The next #KurasuPartnerRoaster is ABOUT US COFFEE in Kyoto. Despite being a relatively new face in Kyoto’s coffee scene opening its doors in October 2019, they have already established a solid fan base with their tailored coffee shopping experience and a stylish interior. They also collaborated with a popular coffee YouTuber, Kazmax and roasted his original blend. We interviewed the rising star, Sawanoi-san who founded ABOUT US COFFEE.
“I see this shop as a blank canvas. With our staff and customers enjoying coffee and conversation, they add colors to the space, the final touch to complete this place”
ABOUT US COFFEE is a 4-minute walk away from Keihan Fushimi-Inari Station. Adjacent to a traditional Kyoto-style Machiya house that has been converted into a tranquil inn, the cafe stands on a scenic little path tucked in from the main street.
"I see this shop as a blank canvas. With our staff and customers enjoying coffee and conversation, they add colors to the space, the final touch to complete this place", Sawanoi-san explains. The ground floor is coordinated with a muted color scheme, but the upstairs where food is served has a very different vibe with a touch of luxury, decorated with walls filled with white orchids- the aesthetics of this place are definitely one of the attractions for the local college students looking for a cool place to enjoy coffee and add more square framed photos to their social media accounts.
Sawanoi-san roasts his coffee with a Diedrich 2.5kg roaster at ABOUT US COFFEE, and he usually offers 6 types of coffee, mainly light roast but including single origin dark roast.
"Dark roast and natural Ethiopian coffee are popular. Not necessarily because it's Ethiopian, but people without any knowledge of origin often say it's delicious and they like it, and it often turns out to be an Ethiopian coffee. I myself got into specialty coffee after trying a good cup of Ethiopian coffee- there is an unmistakable uniqueness to Ethiopian coffee and it continues to prove its popularity. I make sure to offer various types of coffee, but there are many people who prefer dark roast, probably because the idea of coffee is still very strongly associated with bitterness, especially when they are ordering it with food. A patissiere recently joined our team and we are currently planning to offer cakes and cookies that pair well with light roast”, he says.
A struggle during the pandemic that opened up a new path
Since the pandemic, the number of visitors to the cafe has decreased dramatically. In April 2020, sales fell to the point where Sawanoi-san had nothing left after paying rent and to the staff members. While exploring various solutions to survive, he opened an online shop and started selling beans and equipment. In addition, he had an offer of a collaboration with a popular YouTuber, Kazmax, to make his blend and it instantly triggered a 100 kg sales.
"The power of YouTube and their creators are simply amazing. To be honest, it was very overwhelming to receive such a big amount of order for that collaboration and via the online store I just opened, but it gave me an opportunity to experience what it is like to have a constant high demand, not only in roasting part of the process but with packing and sending the packages out. Trying to accommodate all of those orders by myself all of a sudden was quite a mess, but that helped me recognize where the process needs improving and the general directions I want to take, so it was really a blessing. It also made me realize the certain amount of credibility I can earn only through my title such as ‘a winner of such and such’- I am a qualified Q grader, but am keen on participating in more roasters championships such as JCRC (Japan Coffee Roasting Championship)”, Sawanoi-san reflects.
Diving into a completely different world
"I wasn't always good at expressing myself, but fashion showed me a way to do it" says Sawanoi-san, who used to be a high-brand boutique sales staff before opening ABOUT US COFFEE.
Growing up in a family business that runs Sento (a public bath), Sawanoi-san was familiar with the environment as a business owner. It was natural for him to dream about becoming one in the future, and he started off his career in fashion. He loved learning about back stories of the designer’s clothes, how it came to be and what the designers wanted to express in the wearable arts- telling his customers all about it, sharing the passion and love for each product and helping them pick their dream clothes was such a fulfilling experience, Sawanoi-san remembers. He also ran a personal fashion account on Instagram and had 8,000 followers at one point- storytelling is truly in his nature.
However, when he thought about starting a business of his own, he decided to choose a completely different industry- coffee. "I couldn't drink coffee until I started my job. For me, coffee was just a bitter drink to keep me awake. But I came across LiLo Coffee Roasters in Osaka, and tried their latte- and everything has changed. I was struck by the berry-like fruitiness of that cup, and since then I was captured by the world of specialty coffee. I quickly shifted from milky drinks to black coffee to enjoy the full characteristics and flavors of each coffee”, he says.
