The next #KurasuPartnerRoaster is ONIBUS COFFEE in Tokyo. They run several branches across Tokyo, and supply many cafes including some in Kyoto. They are by far one of the most popular roasters in Tokyo and always have been a great inspiration and dear friends to Kurasu since our beginning. We visited the owner, Sakao-san to catch up and revisit his journey with coffee.
How He Met Coffee
“My father is a carpenter- they always take a break twice a day, and everyone drinks canned coffee. Everyone, every day. But what intrigued me was that each person has a different favorite brand- that was my first memory of getting interested in coffee”
Having a carpenter as a father, busy working sites were familiar environment for Sakao-san when he was young. His father and his colleagues would take a brief moment twice a day, away from the hard work. Canned coffee from nearby vending machines were a must during their break, and each of them had their specific favorite choice of brand. That made Sakao-san first realize that “coffee” isn’t just one bland category of drink but something people enjoy in multiple different ways.
Sakao-san’a growing passion for coffee led him to cruise around cafes on weekends, and later when backpacking around the world, coffee was there to welcome him too. In Australia, he visited Mecca, where he discovered there is coffee that tastes perfect without adding sugar or milk, where he saw professional baristas making creamy latte, enjoying friendly conversations with their customers. Then he visited South East Asian countries, where he had a revelation- whenever he can’t decide where to go next, a cafe was always the right place to go for advice. People gathering at cafes always shared their experience and recommended him their favorite places. Warm and friendly locals, tourists and their wonderful mixture of backgrounds were nurturing a unique community. Backpacking was exciting and insightful- and whenever the anxiety for the future was casting a shadow on Sakao-san’s mind, great coffee at cafes and their warm communities eased him and inspired his future dreams.
How ONIBUS COFFEE Started
Having his father as a role model, the idea of running his own business was not so alien to Sakao-san. Through backpacking experience he also discovered he was cut out for creating his own path. The idea of creating something that attracts people, serves good coffee and grows a community started to form in Sakao-san’s mind- and that was the beginning of ONIBUS COFFEE.
Back then, Paul Bassett in Shinjuku was the go-to place to learn anything about being a barista and a roaster. Many of today’s successful coffee professionals gained experience there through their intense training and customer service. Sakao-san also got a job there, brushing up his skills- but after two and a half years passed, a 3.11 earthquake hit Japan. Instantly, Sakao-san tried to go to the devastated areas as a volunteer, but as an employee it was difficult for him to abandon the system and take a long leave. In a few months he could finally visit the area, but the whole experience greatly frustrated him, and gave him a new perspective on life- he didn’t want to be strained when he felt the need to go and do something, and he feels there are no second chances if you only live once.
A short 15 minute walk from lively Jiyugaoka through a quiet residential area, you will find the very first shop of ONIBUS COFFEE standing looking over a railway and the small Okusawa station. The wooden wall and plants add a sense of comfortableness and calmness to the place, and there is a baby blue bench outside of the cafe across the street- people would gather at the cafe, freely choosing where to sit to enjoy their coffee and conversations.
This time we visited their second cafe, the famous ONIBUS COFFEE Nakameguro. It is also located a few minutes away from the station, by a small park. It is more like a coffee stand, and the building has traditional Japanese architecture with its unique aesthetics and character. You can sit in the semi-outdoor area by the building surrounded by green plants, watching their roasting machine right in front of you or friendly baristas working- It feels like you are visiting a friend’s house and chatting in their garden.
When ONIBUS COFFEE opened their branch in Nakameguro, there were about two cafes in the area- but now, countless new shops are joining and making the area into one of the coolest places to visit in Tokyo. Sakao-san’s dream of running his own business, serving good coffee and building a community for people has come true.
ONIBUS COFFEE’s Roast
Home roasting was Sakao-san’s first choice for the business style, and with a limited budget he chose Fuji Royal as his first roaster. With the skill established through the career at Paul Bassett and inspirations by Stumptown, Intelligentsia Coffee, Tim Wendelboe, Market Lane, Mecca and Single O, Sakao-san started his journey to the ideal coffee. Back then, there were not many Japanese roasters that realise the bright and clean flavor and gorgeous aroma- after countless trials and errors and switching the roaster to Diedrich, he finally felt that he reached that level, Sakao-san recalls.
At ONIBUS COFFEE, they examine the quality by daily cupping with strict standards. “Sometimes I feel like nothing tastes good because I set my standards too high- but if you let is slip even just for a little, that appears in a cup straight away” Sakao-san explains. He frequently join many cuppings hosted by other roasters, as well as keeping him updated with the fast-changing world’s trend sometimes using Google Translate if there is not a Japanese article on something he feels he needs- all the effort is worthwhile to keep the quality high.
Selection of Coffee
ONIBUS COFFEE offers an espresso blend and three to five kinds of single origins. To keep the supply stable both for the business and for the core fans of the beans, they limit the variety and purchase them in bulk throughout the year.
Establishing a direct relationship with coffee farms is one of the leading trends in the industry, and ONIBUS COFFEE is no exception. Sakao-san and his staff started visiting farms in Rwanda 5 years ago. The purpose of the visit is to see the environment with their own eyes, get to know the producers rather than going straight to business They feel that telling their customers the story they actually experienced rather than based on data is important to properly convey the quality and present the product.
The Future Plans
The small roaster started by one man now has several branches, 15 staff members and incredible fans all over Japan. At their regular meeting, Sakao-san shares the core values of the business- to connect people, to improve the relationship between the farm and the consumers, and to improve the social status of baristas. Sakao-san wants barista to be a more self-sustaining, long term profession. Instead of being a job that can be occupied by young people temporarily, Sakao-san feels that it should be something that people can do for 10 years, 15 years through many changes in life stages. To achieve that, he believes that he should constantly produce jobs, and sustain the trust in the business and reliable quality.
Sakao-san says that the definition of “success” is different between mass market and in terms of quality. “To please the mass, sometimes you have to give up on quality. But I can’t do that- while I am planning to expand the business and support my staff more, it should always be within the scale that I can handle to sustain the quality to always serve good coffee”, Sakao-san explains, which made us excited to encounter their great coffee at more and more places and occasions, knowing Sakao-san’s vision carries on.