AMBIRD, a roastery and cafe, opened in Kamisuwa, Nagano Prefecture, in October 2019. In recent years, the number of young emigrants opening stores in the Kamisuwa area has been on the rise, partly due to its easy access from the city center, just over two hours from Shinjuku by limited express train. We interviewed Mr. Nobuo Kurotori, the owner of AMBIRD, who moved from Tokyo and dared to choose Kamisuwa as the place to open his shop because “there was no cultural foundation for specialty coffee in Kamisuwa” .
Shop that caters to each individual
Many customers who visit AMBIRD are momentarily confused by the menu written only in English. At first glance, this may seem like an unfriendly service, but the owner, Kurotori, has a goal.
“It’s a chance to communicate with customers and to learn what they are looking for”, he says. “I am often told that I am unique in that I never make recommendations to customers. Even if they look lost, I try to communicate with them and help them find the best coffee for themselves.”
The reason why the shop offers not only coffee but also a wide range of other drinks such as green tea, hojicha, matcha latte and chai latte is to make it easier to find the best answer by offering more choices. Kurotori’s stance to meet the diverse needs of his customers is also evident in the fact that he keeps a wide variety of books in the shop from picture books to food, design and architecture magazines.
“The selection of books is partly my own personal taste, but I also like to set books that will spark conversations with customers. In fact, sometimes the conversation starts from there, and like this I exchange at least a word or two with most of my customers.”
Kurotori’s stance of trying to be close to each customer can be glimpsed in the shop’s management policy of ”first come, first served, no time limit and no reservations”.
“I never want to ask current customers to leave for the sake of customers who are waiting. No matter how long a customer stays, we don’t want them to feel pressured, so we ask them not to wait in front of the shop. We once had a customer who came three times in a day. I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I told him “I’ll call you when there will be a seat” and he came in when a seat became available.
In fact, many of the customers are so attentive that they leave voluntarily. Anyway, I try to make sure that people have a relaxing time here. It makes me happy when I read on social media or Google reviews from regular customers that they were here for an hour or two; it was so comfortable, or that they’ll be back.”
Combination of coffee and customer service
It was a part-time job at Starbucks that made Kurotori discover the joy of serving customers. He worked at Starbucks to earn to attend a visual arts-related technical school after graduating from college. When he was a student, he was considering it just as a part-time job. However, several years later, after working full-time, he found the fascination of customer service when he started working there again.
“For example, when I recommend a drink that would suit a customer who comes every day, he says ‘it’s perfect for today’s mood’. Or when I find something he’s looking for, he says “thank you”. It’s a small thing, but it makes me very happy when I get a good response to something I’ve done by guessing and figuring out in my own way what the customer in front of me would like or what she or he is looking for.”
Fascinated by the joy of serving customers, Kurotori’s passion to achieve the goal of eventually owning his own shop grew. He quit Starbucks and started working part-time at a newly opened cafe. He became involved in roasting coffee, and there his passion for coffee began to grow stronger. Later, when he learned for the first time about the existence of specialty coffee at ONIBUS COFFEE, and he couldn’t stay away from coffee anymore.
“I have a degree in science. And specialty coffee roasting, which has a narrow sweet spot and requires delicacy, suited me well. It’s frustrating when things don’t go as planned and exciting when things go well. It was fun to improve the quality logically through trials, errors.”
The environment at ONIBUS COFFEE, where he worked for about three years, was also a plus.
“I’ve never been to a coffee producing site, but the people who work there go and buy green coffee directly from the producers, so I have a stronger sense that I’m helping to connect the producers’ hard work to the consumers. That’s why I have more motivation and a sense of responsibility to serve delicious coffee without making any mistakes, and I think working with highly conscious members has spurred me on.”
The fun of creating something
After resigning from ONIBUS COFFEE, Kurotori went freelance and decided to open a shop in a place other than Tokyo.
“As I visited various parts of Japan and got to know many people from different professions, I learned that there are many people in rural areas who are doing interesting things to make a living. One of the reasons was that I thought it would be more rewarding to work in an area where there is not yet a foundation of specialty coffee culture, rather than in Tokyo where there is already a certain established market. I was aware of the hard work that should come naturally, but the excitement of creating something from scratch won out.
The Kamisuwa area, where I am currently setting up a shop, used to be getting deserted just before I arrived, but with young people moving here, local people who were inspired by them began to open stores. I could feel the positive energy that the town was going to change drastically.
Whether it’s ONIBUS COFFEE or Kamisuwa, it’s exciting to be able to put myself in a place that is visibly changing and growing, and grow with it. I feel like I’m constantly upgrading my character in a game (laughs). I felt that if I would become a member of the community and take root in the community, I can become a pioneer and continue for a long time.
Kurotori, who opened AMBIRD in October 2019, said he recently hired a staff member. “She is a woman with a goal of opening a restaurant that focuses on baked sweets in the future.”
“In the future, my ideal is to open two more shops in other prefectures, for a total of three shops, and rotate the locations of the two or three staff members hired for each shop every year. If they become familiar with their respective towns, their fans will increase, and they definitely will be supported when they eventually become independent.
For myself, it’s a great help to have customers and friends from bakery uneclef and ONIBUS COFFEE, where I worked previously come to visit me. If she or he wants to work at my shop for a long time, that’s great. People only live once, so if she wants to do it, I don’t see any reason to turn her down.”
I want to circulate good stuff
Kurotori wants to provide an opportunity for people to think about the richness of life through the shop.
“It doesn’t matter what it is, but when you are exposed to a world that you have never seen or experienced before, it is exciting. And when a new world opens up from there, life becomes more enjoyable. I myself have a tendency to want to tell others what I think is good, so I hope that people who come to my shop will feel the same way.”
Although he is now full of positive energy, Kurotori says that he used to be a “dark-hearted negative guy who was troubled and depressed by even small things”.
“I was the type of person who would often say ‘I’m not really…’ I had no self-confidence, so I rarely shared my thoughts and visions with others. But when I started working at ONIBUS COFFEE, I started to talk about my thoughts, and my life clearly started to change. As people around me continued to connect me with other people, I began to think that there was such a thing as the spirit of words and I began to value the relationships that were drawn to me.
I also think that the experience of interacting with people through serving customers was a big factor. I can continue to update my knowledge as I gain more and more input through the stories that customers told me. This state of mind has probably continued ever since I started communicating with people. That’s why I think the best way to describe it is that I was brought up by my customers.”
The name “AMBIRD” was coined from the combination of “amber” and “bird”.
“The reason is that when you brew a cup of coffee that has been roasted to bring out as much of the bean’s character as possible and hold it up to the light, it turns amber colored.
Also, amber, which is made from tree sap, is a power stone, and like wood, it absorbs carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen, in other words, it absorbs bad things and exhales good things.
Like such amber, I named the shop with the hope that people who come to the shop tired will leave feeling good, and that everyone who has interacted with me will feel good. That’s why I keep the size of the shop and the number of seats — 10 within reach of my eyes and voice.”
Kurotori is committed to working behind the scenes so that each and every customer can feel maximum happiness. It is precisely because Kurotori maintains such a stance that customers are able to immerse themselves in their own time.
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi.
It's coffee made by someone else. When I brew my own coffee, I unconsciously start looking for the rough edges as part of my work[d] and I don't enjoy the coffee as much. I feel richer when I drink a cup of coffee without thinking about it, such as when I stop by a shop on a trip.