The next #KurasuPartnerRoaster is Craftsman Coffee in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi.
They opened in October 2016, and with a concept of pursuing the way to enrich their and their customer’s life, they have been growing as one of the most popular cafe/roasters in Shimonoseki. For the interview, we visited their new location which is focused more on coffee roasting that recently opened in Shimonoseki Marketplace, THE LAB.
Step inside their cafe, also located in Shimonoseki, and you'll discover a lively atmosphere with laughter that fills the air before meeting their baristas- among them, a firefighter and many others, all from very different backgrounds - all enjoying the conversation while brewing the best coffee in the area. The two owners, Takagi-san and Aoyama-san grew up in Hokkaido and Yokohama, both quite far away from Yamaguchi. It seems that Craftsman Coffee consists of many unique matches, but that is what makes them charming, complicated and thus strong in many aspects of their business...some say “they appeared suddenly like a comet”. We interviewed the owners to discover how they came to be the top roaster boosting the economy of Shimonoseki.
Takagi-san was born in Shizuoka, and spent his childhood in Hokkaido. He then moved to Kanagawa to study at Tokai University, and during his part-time job at a restaurant he stepped into the food and beverage industry. Takagi-san felt that the philosophy of the restaurant's parent group resonated with him: to enrich people’s lives through promoting local business and industry. He loved it so much that he decided to stay with them for another year, continuing to work there while he started his job working at the university following his graduation. The restaurant assigned him to work in their cafe department, which led him to get to know coffee and cafe business.
Later, Takagi-san decided to take part in his family business of rice farming, and moved to Shimonoseki. While they had a stable business with several wholesale deals in the area, due to the nature of the business, Takagi-san had a lot of unoccupied time during the off-season. He took another job aside from the farming, but still it was difficult to say he was having an ideal life. It was during this time that the idea of opening a shop making use of his experience in F&B industry came to him- the first step towards Craftsman Coffee coming to life.
“I was thinking, if I run a restaurant I can only see the same customer once a month if not less frequently. You don’t go to the same restaurant every day, right? I wanted something more casual, where my manual work gets directly reflected in the service, and where I can see my customers' faces a lot more often. That led me to open a cafe”, Takagi-san explains. He immediately contacted his childhood friend, a barista, and they started preparing.
Born in France and raised in Yokohama, Aoyama-san met Takagi-san at Tokai University where he studied Sports Management. During that time he organized numerous sports events with Takagi-san establishing a very strong trust and partnership between them. They promised each other that one day they would run a business together, parting ways upon their graduation, while remaining close friends.
Aoyama-san joined a sports brand company and worked for their sales department, first year in Tokyo and then in Nagoya. The company heavily valued their brand image and direct branch management, and through the job Aoyama-san learned a great deal about business management including staff education.
While he was very much enjoying his job and he was sure that it was somewhere that allowed him to develop, he had this vague feeling that he was postponing something he really wants to do. The promise he made with Takagi-san had also been flashing in his mind. Around then there was a big earthquake happened in Kumamoto, and when he heard the news that one student who was studying at remote campus of Tokai University had been killed in a collapsed building, Aoyama-san felt that that was his final call to change his life.
Aoyama-san has been often visiting Takagi-san in Shimonoseki, and he would sit at the bar of Craftsman Coffee and observe the shop and the service provided, and give a casual feedback to Takagi-san using his knowledge of business management. He was also often helping them with running events and was involved in their management since their early days. “Actually we had been communicating with each other almost everyday, sharing the sales report and events of the day. We would plan a event, talk about the strategy- I was spending about one third of my time on the cafe, and I was enjoying it a lot”, Aoyama-san looks back.
Aoyama-san's interest in coffee was growing after Takagi-san introduced him to TRUNK COFFEE in Nagoya. He visited TRUNK COFFEE almost everyday, which led him thinking more about coffee and a lifestyle with coffee. “What can I do to introduce a lifestyle with great coffee to more people?”- the question sprouted, and that grew into his mission, something he was always looking for.
Meanwhile in Shimonoseki, Takagi-san was struggling. He hired the best barista who knew all about specialty coffee. His standards were very high and he had strict sense of quality- but somehow it didn’t work. Takagi-san was not yet a specialist in coffee back then, but he started feeling that their business style was not fitting into what the local area needed to really embrace them.
So he made a difficult decision- he told the barista that he felt that what they are trying to present isn’t really what this town wants, and it needs fixing. And to do that, Takagi-san had to part ways with him and move in a different direction.
