With just his phone for company, he picks a hipster joint at random, sits down, and orders after asking the staff for recommendations. When the food arrives, his lanky body jerks into action, scouting around for the perfect Instagram backdrop.
Wood-grain or slate is acceptable, but greenery is best. Natural light, if available, is preferred.
After principal photography concludes, he takes a panoramic video of the establishment for his Instagram Story. Phone held aloft, he paces the environs with deliberation. If he’s embarrassed by the other patrons staring in bemusement, he certainly doesn’t show it.
Where Instagram is concerned, his face wears the solemnity of a priest.
For perspective, he estimates that Singapore has a total of 300 cafes operating ‘at any given point in time.’ Meaning that he has probably visited more cafes in Singapore than there are Singaporean cafes currently in existence.
The logical explanation is ‘influencer’, but Marc denies this.
Yes, he does post everything on his Instagram account @missionsgcafes, and yes, he does have a following. But he always rocks up unannounced and pays for his own food and drink.
Sometimes, the staff will offer him a free coffee or cake, but that’s as far as it goes. He has thus far made a total of $0.00 from @missionsgcafes.
So what on earth inspires Singapore’s most dedicated cafe-hopper to visit 418 (at last count) cafes over the course of 4 long years (from National Service to University to his first paying job)?
Did he fall in love with cafes at first sight? Or is it an academic interest in this cultural phenomenon?
Not exactly. In his own words, Marc just loves ‘missions’. It doesn’t matter what kind of mission, so long as it presents a challenge. Prior to starting on this cafe-mission, 18 year-old Marc embarked on a quest to imbibe 100 different alcoholic beverages over the course of just one year.
“That was a very expensive mission. Nowadays I’m not so hardcore,” he says with a laugh.
Before that, he walked the entire span of SMRT’s Northeast and Circle lines without a map. Just because.
He tells me, “It just popped into my head that morning. People say I’m crazy, but I enjoy it. I like the journey by myself.”
@missionsgcafes started in the same vein. One fine morning in March 2014, Marc simply woke up and decided to visit a cafe. Accompanied by a friend, he went to Robertson Quay’s Laurent Bernard, which he fondly remembers for their chocolate. Whilst lunching there, he decided to turn the whole cafe-hopping thing into another one of his ‘missions’, with an initial target of 40 cafes in 9 months.
After reaching this goal in just 5 months, he decided to continue until he hit 100 cafes, then 150, 200, and so on, before eventually covering more than 400 cafes over the course of 4 years.
Along the way, he found himself embroiled in various adventures. There was the first korean cafe which offered him food on the house, his brief stint as a brand ambassador for a now-defunct tech startup, and his proudest moment: a short feature in the Sunday Times.
“I still have the newspaper cutout,” he said over Telegram, “It was awesome to see your post on paper.”
For every 50 cafes, he also plans a ‘milestone cafe’ where followers are invited to eat, drink and celebrate with him. These milestone events are the only occasions where Marc will call to make a reservation beforehand.
Despite the number of establishments he has frequented, he doesn’t seem to get the same visceral pleasure from eating that so many Singaporeans do. His approach is meticulous and methodical, more like stocktaking than investigative journalism.
By his own admission, the pleasure of cafe-hopping comes not from opportunities for gluttony, but a chance to speak to cafe owners and learn their stories.
“Sometimes when you talk to them, you can really see how passionate they are. If you can hit it off and talk about other topics, that’s the best,” he said.
“A cafe I want to go back to is the one that remembers you and values you. I don’t rank taste as number one because service and ambience are more important. For me, at least,” he explains.
Throughout the conversation, he is careful to reiterate the disclaimer: ‘For me, at least.’ He repeats often that ‘this is my personal preference, I’m not saying that other people are wrong.’ In his reviews, he declines to criticise any establishment with harsh terms like ‘bad’ or ‘disgusting’ even when he dislikes the food—a decision that he defends on the grounds like taste is mostly subjective.
“I am honest but I will usually say that something is too salty or this is not for me. Because this is my experience and you might get a different experience when you go there,” he explains.
Strangely enough for someone who has made a mission of visiting cafes and talking to their staff, Marc still considers himself a introvert, or as he calls it: a ‘soloist’. Although starting a public instagram account was ‘a little scary’ at first, he’s gained a measure of self-confidence from running a public profile. On the whole, he concedes that @missionsgcafes has made him less introverted.
“It has changed me for sure. I think that talking to people and interacting with people has helped me to open up,” he said.
The experience has also changed his career and life goals. Although he is an engineering student, Marc now wants a job where he can be out and about, interacting with people.
“Something in marketing or PR perhaps. I like going around and getting to know people.” he said.
“It’s a part of my life now. I enjoy it.You feel terrible if you don’t get to do something you enjoy,” he explained.
Thankfully, hipster cafes open and close all the time. Tired of sitting around and talking, we finish our tea and push off into the hipster heart of Katong-Joo Chiat, in search of Cafe No. 415.
Along the way, Marc points out the cafes he has visited, what he likes about them, tales from their owners, and even the vacant spots where now-shuttered cafes once stood. We walk pass a promising shopfront named Birds of Paradise, and Marc pops in to check if they consider themselves a ‘cafe’.
They do not, and he emerges shaking his head.
“If you don’t ask, you’ll never know,” he says cheerily.
We do the same for a half-closed bar, a grain-bowl place, a bakery and many other not-quite-cafes. It seems rather laborious to me, but this is Marc’s favourite way of tracking down new places to feature. The internet works fine, but he prefers to just wander the neighbourhoods on foot, hoping to discover hidden gems that have escaped the floodlights of the food blogging combine.
“Once, I was just exploring by myself when I discovered this place that had just opened that same week. They had never been featured before and I was the first,” he recalls fondly.
Somewhat bewildered by his passion, I have no response except to nod and go ‘ah right’. So we stroll on in the sweltering dusk, from Katong all the way back to Paya Lebar MRT. The walk takes about 40 minutes and I am half-dead from the heat, but there’s barely a drop of sweat on his brow when we part ways.