With the COVID restrictions lifted, Singaporeans can now visit Johor Bahru while checking out Lefko boardgame cafe. We sat down with founder Elaine Cheah to talk about why she set up a boardgame cafe in JB and how she managed a cafe throughout the COVID pandemic
With the Singapore-Malaysia land crossings opening after 2 years of COVID shutdown, Singaporeans can now visit Johor Bahru and hunt down their favorite food again. We caught up with one of the founders of Lefko board game café, Elaine Cheah, on why they decided to start a board game café in JB and what they hope to achieve.
Q: Give the readers a short introduction about yourself and your company. What is your role? What is your company about? What is your “origin” story?
Hi, I am Elaine, one of founders of Lefko Boardgame Café, along with my husband, Chadrick. We are avid board gamers, dating over board games eons ago. Yes, we are that old. We now have 4 kids, one of which is a Covid Baby. Since the age of 3, our elder 3 kids have been initiated into the world of board games as we surreptitiously groom them into our future board game kakis. We imagine that when we are old and toothless, board games will be our companions.
Lefko started in September 2019, on a simple dream. We dream of creating a community that is fun, learn and laugh together, and care for one another deeply. We started the company in Malaysia with a café to build such a community and be a source of fun and quality games. We are also a homeschooling family. We thrive on some unschooling, some tiger mum-schooling, some manic-schooling, some world-schooling, lotsa life-schooling and of course, game-schooling!
Board games have always been our go-to as we seek to bond with our children, indirectly teaching them through games. They have had no choice but to learn to wait, take turns, be patient, lose gallantly, win graciously, exercise logic, plan strategies, count scores secretly, read instruction manuals reluctantly and beat their parents. They have had to learn to consider others. It's hilarious how we are a competitive mix and the journey of learning has only just begun. Through all this, we hope our children learn to love people.
In April 2019, during a casual lunch with friends, the idea of a board games café in Iskandar Puteri was mooted and swiftly came into being.
Lefko is Greek for 'WHITE', representing the good clean fun we hope to introduce to the community, bringing together closer bonds in family, colleagues, classmates and friends. We dream of strong bonds in families, strong connections amongst friends, and strong ties within the community. We dream that with a strong sense of belonging, forged through laughter and memories, it will combat loneliness and fragmented families. We dream that as a society, we will be able to weather anything that comes our way because we are strong and united. Therefore, we dream of seeing tables filled with laughter with no mobile phones as people have fun, exercise their brains and sometimes brawn, and most importantly connect and bond.
We believe the power of community is not limited by boundaries and so we also retail and distribute games. We curate great bonding games for Malaysia, Singapore and South East Asia. Along with the nurturing of a love for board games, we hope that the playing of games will inculcate a love for community, society and humanity. We desire to help would-be retailers, and existing retailers to expand their repertoire of games and enable organisations to increase their repertoire of tools for building their own dreams.
Q: What challenges did your company face when it first started? What challenges does your company continue to face now?
Staffing was a challenge as the COVID pandemic hit just months after we opened and we had a lot of challenges training the staffs with the lock down in place; getting them to understand the local market, game rules and the café price points. We happened to be stuck in Singapore when it happened and we had to manage the the café remotely.
Now that Malaysia has largely ended the lock down and is recovering from Covid, we hope to pick up from where we left and continue to offer good services and good game titles while learning to navigate the new normal in a post pandemic world.
Q: What was the work schedule like given the COVID pandemic? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
It was absolutely nuts! The ever changing COVID measures make us feel like we are taking one 1 step forward and 2 steps back. We had to be constantly scrambling to follow COVID management protocols such as opening and shutting timings, and customer scanning etc. We had to do this all while stuck in Singapore. It really took a toll on us and I lost my first supervisor for the café as he was holding fort for the 1st 6 months of the pandemic before he burned out and had to quit. On top of that, he was looking to marry the love of his life who was overseas when the shut down occurred and had to plan an overseas travel during the early uncertain travel regulations of the pandemic. It was painful when we lost a friend we trusted who built the company up with us from the very start and possess a deep understanding of the company's culture.
We had to scramble to hire new staff while in Singapore and had to change the way we interviewed and hired staff. We interviewed new staff via Zoom, and watched them demonstrate how to teach games to customers. We had to try to put together things to help them understand what Lefko is about, remotely. The process was daunting and no words can express the hardship.
Halfway through the Covid pandemic, we also had to make the painful decision to let go of our 2 amazing chefs and just provide snacks and drinks and not offer any main course in the café. It took me a while to get over this decision. We love every staff who has been a part of who we are. We knew it was going to be hard for them too to find a job during Covid and we desperately tried to hang on for as long as we could but the business just was not enough. My husband had to bear the pain and let the staff go in order to keep the business going. We could only pray that letting them go was for something better. They were great folks with superb skills and are wonderful people but the café was struggling under the weight of COVID restrictions.