Following that, Craftsman Coffee underwent substantial changes- one of their regulars, a firefighter, asked if he could work for them as a barista. Some more people came to join him, and with Aoyama-san joining officially as the co-owner, Craftsman Coffee was reborn as what they are today. “I do marketing and sales, and Aoyama does the admin, we work very well like that, each of us in a different division; the business instantly started to roll. People had advised me not to do co-ownership, but when it comes to us, we always find a common ground in anything. We never fight”, Takagi-san smiles- their promise was finally fulfilled.
Craftsman Coffee’s Coffee
“What should we do to have specialty coffee accepted in the neighbourhood?” The answer Takagi-san had was to establish a standard they believed in alongside the industry standard of specialty coffee, and to be able to guide their customers in their own words.
In each staff member’s mind, there still is that fresh memory of their first encounter with specialty coffee and how different it felt. That is the moment that their customer is about to experience, and by trying to see from that point of view, the staff can provide a service and the best cup that the customer can connect with- a philosophy Takagi-san strongly believes in.
To realise their ideal coffee that has sweetness and clean flavor, they use the Probat 12kg. Their original roaster, Fuji Royal’s semi-blast 5kg is still up and running for when they need to produce their darker roast. Takagi-san and 2 others are in charge of the roasting process- initially they follow the mainstream recipe and theory to start with, before adding any necessary changes to make the final adjustment. Baristas then take over and arrange their brewing recipe depending on the character and outcome of the roast, counting in the weather and other environmental factors upon serving.
Each barista has complete control over how they brew, and that encourages them to be more interactive with the roasting part of the coffee, as well as encouraging them to express themselves freely out of the box through coffee.
Craftsman Coffee and Shimonoseki’s Coffee Scene
Not many people know that Shimonoseki is a sister city with Sao Paulo in Brazil, the world's largest coffee producing country. Influenced by this historical relationship, Shimonoseki has a remarkable number of kissatens, and there are 10 roasters despite the city only having a population of 180,000.
“There are many people loving coffee and I am getting the impression that most of them are over 50 years old. However, they are so accustomed to the traditional dark roast, but not to anything about specialty coffee. Up until about a year after opening, the single word ‘acidity’ on the menu was an instant deal-breaker”, Takagi-san recalls.
Marketing it as “this is what specialty coffee is” wasn’t working; however, it does have a completely different flavor to what was traditionally accepted. That’s where Takagi-san and his staff’s ability to serve coffee in their own words with their personal experiences came into play: they explained what to look for in the cup, sometimes flavor note, sometimes aroma, and encourage their customers to search for those details, like a treasure hunt.
Their sincere approach started to show effect, and people’s attitude towards acidity gradually changed. Many enjoyed the new experience of treasure hunting, and even when they didn’t like what they tried, they stopped simply rejecting it by saying “it’s sour”, but turned that into a feedback to help themselves to explore their own preference and positive experience. How they roast and what they serve has not changed at all- they still are introducing specialty coffee to the community, but with a service and interaction more suited to their customers that has successfully changed people’s perspectives.
The port of Shimonoseki and Moji in the area has always been a tourist attraction, but Aoyama-san is seeing the change in the tide as more and more visitors travel to the cafe as their main travel destination. A notable change happened especially after visitors from neighbouring Asian countries started leaving many reviews on social media and Google Maps, leading even more people to visit. “Sometimes people tell us that they do not speak English nor Japanese but they decided to visit us because of those good reviews. We are feeling blessed to have them, and we are feeling eager to become more capable of welcoming them properly one day in the future”, Aoyama-san straightens his back.
Future Steps to a Richer Life
When asked about their future plans, Takagi-san said “I want to be a florist in the future.” Aoyama-san continued after that, “We would love to try anything if we think it will enrich people’s life. We have been thinking about ourselves and our customers, and in the future we want to scale it up and think about our local community.”
Last year, they organized an event collaborating with 30 local business owners to introduce what Shimonoseki and its local industries has to offer. The event was a huge success, attracting 3000 people, and Craftsman Coffee are already getting several offers to host more events this year. “Our current goal is to contribute to the local community, reviving it by encouraging more independent businesses and help them flourish along with ours”, Aoyama-san explains.
The flexibility of their attitude enables them to work with many different industries outside of their usual circles. They often host a workshop with varieties of shops from Shimonoseki, in search of a hidden gem, and see what attracts people.
“We do not have any business manual. However, we do not just follow our hunch. Each of us thinks and stands as a craftsman, and we also think as a team and try, and if we fail, that’s just one consequences and we will grow with it”, Takagi-san says.
They are the “craftsmen” in coffee, but that spirit goes beyond coffee. The name always reminds them to achieve perfection in their pastries, food and the whole atmosphere with a great attention to the details. Takagi-san and Aoyama-san continued to tell us more ideas about what they want to try in the future, including expressing the unique characters of their staff through their services and decor- that assured us that their strong friendship and passion will continue to work to boost Shimonoseki to flourish even more.