engaged in developing structures for missional engagement in all spheres of life. This is something the Lims are passionate about as well.
Meeting people like Wolfgang with a Kingdom mindset gave the Lims a “larger perspective of seeing God’s kingdom”. But it was their stay with Wolfgang in San Francisco that truly inspired them to do something different.
“If we bare ourselves, it draws people to share their own vulnerability.”
“Anybody could stay with him and his wife, friends, friends of friends. Some stayed three months, others stayed a year-and-a-half like this couple who wanted to get a divorce. He was helping them.
“They are so open to people. It transformed our whole thinking of doing community,” said Boon.
Added Cheryl: “They call it ‘couch ministry’. I thought I was hospitable but we saw hospitality like we had never seen it before.
“We were touched by the love of God he showed and we came back to Singapore with a fresh idea – have open homes and be welcoming.”
They also attended a marriage strengthening course Love After Marriage when they returned from their holiday. The 12-week course made them realise the importance of vulnerability in relationships.
“It made us see the importance of connection and being authentic,” said Cheryl.
Agreed Boon: “If we bare ourselves, it draws people to share their own vulnerability. We thought: Maybe this is the model we can use.”
Opportunity but no experience
A little over a year later, a door opened unexpectedly.
Everyone was new to the F&B business. Boon could not cook while Cheryl only cooked for family and friends.
Both architects, Cheryl had stopped working at the end of 2015 while Boon had done the same in early 2016 to nurse an eye infection that resulted in a long period of medical leave. That set the stage for what was to come.
In May 2016, the Lims found themselves involved in an F&B business. They were helping a church friend pivot his restaurant to selling pre-packaged food, providing both investment and business advice.
“We are not F&B people. We didn’t even like F&B. That’s why we were helping him get out of the F&B cycle,” said Boon.
When the project fell through, one of the restaurant staff turned to the Lims for help. Serendipitously, a stall in a coffeeshop in the Lims’ neighbourhood became available. They decided to rent it to start a bistro.
“We thought the coffeeshop would be a great place to reach out to the community. We call it ‘coffeeshop ministry’,” said Cheryl.
Everyone was new to the F&B business. Boon could not cook while Cheryl only cooked for family and friends. Even the man who had asked the Lims for help had no experience in the kitchen. He was an engineer.
“We didn’t even know where to buy kitchen equipment. We needed things like a charbroiler, a deep fryer, a combi oven. But we had to Google where to buy them,” said Boon.
What they did know was what they wanted the eatery to be – a missional café where people were the focus, where God’s love could be seen and where people could be involved in Kingdom work.
“And hopefully, God will touch their lives,” said Boon.
Right from the start, the Lims were determined to make their bistro a welcoming place.
In a neighbourhood known for high-end eateries, they made the dress code of their bistro casual – tee-shirt and shorts. Because it was in a coffeeshop, there was no air-conditioning or service charge and the food was priced modestly. Even the name of the eatery – [email protected] – was simply its address.
“We wanted to make people comfortable. When people are comfortable, they are themselves and it is very easy to talk to them. We designed the whole place to have no pretence,” said Boon.
Though it was a “missional outpost”, they chose to be subtle in the declaration of their faith. Each table was assigned a number that was a verse from the book of Proverbs. During the day, they played instrumental Gospel music, though at night, their playlist consisted of music from the ’80s.
“When you play retro music, it’s more chill,” said Cheryl.
“When people are comfortable, they are themselves and it is very easy to talk to them.”
More than just the owner of the place, Boon became the “front guy” of [email protected] He spent his days and nights there, talking to the diners.
Said Cheryl: “Because of his nature, he really engaged whoever came. He was the marketeer.”
Added Boon: “I try to find out whether they are from the neighbourhood. Then, I say I also live in the neighbourhood. That’s usually the first connection.”
Within a month of the opening, the neighbourhood of strangers became a community of friends.
“We were saying ‘hi’ to everybody. People came by word-of-mouth. When they came, we talked to them. They always asked us why we were doing this and it gave us an opportunity to chat,” said Cheryl.
From strangers to friends
On the second day of business, they received an encouragement from God.
“A woman walked in. She said that she lived in the neighbourhood but had not walked this way for a very long time.
“He called me from China and asked me, ‘Should I marry her?’ That is the kind of relationship we built.”
“That morning, she was prompted to go to our coffeeshop. She told me, ‘The Lord brought me here.’
“When she said that, I cried in front of her,” recounted Cheryl.
On the fourth weekend of their opening, a family came to the stall. As they chatted with Boon, he found out that they were Christians. When they learnt that he often prayed for his patrons, they expressed interest in being involved.
That same night, Boon noticed that behind this family was a man who had barely touched his food.
“I asked him, ‘Are you okay?’ He said he wasn’t feeling very good. That was the open door for me to go further,” said Boon.
As they talked, Boon found out that he had just signed his divorce papers and, in the same week, had been diagnosed with two different types of cancers. Then, Boon discovered something else. The man had attended an Alpha course at a café, The Book Cafe, owned by Boon’s friend Shirley. Her husband, banker Timothy Wong, was colleagues with the man and was the one who had invited him to Alpha.
Since the family sitting near the man had just talked about wanting to partner Boon to pray for patrons, Boon invited them to pray for the man.
“My hair stood on end when this happened. I thought: God can like that one, meh? He could assemble together people just like that?’
“So, we prayed for him and before we even started, he was already crying. That became our first experience of what God wanted us to do – to pray for people. Not even to convert or to share the Gospel, just to pray,” said Boon.
Their baby was nicknamed “73 Baby” because his wife would eat at [email protected] every day. She eventually became a Christian.
The Lims had regulars, too. One was a woman who would come with her son every Friday night. At first, she was not very friendly. But as time passed and the Lims got to know her, she revealed that she was experiencing marital problems and that she kept eating at [email protected] because she liked the ambience and felt at peace there. Within six months, she became a Christian.
Another patron was a young man who always ordered the same whenever he came. When he got a woman pregnant, he turned to the Lims for advice.
“He called me from China and asked me, ‘Should I marry her?’ That is the kind of relationship we built,” said Boon.
The man did get married and their baby was nicknamed “73 Baby” because his wife would eat at [email protected] every day. She eventually became a Christian.
In the nearly four years that the Lims ran the bistro, they would create a community of friends and partners through their coffeeshop ministry. Christians and those not of the faith in the neighbourhood would come together to serve the community and each other. Through that, everyone got to see God’s love in action.
Said Cheryl: “It gave a whole new meaning to neighbourhood.”
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