Tax lawyer now runs cafe that employs the underserved
by Christine Leow // November 19, 2020, 4:57 pm
Audrey Quay was due to move to Thailand for work when she heard the call to leave her successful legal career. Around the time she enrolled in a seminary in Singapore, she heard about a social enterprise cafe that was looking for investors. Photos courtesy of Audrey Quay and The Living Well.
She grew up in a comfortable middle-class family in Malaysia, was educated in England and would later carve out a successful career for herself as a commercial lawyer.
But Audrey Quay was never quite at ease with the life of privilege. “Class difference is something that disturbs me. I’m naturally egalitarian,” she told Salt&Light.
This somewhat explains how, at 39, she is the CEO of The Living Well, a social enterprise cafe in Singapore that “integrates and empowers people from vulnerable communities”. Single mums, at-risk youths and ex-offenders are among those she has hired.
Situated within Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), the cafe serves salads, healthy food and ethically-sourced specialty coffee at pocket-friendly prices.
“My staff has built such a rapport with the hospital staff. “
“My staff has built such a rapport with the hospital staff. They know each other by name. Our customers text my staff to ask them to keep a particular meal for them.
“They know when my staff goes on paternity or maternity leave and ask about the family. They don’t just enjoy our healthy food, they love us and we truly love serving them.”
Kicking a monster in its teeth
Quay grew up in a Christian family; her father was an elder in a Brethren church. She spent six years in England from age 17, and did not expect to end up in a seminary in Singapore while running a cafe employing the underserved.
But those who know her are not surprised.
“If I feel it would endanger people, I would do something about it. Why would you leave the monster there?”
“My cell group co-leader told me when we reconnected: ‘Audrey, you are the kind of person when you see something scary, like a scary monster, you would run right up to it and kick it in the teeth’.
“I don’t go looking for the monster. But if I feel it would endanger people, I would do something about it. Why would you leave the monster there?”
The journey that led her to right the wrongs in society in a small way began in 2017. Quay was working in Singapore as a lawyer when her mother passed away from a rare cancer within six months of diagnosis. Her mum had just turned 63.
“I felt it was a close of an era in my life. She was a pivotal figure for me and a lot of people. She was an extremely compassionate, ethical leader in the marketplace.” Her mother was a C-level bank executive.
“From her example, I saw that to be salt and light in the world, I had to be in the marketplace. It set my path to become a lawyer.”
In the weeks after her death, while Quay was reading about Solomon inheriting the throne and being tasked to build the temple (1 Chronicles 28-29), she felt God telling her that she was “receiving a spiritual and a material inheritance from my mother and those who had gone before me”.
Recounted Quay: “That was weighty. Then, the next message was: ‘Next year, you are going to seminary. You will leave your job at the end of this year. It’s the end of this road for you’.
“I interpreted it as the end of my legal career. That was shocking. I had studied for it and had worked 12 years in the field. I loved it.”
She was just about to be offered a new job in Thailand that would have seen her head an entire department. But God had been asking her to put a pause on things.
“He was telling me: ‘I don’t want you to harbour this selfish ambition. You need to stop.’”
“‘Next year, you are going to seminary. You will leave your job at the end of this year.'”
So she told the company to take her out of their consideration. Three weeks later, her mother passed away.
With the new direction from God, the path ahead was slowly beginning to make sense.
God had another surprise for her, though. As she struggled to leave the only career she had ever known, she got retrenched.
“When they told me, I knew it was God fulfilling His word to me. They gave me almost six months of pay and compensation for my stock options. Had I resigned, I would have gotten zero. I left with quite a bit of money to finance my studies for three years.”
“It would have been a blow to my ego (if I hadn’t been prepared) because I have always been invaluable and I thought I was a great lawyer.”
As 2017 came to a close, Quay signed up to be a full-time student at Trinity Theological College (TTC).
The academic year was to start in the middle of 2018. Around that time, Quay found out about a Christian social enterprise cafe that was looking for investors.
“I had just received some money from my mum. I had put away most of it. But I had a particular sum left; I thought it would be a fine way to honour my mum to invest in the enterprise.”
“If it came out, it would destroy the idea of social enterprises in people’s eyes.”
