Dil’s Cafe had a rough start. After establishing itself a mere three months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the sultanate in late 2019, the cafe like many other businesses during that time period, had a number of hurdles to get through to keep itself afloat.
That was four years ago when it was known as Dil’s Coffee Trail, a cosy coffee bar popular for coffee and its accompanying cakes.
Now however, it has expanded into a brick-and-mortar cafe located at The Curve in Batu Bersurat, with a new moniker that not only reflects a new start, but a new evolution from a business to a full-fledged brand.
“When I started the cafe, it was always meant to be for takeaway and as a hub to take customers’ orders of cakes for special events,” said Shaikh Fadilah Ahmad, lovingly known as Dil, the owner and Creative Director of Dil’s Cafe.
“Eventually, customers started asking for places to sit so they could enjoy their coffee and cakes fresh. So we did, we set up a few seating areas at home, but the crowd kept coming, it kept growing, so we had to grow too,” he added.
The logical next step was of course to set up a brick and mortar to meet the growing demand, but Dil did not take the decision lightly, considering the significant investment needed. It was ultimately his customers who motivated Dil to take the leap and establish a cafe outside of his home.
“I’m quite thankful that I have customers that are engaging, that like to share their views with me and at the time, they truly believe in my potential and the potential of Dil’s Cafe as a brand,” he said.
“I had my doubts at first. It’s a big investment (to open a brick and mortar) for just coffee and cakes but then they would tell me; ‘if you never try, you will never know’ and that was it,” he added.
“Considering the home-based cafe was initially borne out of my hobby for coffee and baking and how different managing a brick and mortar business is, the journey was bound to be difficult, scary even, but to grow, I guess is to move out of your comfort zone and doing things you’ve never done before,” continued the retired civil servant.
When Dil established the business in 2019, he never set out to build a brand, let alone be its driving force. However, his undeniable charm and warm hospitality have not only garnered more customers but also opportunities inside and outside the sultanate.
To date, the multi-hyphenate entrepreneur has been invited as a guest judge for the Coffee Art Battle in Jakarta last year, modelled for local fashion brand Bilang and has been featured in a number of ads for brands including Jaguar Brunei, all in service of building the brand that is Dil and Dil’s Cafe.
“All of these opportunities, yes they held a lot of marketing potential, but they’re not just me endorsing things. The companies I work with, we get to share our audience and we’re establishing rapport, strengthening our networks,” he said.
“I believe that we cannot do everything alone, in business, we have to find collaborators we can work with, whether they are brands, big corporations or the self-employed,” added Dil.
“I’ve become friends with a lot of them and we’ve supported each other a lot. This is why networking is important and why you must always keep your doors open; to new people, new projects, new opportunities,” he went on to say.
According to Dil, social media played an integral part in facilitating these opportunities, especially with the decision to put himself at the forefront of Dil’s Cafe Instagram page @dils.cafe.bn.
“If you have social and you have a business, do not keep it private. I put myself out there despite any expected criticism because I want people to see the man behind the business, the man behind coffee and the cakes,” he explained.
“I’ve worked hard these past number of years, I was the sole barista and baker for a while. Dil’s Cafe started with one person and now we have a team of 15 who are all local hires,” he added.
Despite his commitment to building the brand and his increasingly busy schedule, you can still see Dil brewing coffee at Dil’s Cafe, especially in the morning.
Even with his capable staff, some of which have stayed with him for as long as three years, Dil still brews and bakes because these are the things he loves.
Most importantly, however, being present at the cafe allows him to enjoy one other aspect of the business that he loves; connecting with his customers.
“I like to be behind the counter because I get to speak with my customers and get to know them. I want them to feel at home, to enter the cafe and have that feeling of being welcomed, of feeling that they belong here,” he shared.
If he is not talking to customers, you can see Dil discussing with his staff or training them in the art of brewing and baking.
Whether it is about staffing for an upcoming corporate event, or about which aspects of their menu are underperforming, as the creative director, Dil likes to actively engage his team to better their operations and better the brand that is Dil’s Cafe.
Moving forward, Dil shared that there are a number of upcoming projects that people can expect and that since his experience as a guest judge in Jakarta, he has been looking into the feasibility of franchising.
He has also begun an espresso workshop for professional baristas, where they will be taught the ins and outs of brewing coffee from manning the coffee machine to identifying notes of coffee from different localities.
“I’m grateful for the positive response that we have been receiving all these years and the trust that the customers have in us,” Dil went on to say.
THE BRUNEIAN | BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN