By Bryna Sim | 21 Mar 2023
In a striking, red-doored corner shop in the heart of Toronto’s Little Italy, a Canadian man is making Singapore-style ‘kopi’*.
“He’s the kopi uncle,” says Singaporean Jeanne Chai, 44, of her husband David Burga, 51. “He loves his kopi gao, siew dai.”**
The duo are the co-owners of Kiss My Pans – A Singaporean cafe in a cheese shop.
Comforting smells and scenes of home greet visitors to their shop from the get-go.
David can be seen behind the counter whipping up a mean cuppa of Robusta the traditional way, ie. with a coffee sock complete with ‘tarik’ (pulling) skills, as he passes the liquid gold between two stainless steel containers before pouring it out.
A section of the shop is dedicated to Peranakan-inspired tiffin homeware. There are also not-for-sale, Singapore-flavoured lifestyle products that serve as part of the shop’s decor.
Feels like home: Singapore-flavoured lifestyle products feature as part of the shop’s decor.
Hearty local dishes like beef rendang, lontong, nasi lemak, bak kut teh and a “Singapore breakfast set” (2 soft-boiled eggs, kaya toast and kopi) are served up on weekends and Mondays, while the shop space doubles up as a cheese and bottle shop between Wednesdays and Fridays. Baked goods and kopi are available daily.
While their shop was established in Toronto two years ago, the Kiss My Pans brand actually began in Singapore, where the couple resided for 12 years before moving to Canada.
Says Jeanne: “David and I met at a club while I was studying at the University of Toronto. We got married in 2006, and moved to Singapore in 2008 for a sense of adventure.”
What followed was a career in IT-related jobs for Jeanne back home, while David established himself in retail. He was part of the core team who helped to open Universal Studios, Kidzania, as well as The Source Australian bulk foods in Singapore.
After she was laid off in 2018, Jeanne started Kiss My Pans, and managed to snag clients like Visa and Fox with her cheese grazing tables.
Upon returning to Toronto in July 2020, she relaunched the brand under the same name here. The cheese grazing boxes were so well-received that the couple decided to sink in a 6-figure sum from their savings to open a brick-and-mortar shop in June 2021.
The deep dive into the world of serious entrepreneurship was no easy feat, despite their unique selling point of offering specialty cheeses (think floral-crusted, truffle-infused types) and kopi.
One of the lowest points was Christmas 2021, a few months after getting started.
“I was stuck with $20,000 worth of cheese. I was having panic attacks. No customers were coming. It was so scary,” recalls Jeanne.
She decided to be upfront on social media about their plight. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being vulnerable. I posted on Kiss My Pans’ Instagram account: “I’m freaking out. Please come and buy some cheese.”
People showed up. “People came, especially those in the community. They were so kind. They bought cheese, and they lifted our spirits,” says Jeanne.
Another godsend was an invitation to participate in the first-ever Smorgasburg Toronto in July last year. Smorgasburg is a vibrant outdoor food market that is well-known in America, that expanded for the first time out of the US last year.
Jeanne learnt to make kueh – for the first time in her life – specially for that event, which lasted across several weekends. “It drove me to tears. But we sold out of kueh and kopi every week,” she says.
The success of that event gave rise to a new idea: Selling Singaporean food out of their existing shop space.
This is an ongoing hit, and they plan to offer more items on the menu in time to come.
It’s not just Singaporeans or the Asian community in Toronto who have given Singaporean food or kopi the thumbs-up. Jeanne and David have been able to introduce the tastes of home to many Canadians.
Says David, with visible pride: “I would say 98 per cent of Canadians who have tried our kopi absolutely love it.” Agreeing, Jeanne adds: “When you see people enjoying themselves at Kiss My Pans, it’s so satisfying.”
Follow Kiss My Pans on Instagram.
*Kopi refers to black coffee with condensed – a thick and sweetened – milk
**Kopi gao (thick) siew (less) dai (sweet) refers to a kopi with more caffeine, and less condensed milk