The cafe opened at the end of 2018. But it was only in April of the following year, when Quay finished her first year at TTC, that she had time to look at the finances of the cafe in greater detail.
That was when she found out that the cafe was bleeding financially.
It was also in financial disarray. It was troubling because “it exposed multiple flaws that could be potentially harmful or scandalous”.
Said Quay: “If it came out, it would destroy the idea of social enterprises in people’s eyes. All these ex-offenders are already trying to make a new life and something like that may make people say that this only proves that you can’t reform them. It would defeat the very credibility of social enterprises.
“But I don’t give up that easily. I felt that we could still fix this. I still believe in the concept of social enterprise – not social welfare, certainly not a charity – but truly an enterprise with positive social impact.”
So, instead of taking up an offer to be bought out, Quay negotiated to buy over the cafe, debts and all. And there was a lot of debt.
“I believe in the concept of social enterprise – not social welfare, certainly not a charity – but an enterprise with positive social impact.”
“The people who supplied ice-cream to the cafe came and took the storage facility and the ice-cream away. Suppliers refused to supply us.”
The debts had to be paid off, the losses to the stakeholders made good. Quay even had to dip into her personal funds to issue a director’s loan. By the time everything was settled at the end of 2019, there was barely enough to keep the cafe afloat.
“But I felt at peace.”
Then, there was the matter of actually running the cafe. “I had no idea how to run a cafe. I only know from a corporate standpoint. Plus, F&B is very difficult.”
Several of the original staff had quit. But she had one employee who was willing to stay the course no matter how tough the situation. That man was Bruce Mathieu, a former offender who abused drugs. He would mentor his colleagues and become the cafe’s brand ambassador – sharing his life story and giving motivational talks.
“I spoke to Bruce and he said he was willing to do what it took to keep the cafe going. Through it all, he was the one stalwart when there was no one else I could trust.”
Quay also sent him for barista courses to improve his skill.
Good samaritans at the well
The new owner gave the cafe a new name – The Living Well.
“It refers to the place where Jesus met the woman at the well and He transformed her. This would be a place where people can meet Jesus, and be transformed and made well.”
The new name required a new logo and new branding. By the time they were ready to relaunch, it was February 2020. Then, COVID-19 happened.
“DORSCON Orange was announced on Friday, February 7. Our new launch was happening the following Monday.”
Convenient access to the cafe via the taxi stand was immediately cut off as entry into the hospital became closely monitored. Instead of being affected, The Living Well thrived.
“During COVID, people shut their business. We didn’t shut for a single day of operation because we were in a hospital.”
There were other unexpected boosts. A doctor at TTSH noticed the cafe struggling and asked her aunt to see what she could do to help.
“This would be a place where people can meet Jesus.”
The aunt turned out to be a retired pastor who had started her own salad shop, Soul Salad, at Nanyang Polytechnic. She offered to revamp the salad bar at The Living Well – even putting in her own money to get the right refrigerator for the fresh food.
“She made everything orderly and rearranged the whole flow of the salad bar so it made more sense.
“Things started to turn around. After we fixed the salad bar, we went on to fix other parts of the cafe.”
Quay recently renewed the lease for the cafe, signing a two-year contract.
The cafe now has six employees, most from vulnerable sectors of society.
Quay debunks the common misperception that the vulnerable are less productive.
“God actually pays special attention to the least,” said Quay. “God is there for the vulnerable and the oppressed. And when you choose to relate to them with respect and dignity, they bring their own unique contributions to the table.”
The Living Well has done well enough for Quay to recover the money she put in during the bailout.
“God is there for the vulnerable and the oppressed.”
The cafe has also done well enough to give back to society, providing the needy – from lower-income groups in the neighbourhood, or among those whom come to the hospital – with a free, healthy meal.
During DORSCON Orange, they extended the free meal to hospital frontliners. Now, frontliners get a 20% discount.
Quay concedes that the path she is on would not have been one she would have chosen for herself. “Never in my wildest imagination would I have dreamt of being in a seminary and running a business, especially a cafe.
“I started off my journey with God telling Him: ‘You must honour my free will’. Obedience used to be a bad word in my vocabulary. Now, in describing my response to God, it’s the most precious one to me.”
MORE EATERIES PROVIDING AN ADVANTAGE TO THOSE AT A DISADVANTAGE: