Set in a former haberdashery in chill-out Tiong Bahru, The Orange Thimble combines art with delicious sandwiches and coffees.
Contributed By Terence JR Lee
Nestled in a former haberdashery, next door to an egg seller, The Orange Thimble brands itself as an “art café” and serves up gourmet sandwiches with killer coffee. Located in Tiong Bahru, alongside buildings which run the spectrum from pre-war shophouses to modern HDB blocks, it exudes a chic yet relaxed air.
While the café is a newcomer to the area—it launched on July 15—its owners are not. Maria and Colin Ng also own the White Canvas Gallery, an art gallery a few blocks away. Their love of art and the Tiong Bahru area led them to open the café. Maria explains, “We wanted something that serves the community. There are quite a number of zi char stalls here, and kopitiams, but nowhere that you can sit down and relax with your coffee. My husband and I love coffee, so we thought we’d set up a café to serve the Tiong Bahru area.”
Colin continued, “At first we wanted to set up a gallery space, but we thought that we’d have an art café instead, so we can show the works and have coffee as well.”
Their love for Tiong Bahru and the rich history of the area surfaces in the name. Maria explains, “This space used to be a sewing supplies shop, so we wanted to include some of the history of this place. We came up with all sorts of names, like ‘Sew-and-Sew,’ but we eventually settled on ‘Thimble’ as our link to the past. Orange used to be the color of the Tiong Bahru area. If you look at photographs of the place, especially the spiral staircases, you can see they were all painted orange. It’s a very vibrant and energetic color.”
The café’s fittings also give pride of place to items with historical value. Unlike many shops which deliberately source for vintage-looking items, these objects d’art are the real deal.
“This set of drawers are a gift from the old seamstress who owned this shop,” says Maria. “She was leaving the business after more than 30 years and gave it to us. She also gave us the antique safe and cash register that you see in the doorway, as well as these marble tabletops.” Today, the marble tables occupy the prime spot at the front of the café.
“We really try to make this place feel like home. We want customers to feel welcome here, like this is their home, to bring their friends, or to just sit and read a book,” she explains.
In keeping with the warmth of the café, the staff aim to be on a first-name basis with their customers. Their name cards have no surnames: “Darryl, Barista” and “Ren, the ‘Sand’ man.” Together, Ren Choong and Darryl Lim are the creative minds behind the food and the coffee.
Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Barely a month old, the café already draws regular customers. The 60-seater café was packed on Tuesday afternoon, despite it being the early week “lull.”
Regulars are greeted with an enthusiastic “Hi man! How’re you?” Customers feel so at home here that they even make it a “must-go” venue. One couple dropped in en route to the airport for a two-week Swiss holiday, while another popped by before going to Hong Kong for business.
At The Orange Thimble, all kinds of requests are readily acceded to. When faced with a customer who wanted her latte “half-half” (meaning half low-fat and half full-cream milk), Ren joked that he’d get some “three-quarter fat” milk for her instead. Others pack lunch for their colleagues: one customer ordered six ham and cheese sandwiches to-go, only to return a few minutes later and up the order to nine. No sweat.
“We have some regulars who will call after dinner, and say, ‘Darryl, I’m coming in with 10 friends for coffee. Will you stay open for a while more?’ And we will. As long as customers are here, we will stay open. We want them to feel at home,” says Maria.
Beyond the exceptional service, Choong and Lim strive to make their eats and drinks spectacular. “We try to source the best products that will appeal to our customers,” says Choong, the “sand” man behind the menu, and the one in charge of making your sandwiches on the spot. “In Western mythology, the Sandman is in charge of giving children good dreams or bad dreams. Here we want to give our customers the best dreams.”
The Orange Thimble serves smashing sandwiches made to order: the ham and cheese sandwich is served in a croissant instead of bread, and toasted to golden-brown perfection. There’s also the heavenly shepherd’s pie and a multitude of desserts. Another “most-ordered” is the chicken burger, so popular that the kitchen has run out of burger buns on Tuesday, its first working day of the week. Fancy some dessert? Ice-cream is eaten with Chinese soup spoons out of traditional porcelain bowls.
“While we serve food here, coffee really is our focus. We get our coffee beans from a local supplier who roasts them here. You can really taste the difference between locally-roasted beans and imported ones. The imported beans taste a bit lao hong and have lost some of their flavor,” says Choong.
“We use only Arabica beans. Robusta beans have more body, but Arabica beans have more flavor,” adds Lim. Previously with Starbucks in London, The Orange Thimble’s resident barista now operates a three-group La Marzocco espresso machine—the “Ferrari” of espresso machines. The juices are hand-squeezed, the coffee is locally-roasted and properly treated and no latte goes out undecorated.
It is The Orange Thimble’s passion for its community, its customers and its product that has made it successful this early on.
Regular customer David Beal agrees, “This place is really personable and genuine; the food and coffee are great. The staff remember your name and what you like to drink. I stay in Tiong Bahru, and I can really sense that the café has a lot of pride in this area, and I’m happy to support it.”
Its success has come as a surprise, even to those responsible for it. “It is humbling that in such a short time, people have given us such good reviews, forgiven our mistakes, and even recommended us to their friends. I’m thankful for our friends and followers out there,” affirms Maria.
The Orange Thimble
Blk 56, #01-68,
Eng Hoon Street, Tiong Bahru,
Open from Tuesday to Sunday.