By SGN | 22 May 2023
Simon will never forget the first time he ordered coffee at a hawker centre – when he asked for a latte.
Without missing a beat, the stallholder made his drink and handed over a clear plastic bag of kopi c kosong (coffee with evaporated milk). “I thought it was amazing,” Simon recalls of his first taste. “Even with the milk, you get so much of the dark roast and intensity. A latte is more of a milky drink where the espresso gets quite lost.”
He had become an instant fan of kopi, the Southeast Asian coffee made from Robusta beans roasted with sugar and margarine to produce a rich, earthy flavour.
For Simon, kopi is inextricably tied to kopitiam (coffee shop) culture in Singapore. Complementing the mouth-watering, multicultural variety of hawker dishes in Singapore, it is the comforting sight and smell of kopi – brewed in muslin socks and tall metal flasks – that anchors the kopitiam experience.
“I just love the spirit of a kopitiam and how passionate Singaporeans are about it,” he remarks. “It’s something really special and worth cherishing.”
Bringing home the kopi experience
In 2010, Simon met his future wife while pursuing his MBA in Singapore. Despite living apart when he returned to Germany to work as a management consultant, they maintained a long-distance relationship. They eventually settled back in Singapore in 2013, and Simon joined his wife’s family’s packaging business as managing director.
A firm believer in sustainability, Simon tried sourcing compostable materials, but no buyer would take them up since it was costlier to be eco-friendly. But he never stopped thinking about the potential of sustainable packaging.
After four years at the company, he decided to take matters into his own hands. “I wanted to start my own business to explore how to make sustainable packaging a reality,” he says, “and kopi offered the perfect inspiration.”
Because of how much cheaper kopi is than Western coffee, it is often perceived as lower-grade and relegated to the realm of hawker cuisine. Somehow, in homes and offices, consumers either settle for inferior instant versions of kopi or opt for Western-style coffee devices and appliances.
“It bugged me that there was this gap in the market,” Simon says. He wondered: what if the flavours of kopi could be captured – using the same type of beans, the same roasting technique – in compostable coffee capsules to bring the kopitiam experience into private spaces?
At the same time, all beans would be ethically sourced from the region, ensuring a smaller carbon footprint. In other words, his brand would be kind to the environment and to farming communities.
Launched in 2018, No Harm Done set out to offer kopitiam-inspired beverages in eco-friendly pods for the Nespresso system. But it struggled to find its customer base. “With no budget for marketing, we were heavily dependent on word-of-mouth recommendations,” Simon says. After some time, the product caught on among landed properties in the Bukit Timah area, but he “didn’t want to be just another eco-chic company.”
To expand its reach, the company’s branding was revamped in 2022. The move boosted sales and helped the brand communicate better with Gen Z customers, who are increasingly becoming homeowners and who tend to value sustainability and the celebration of local heritage.
As production scaled, Simon was able to cut prices and stock his products at more retailers. This, together with an entry into the hospitality sector, led the company’s offline sales to overtake online revenue.
“We definitely see the hotel market as somewhere we can offer a strong value proposition. Hotels are currently looking to be eco-friendly and offer a more local experience,” he shares. “As the brand expands across the region, B2B will be the focus as well.”
Sticking to his convictions
“Going plastic-free sounds fairly easy, but it is not easy at all,” Simon points out. “I guess the functions and price point of plastic are just too fantastic, making it not financially feasible for the industry to recover or recycle. But in terms of a single-use material, plastic has just gotten out of hand.”
His commitment to fully compostable capsules (i.e. free of plastic or aluminium) initially created an issue with shelf life. “It was just horrible. We had lots of batches of coffee turn bad and had to recall them.”
He stuck by his convictions, however, and after years of dogged persistence, the materials industry finally caught up with his ambition, propelled by demand from sustainability-focused companies like No Harm Done. Today, the firm taps the technology of Luxembourg-based manufacturer Capsul’in. Their world’s first home-compostable capsules, made entirely from plant-derived cellulose and oils, are able to achieve a shelf life of at least 12 months.
“It’s fantastic to see that, as long as there’s demand and interest, we can find solutions that are sustainable while offering the same convenience and pleasure as single-use plastic,” Simon says.
Besides the environment, No Harm Done also does its part to care for the local community, hiring seniors to keep them meaningfully engaged and socially connected. “I’m quite flexible,” he explains. “If you can’t stand very long, we’ll get you a nice chair. If you can’t hear very well, we’ll talk a bit louder. If you take a bit more time to pack the orders, well, just take a bit more time.”
On weekends, the company partners The Saturday Movement to bring together the socially isolated elderly of Lengkok Bahru for a time of fun and companionship. “We provide free kopi – we call it Kopi for a Cause,” Simon says. “Sometimes there’s food, music and games, but it’s always a place where they can enjoy kopi and some chit chat.”
I tend to forget I’m not local
Simon was a coffee drinker even before coming to Singapore. “I would probably have far too much milk with it,” he says, referring to his weakness for lattes and cappucinos. Now, his go-to order is kopi o kosong (coffee sans milk or sugar), and he starts each day sipping this brew while chatting with uncles at his office building’s food court.
“I live a very local life,” he reveals. “My wife is Singaporean. My two kids are Singaporean. My neighbours are Singaporean. My colleagues at work are Singaporean.” And unlike the typical expatriate, Simon says he is here to stay. “I love living in this country, and I feel at home here.”
In his free time, he enjoys taking his children to the park near their home. “We get to see turtles, monitor lizards, lots of different birds – and otters, if we’re lucky. It’s amazing.” He has also found that joining fitness communities, in sailing or CrossFit, for example, is a great way to make new friends.
“I tend to forget that I’m not local,” he shares, adding that he sometimes questions what being ‘local’ even means. “I’ve lived here for 10 years. And yeah, I look different from most people, obviously. But I’m looking out at everyone else and not at myself, so I tend to forget.
“When you step out of your bubble over and over again and connect with people outside your usual circle, when you look past initial differences – Oh, someone is local, or someone is not – and just look at the human beneath, you find that a lot of our needs, our desires and our values around family and life are the same.”
Interested to work in Singapore or start a business here?
Find out more about the new Overseas Networks & Expertise (ONE) Pass as well as other work passes that may suit you.
Simon is the founder of No Harm Done, a sustainable company that uses ethically sourced ingredients to produce kopitiam-inspired beverages in compostable capsules. Originally from Hanover, Germany, he lives in Singapore with his wife and two children.
Connect with him here.