In search of the cheapest coffee in NUS

Customers on their laptops outside The Coffee Roaster, a cafe at FASS. Photo: Liang Lei

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By Liang Lei, Tan Yu Xuan and Teo Kai Yi

A regular-sized coffee in NUS can cost as little as 40 cents or as much as S$5.60 — depending on whether you are a canteen or cafe person.

The Ridge cafe-hopped across the university’s Kent Ridge and UTown campuses to explore the coffee options available and find out what drives the crowd to these pit stops.

We recorded the price of coffee at each of the 13 locations we visited and talked to staff and customers at some of these branches. We focused on cafes that were publicly accessible and close to various faculties’ teaching blocks.

Myriad of offerings and prices

The cafe offering the cheapest drinks menu was Cafe Delight at Ventus, where a cup of hot black coffee costs only 90 cents. With a kopitiam-style menu, its coffee options were simple fare — options were limited to kopi (coffee with milk), kopi-O (black coffee) and a few bottled cold concoctions.

Prices rivalled even some canteens, such as the 80 cent kopi-O at Flavours @ UTown, one of the two canteens at UTown. However, the cheapest coffee were found at faculty canteens, such as 40 cents in The Deck at Arts and 50 cents in Frontier at Science.

Besides Cafe Delight, all the cafes we visited served espresso-based drinks which were at higher prices. A regular hot latte ranged from S$2.40 at the three Platypus Food Bar stores in Engineering, Science and the School of Design and Environment (SDE), to S$5.60 at both UTown’s Starbucks and Medicine’s Jewel Coffee.

Many cafes also offered unique drinks, such as Black Sesame Latte at the Platypus Food Bar outlets, Sweet Potato Latte at The Coffee Roaster and Nitro Cold Brew at Starbucks.

Agora Cafe barista Daliana Binte Abdul Razak, 28, said that new drinks were part of fresh ideas that the cafe was recently experimenting with. 

The cafe, located within the Yale-NUS campus in UTown, had closed during summer break at the end of last semester for management to brainstorm for new ideas, Ms Daliana said. When The Ridge visited, Agora Cafe two of its newest drinks, Lemon Sizz and Citrus Berry Spritz, at S$2 each.

NM3211 Kopi Table (1)

Price list at cafes in the various faculties. *Price indicated is for smallest serving offered. Table: Liang Lei, Tan Yu Xuan and Teo Kai Yi

Why that cafe? 

Many customers said their main consideration when visiting a cafe is its ambience.

Dawn Tan, a fourth-year life sciences student, said she studies at Spinelli Coffee Company in University Hall because it is quieter than the canteen and other cafes. “I come here for the atas (high-class) vibes, free Wifi, good coffee and charging points,” Ms Tan added.

Ms Huong, an NUS staff, considered ambience to be more important than the price or quality of the coffee. “(Spinelli at University Hall) is a good place to sit down and chill after work — I will definitely come back again,” she said.

After all, cafes were a preferred alternative to canteens for studying.

“I wouldn’t go to canteens because it is a different environment, with so many people eating,” said James Karuiki Wambui, 22, who was reading at Cafe Agora. James, a third-year Philosophy, Politics, and Economics student at Yale-NUS, added that he “might just end up eating without studying” in canteens.

“Canteens are very noisy and it’s not very nice when people are looking to eat and I’m taking up their seats,” said Cheng Danming, 21, a first-year civil engineering student studying at Platypus Food Bar in her home faculty.

Convenience was another important factor — eight of our 11 interviewees chose to visit a particular cafe because they had an appointment or class nearby.

Post-graduate science student Fu Zi An said she visits both the UTown Starbucks and Platypus Food Bar at Science. “Although there are more food and drink choices at Starbucks, it is a little too far from Science so I end up coming to Platypus more often,” said Ms Fu.

Victoria Lim, a second-year real estate student, said she studies at The Coffee Roaster in FASS about three times a week, as the cafe is conveniently situated near her classes. “Coffee Roasters is really conducive to study in and the smell is not as strong as compared to canteens like The Deck.”

Cheaper coffee prices in NUS

Encouraged to offer lower prices by the NUS Office of Campus Amenities (OCA), cafes generally priced their options 10 to 20 per cent cheaper on campus.

The average price of a cup of hot latte for the cafes we visited was S$4.00, significantly cheaper than the price of a hot latte in a regular Starbucks store (S$6.60). Notably, the price of hot latte sold in Starbucks at UTown (S$5.60), was also cheaper than its other branches around Singapore.

A regular hot latte at Spinelli’s University Hall branch was also 40 cents cheaper than the same drink  at its Engineering branch. 

Mr Alex Ang, 31, a manager at the Engineering faculty’s Spinelli branch said the price difference was because of different store categorization by Spinelli and arrangements with NUS.

Cafes in NUS also frequently offer promotions for students and staff which are promoted on the OCA website or through university-wide email newsletters.

So which was the best cafe?

Four cafes – Spinelli at Engineering, Starbucks at UTown, The Spread at Business and The Coffee Roaster at FASS — were almost full during the afternoon when The Ridge visited. Others ranged from almost empty to half-full.

Factors that attracted our interviewees to specific cafes included a conducive and quiet study environment, high seating capacity, good food and coffee, proximity to their next destinations and the availability of charging points.

On the last point, some cafes such as Starbucks and The Coffee Roaster, have seating areas with one charging point per seat. Others, such as Cafe Delight and The Coffee Hut, are pretty much off the grid.

Cafe staff The Ridge spoke to also gave different reasons why they thought customers visited their cafe. For Engineering’s Platypus Food Bar manager Grace Wong, 52, it was their salad bowls. Spinelli’s Mr Ang emphatically championed the quality of their coffee.

For Cafe Agora’s barista Ms Razak, it was because, as she laughingly puts it: “I friendly.”

Liang Lei (year 4), Tan Yu Xuan (year 5) and Teo Kai Yi (year 3) are undergraduates from the department of Communications and New Media. This article was first written for a News Reporting and Editing class assignment.

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