We catch up with founder Harry Grover on what’s (still) brewing, staying afloat in the cafe biz, and his take on gentrification

It’s hard to believe how time flies, but it’s been eight years since specialty coffee favorite Forty Hands first opened its doors on Yong Siak Street.

To that end, you could also argue that it’s been eight years since the third-wave coffee scene exploded on our shores. It started with Tiong Bahru, before the mindless string of cafes started ballooning out to neighboring estates and other far-flung corners. But the cozy roaster tucked in a corner of the neighborhood is often still credited as being the very first.

And just when we’d started to think that Forty Hands would go down in history as a solo, independent place for good roasts, they blindsided us all and opened a brand new outlet in the East. Sitting squarely along the bustling road, Forty Hands East Coast is a breath of fresh air from its original in Tiong Bahru. The decor is less international coffee shop and more old-school local, with Peranakan-inspired tiling and quirky tin cans to reflect the heritage of the East.

Founder and Director Harry Grover says it gives this second outlet its own personality. After almost a decade with the brand, the 38-year-old former barista has his heart set on a renaissance.

“The scene sort of started off with all these very industrial, cheap-looking cafes that had their own heart and soul, then everyone went into spending a fortune on the fit-outs—all cream, clean long bars with really nice lighting that cost thousands,” he said. “I want to go back to how it used to be, where you could do it for cheap.”

The East Coast outlet was built on what Grover calls a shoestring budget, just like the original Forty Hands. The entire counter is built out of recycled materials formerly used in Dempsey House, another concept by the Spa Esprit Group that recently closed last year.

“I resurrected a lot of stuff—this is the old Beauty Emporium shelving from upstairs, which used to hold the essential oils,” he added, one hand proudly slapping the wooded surface.

In the East Coast outlet, newly opened in late May, you can still get your hands on Forty Hands signatures like the strong, smooth roasts and iconic tau sar pau. In addition, feast on an expanded menu that includes a har cheong gai waffles and smashed avocado on toast.


Coffee and Forty Hands' signature tau sar pau

On why it took a grand eight years to open a second outlet for Forty Hands, Grover said there was simply never time. In the interim, he’d devoted his time to growing other concepts—some successful like Common Man and Tiong Bahru Bakery; others that didn’t live to see the light of day, like Broadcast HQ, a club-and-barbecue place in Little India that Grover said had been “beset with problems from day one”.

“And then after all of that I was like, my little baby has just kind of been rocking along doing its thing; and honestly it’s my first love. So I was like, I want to feed it.”

Even with an established name like Forty Hands, feeding it wasn’t an overnight job. Grover shared that the brand, which is now semi-independent from its parent company Spa Esprit Group, doesn’t have any shareholders, and hence took a while to fundraise for.

“Everything was born out of $60k, and these shops take hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of private equity money; I don’t have any more of Spa Esprit’s money, so to do everything organically, we’ve got to do it slowly and carefully.”

The search for the right space took almost a year, but Forty Hands East Coast now occupies a former chicken rice shop—which kind of brands it the epitome of gentrification, we pointed out.

Not to Grover, though. After dueling with the anti-gentrification protesters of 2010 Tiong Bahru, the entrepreneur has cultivated a position he will not waver from, even if it is unpopular. “My take was always that it’s going to happen anyway,” he said.

“This was an old chicken rice shop that was dying and they wanted someone to take over, because they weren’t making any money. If a business is not making money, and you’re offering something that people want, what’s wrong with having mixed offerings? If you have a chicken rice shop that 10 people are going to a day… That’s my argument. I remember when my partners did Tiong Bahru Bakery; there was so much gnashing of teeth when that opened, because it took over an old egg wholesaler. And then someone raised the argument ‘Alright, you’re all complaining about this French bakery, which you all go to; how many of you went to the egg wholesaler?”

Continuing, he added: “(Tiong Bahru Bakery and Forty Hands Tiong Bahru) are now part of the furniture of the place; all that kind of ‘oh my god you’re changing and hipster-izing it blah blah’ has long since departed. And I’ve lived through that entire thing—close to a decade—and I’ve seen people come out the other side; a new generation of millennials who’ve never known anything different apart from those shops being there. And they’ve got a really vibrant neighborhood to go to—you’ve got a market, you’ve still got the traditional places; and you’ve got these new offerings.”


Forty Hands East Coast

It goes without saying that that’s the plan for East Coast now too.

The rocky local F&B scene has seen its ups and downs, but in his time here (he first moved to Singapore in 2010), the Perth native and his portfolio of coffee have ridden the bumps out and emerged unscathed. In contrast, big brands have revamped and/or completely left the market, as have industry pioneers that started out the same time as him (Loysel’s Toy and The Plain are a few he named). So how did Forty Hands outlive the wretched Singaporean F&B lifespan?

“By offering something that people need!” Grover nearly leaps out of his seat to answer. “I think that people spend too much on novelty and not enough time on product. If you skimp on the product, you’re screwed—it doesn’t matter how fancy your marketing is.” This he can state with confidence; when Forty Hands East Coast first opened its doors, all the team did was post a few shout-outs on their social media channels. The turn-out was massive.

Assured, and likely encouraged by the consistent success he’s seen in his eight years at the top of the coffee industry, Grover adds, with a nod to the two cappuccinos on the table: “You need this; this is a daily thing.”

He’s got a point; we’ll drink (a cuppa) to that.


Forty Hands East Coast is located at 226 East Coast Rd., and is open from Tue to Sun (7:30am-5pm).