'Same storm, different boat': Cafes across Asia during COVID-19

For the last couple of months, Alun Evans’ day has begun at 10.45am. 

A late start for someone in the coffee business, but a necessary one. Evans is the founder of Antipodean Coffee, a coffee chain with cafes across Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. 

In March, the ex-Wellingtonian got caught up in New Zealand’s lockdown on the Kāpiti Coast, unable to get back to his base in the Philippines. 

His day starts with a team meeting before 11am, when he catches up with staff to deal with the fallout of the pandemic and restrictions across territories.  

“Each country is different,” he said. 

alun evans2Alun Evans started his own coffee roasting business in Indonesia in 2003, before setting up the first Antipodean Coffee cafe in Jakarta in 2009.

Across his locations, government support and the levels – or not – of lockdown can vary dramatically. . 

Malaysian officials brought in a Movement Control Order (MCO), a form of lockdown restricting movement and non-essential business operations. While some restrictions eased in early May, a wider lockdown continues until at least June 9. 

“We have six restaurants there and we had one open doing a few deliveries,” Evans said, Now, sales are roughly 60 percent of what they should be.” 

With the easing of restrictions, his cafes can open to some degree with strict contact tracing and hygiene measures in place. 

“We have a contact tracing system, much the same to what it is here. The one difference we're doing in Malaysia, which I don't see here, is we also write the table number down.” 

We take a customer’s temperature, we write the person's name down, their contact phone number and the table we put them at. Even when they leave, we also put the time they left.”  


Staff are well schooled in maintaining hygiene and deliver food via a plank to keep a safe distance. Temperatures are taken at the beginning and end of each of their shifts. 

He worries about some of the stories in Malaysia going forward – two are inextricably linked to hotels, and if the tourism market falls out, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to reopen those stores. 

Across the four countries, Antipodean Coffee and other similar businesses have had minimal support from the government. 

“There’s nothing like the wage subsidy here [in New Zealand].” 

Some places such as the Philippines have offered support in cash payments, but it doesn’t go far, Evans said – close to NZ$120 per person. 

The Antipodean Coffee store in Manila never closed during the pandemic, instead restructuring how it worked to be more of a deli and delivery service – similar to how many New Zealand business adapted.  

“Our sales in Manila are probably about 40 percent of what they were before the crisis happens. But we don’t have any rent relief, but we have had rent relief everywhere else.” 

Evans said he was probably the most worried about the Philippines and was keen to personally get back on the ground.  

mike kenneally tNALoIZhqVM unsplashEvans expects tough times ahead for the coffee industry, but believes Antipodean Coffee will come through. Photo: Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

"Philippines has been a little bit tricky, because the government has not really given clear messages. I’m hopeful we’re going to make it through.” 

In Indonesia, Evans described the situation as “scary” and only had one store open. 

“The markets are packed with people, the airports are packed with people, even though they’re supposed to be under some kind of quarantine.” 

Indonesia’s response to the pandemic has been criticised, with minimal testing and lockdown measures, as well as concerns around the government’s transparency when dealing with COVID-19 information.  

In comparison, Hong Kong didn't have many control measures operating but had better control of the virus, he said, due to an initial fast response and the lessons learned from SARS more than a decade ago

Going forward, Evans was taking a "silver lining" approach, learning from the necessary innovations and business flexibility his staff have learned. He still faced a lot of uncertainty and knew managing the coming months would be challenging.   

“What I hope is going to happen is all my restaurants will come out the other end and we’ll have the whole business operating,” he said, “What I think is going to happen isn’t quite like that.” 

“I think what’s going to happen is we’ll have some restaurants that will struggle to reopen.” 

I think business will be scaled back. We may have to lay off staff and there’ll be tough times ahead, but I think we’ll make it through.” 

Read more about Antipodean Coffee here: The Kiwi coffee chain taking over Asia

- Asia Media Centre