Sawanoi-san became so interested in coffee that it did not take long before he developed a desire to create the magic with his own hands. He enrolled in a culinary college, L’ecole Vantan in Osaka, and took a barista training course, then also took a coffee roasting course to learn about coffee in depth.
Although fashion was a powerful medium for Sawanoi-san to express himself, opening a shop with the exact same business model did not feel right for him. Creating his own fashion brand was not an option either, as his profession was not involved with designing clothes- the skill and talent Sawanoi-san proved to have were in communication and in sales, sharing stories and understanding his customers and matching them with a product that’s perfect for each person.
"In that sense, specialty coffee shops work in a very similar way- I can offer a variety of unique coffee beans each coming with intriguing stories and the faces of the producers. I always make sure to have a wide enough range in my products so that I can find a good match for individual customers”, says Sawanoi-san.
"There are many coffee shops in Kyoto, and compared to them I’m still far behind. But by becoming one of those many shops on the great Kyoto coffee map, people may stop by as one of their many coffee tour stops. And when they do, I will be prepared to serve them something that surpasses their expectations”, Sawanoi-san smiles.
Looking back on his first encounter with specialty coffee, the "correct answer" for Sawanoi-san to start liking specialty coffee was the fruity taste of lightly roasted Ethiopian coffee. But there is no “correct for all” answer. To suit every person’s needs and preferences, Sawanoi-san makes sure to offer different varieties and roasting levels, while also communicating to his customers how light roast coffee is often the best suited roasting level for fully enjoying the unique differences of coffees, and encouraging them to try.
"Most of our customers are very young, mainly because of the location being near to several colleges and also because of the style of the interior being appealing for them and is photogenic. Some of them are not sure if they like coffee yet, and would ask for our advice. We usually ask them to walk us through their preferences so that we can fully understand what we can offer and recommend. We also offer samples so people would feel more comfortable trying something different. When someone says ‘I don’t like bitter coffee’, that ‘bitter’ can mean many different things- it could mean a burned bitterness, or biting into a lemon peel kind of bitterness. Sometimes, maybe ‘sour’ is even better fit to explain what they mean. Also, different moods need different coffee. Communicating with them until we can tell if they seek safety or comfort in a cup, or something new and exciting is very important”, Sawanoi-san says.
When you don’t know what kind of coffee you like, or you are feeling certain ways but not sure what type of coffee you should choose, then ABOUT US COFFEE is the very first place you would want to visit.
Why “ABOUT US” ?
When you are interested in a company or brand, you would access their website and click the section often called "ABOUT US"- you may find why and how they started their business, and what they want to achieve in the future. For Sawanoi-san, coffee is a tool that enabled him to express and introduce himself- but there is a reason why his shop is called “ABOUT US”, not “ABOUT ME”.
"I said that coffee shops are just like boutiques- each coffee has a story about its journey that started before it arrived here. I count every person involved in that journey as one of “US”. I share where that coffee came from, who produced it with what kind of environment and intentions or aspirations, and that’s why I named my shop this way. It also shows in our logo, but in the background if you have a closer look, there are letters “us” woven into a geometric pattern with the lines all intertwined, and this pattern can be repeated and spread limitlessly. We all receive someone’s output in the process of establishing who we are, and we are giving someone else our output, and it infinitely expands and grows”, he explains.
"I want to convey the fun and joy of coffee. I'm also looking forward to encountering beans with different characteristics and from the origins I’ve never roasted before. At the moment I’m very much stoked to try certain fermented beans. There are many wonderful roasters around me, and getting recognition from them and the coffee industry is also my goal and the reason I work hard to improve myself", says Sawanoi-san.
"Fashion industry is well known for its harsh and borderline illegal working environment, but the brands I worked for had a good working environment with proper breaks and holidays. Unfortunately, the food and beverage industry still has a long way to go, and I would like to contribute to improving that. A barista is not a very highly paid job yet too- instead of hiring many part time workers, I support a small group of full time employees so that everyone in my team does not have to worry about juggling jobs and can plan their financial future while focusing on what they want to do”, Sawanoi-san explains.
It may be hard to imagine from his fresh, young look and very mild manners, a skillful businessman who beautifully channelled his strength and experiences from completely different profession, and his thoroughly calculated, well-designed photogenic shop, space where anyone can discover what they like through the tailored shopping experiences- ABOUT US COFFEE is surely be on more and more people’s cafe radars and their maps.