As the café business went into a nose dive with no end in sight, we decided to not jump but literally leap headfirst into wholesale and distribution of board games. We needed to do whatever it was to keep it alive, keep the dream alive. It was always something we wanted to grow into after settling the café but Covid forced us do it earlier. And by faith, the café staff managed to pivot to e-commerce sales and we were glad that our staff were honest as we were not around to manage them in person due to the shut down. Coordinating with publishers, sticking Lefko into the scene as distributor also was not easy. We had to prove ourselves and I am not sure if we have even done that fully yet. One thing which kept us going was to remind ourselves to do what is right and let our work speak for itself. The process may take months or years but we are confident that we will get there eventually.
Meanwhile, the family was stuck in Singapore and we had to move from place to place, and then, I discovered that I was pregnant. When it rains, it pours. However, we tried to see it as showers of blessings during this period of crisis and we are thankful that we are all good and healthy when the baby was born. The journey brought us to new friends and we learnt new ways of managing and coping even though we had an extremely steep learning curve to climb.
Finally, while in Singapore, we took one more crazy jump to start Lefko Games Singapore since we are here. It was not without trepidation as we have not even established ourselves long enough in Malaysia yet. Sometimes we joked about it and say that we were asking for pain to start business in Singapore in the middle of a pandemic. We ended up with 2 companies running in 2 countries, with borders still closed and not enough staff and burning down our valuable capital. We can only work hard and pray for the best.
Now with the borders open, it is the start of a new journey to rebuild the café and community. How many people remember Lefko? How many people think we might have closed during Covid? How many people who knew us have left? Can our dream of building the community happen again? Now, only time will tell.
Q: Shipping and logistics are big challenges that many retail stores stumble over. What are some of your challenges you faced and how you overcome them?
Despite the fact that borders are opening up and logistics problems are a bit better these days, we still have a lot of challenges in dealing with logistic in the post pandemic economy. The prices of logistics are still volatile. We had to be consistently comparing prices among our logistic partners, shifting shipping times to accommodate shipping disruption due to the pandemic, and sometimes, just biting the bullet to pay for the astronomical shipping cost in order to get our games in to our eager customers.
It’s often also a battle between what increased costs we can absorb and when and how we have no choice but to pass on the increases to our customers. Nobody wants to pay more. However, if we opt not to bring these titles in, nobody benefits. The boardgame industry has an extremely competitive landscape plagued with fake goods, parallel imports and price wars. We may carry the same titles but not all of us have the same bottom lines and similar business values. Other merchants may be more interested in a making a quick profit and bringing in counterfeit games while we are committed to building a community and carrying an inventory of games to ensure that our customers receive their games in a timely manner.
Q: How does your company handle marketing for your brand and your services? Which channels are you present in?
We mainly do word of mouth marketing through social media marketing. We make use of Instagram, Facebook and E-commerce platforms such as Shopee and Lazada to get the word out on the company, our products and our services. We are still moving up the learning curve and in today’s fast moving social media world, sometimes we feel that we are unable to keep up with the changes as everything is moving too fast. This is probably also a show of my age. Haha.
This is an area we are trying to improve and build on because I remembered some wise words, “You can have the best of anything, but if nobody knows, you are nothing.” Having said that, marketing is hard. I can engage the best chefs and staff but if we do not have a strong enough marketing, there will not be enough sales to maintain the business and thus, retain the good staff. Finding that right balance between spending on marketing and spending on getting great staff is a challenge as we have to make hard decisions where to allocate our scarce resources.
Q: What are your views on the Malaysian and Singaporean game industry? What are some of the differences you observe between the gamers from both nations?
As a distributor in Malaysia and Singapore, we have a lot of interactions with designers and publishers on both sides of the causeway. The biggest difference is the board game community in both countries. Malaysian board gamers are more tightly knitted and the sense of community is stronger. On the other hand, the Singapore board game industry is more advanced than the Malaysia side where there is a higher level of board game penetration among the consumers. Malaysia is probably a few years behind in terms of market penetration.
On both ends of the causeway, the board game enthusiasts are equally committed to the hobby and equally knowledgeable about what are the top games are out there. As for the mass consumer market, the Malaysia side still has some ways to go before they are entirely comfortable with imported games, i.e. games from Europe and America.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face when you engage with game publishers. What is your advice for new self-published indie designers who are looking to distribute their games?
Marketing. The success of any product always boils down to marketing and publicity. We wish the publishers could do more marketing and I think marketing is even more pertinent for self published ones. No matter how great a game is, without marketing, nobody knows or will buy the game.
Q: Where is your shop located, and do you have any promotions and events that you are planning?
To visit our board game café at JB, our address is at 17A, Jalan Eko Botani 3/5, Tmn Eco Botanic, 79100 Iskandar Puteri, Johor, Malaysia.
If you want to make an appointment or find out more about our services and opening hours, you can contact our Telegram (Preferred) or Whatsapp at +60 188 733 499.
You can also visit our website at: www.mylefko.com or you can scan the QR code below to find out more about what we do.