In October 2018, a specialty coffee shop “coffee uno” opened in a corner of the shopping street in front of Kintetsu Shirako Station in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture. With the goal of opening his own shop by the age of 30, master Akio Higuchi dropped out of graduate school and spent a total of 8 years training at cafes and long-established coffee shops in Nagoya. What is the story of Mr.Higuchi, who decided to open a shop in his hometown Suzuka, where he doesn’t have to compete with competitors and people who previously have been good to him?
Maintain comfortable distance
It takes about 40 minutes to Nagoya station by limited express train. In the mornings and evenings, there are many commuters heading to Nagoya. There is a shopping street with 30 to 40 individual stores and pubs at the west exit of Kintetsu Shirako station, which is also called “the gateway to Suzuka”.
About half of the stores and restaurants are open only at night, so the shopping street looks like a “shutter street” (streets with many closed-down shops or offices) during the day, but at night, it shows a different face. In one corner, coffee uno has been in business since October 2018.
“Before COVID-19, the shop was open until 11PM because many customers came for coffee after having drinks at a nearby izakaya (Japanese style pub). I myself like to drink coffee at night, so this shopping district was perfect for such a shop.”
The warm bare light bulbs hanging above the tables, the chic color of the tables and floors in harmony with the white walls, and some plants are placed inside and outside the shop. The interior of the shop is designed to soothe the customers.
“I wanted to create a place where anyone can relax and unwind. When I serve customers, I try to read the atmosphere, or rather, I try to find a comfortable distance for each customer. I’ve been told that I’m an old man if I start loving plants, but I woke up to the joy of growing plants while taking care of those in my shop (laughs).”
With his trademark round glasses and mustache, Higuchi has been known as “Master” even to his older customers since he started the shop. Perhaps Higuchi’s personality is also reflected in the fact that he has been called “Master” since he was 30 years old, a name somewhat disproportionate to his actual age.
“I was so happy when a couple who used to come showed up and said ‘This is our baby. and I wanted Master to hold it’. I myself had a child three years ago, so I welcome people with children to my shop.”
Even though the shop is designed to be friendly to new customers, the policy of specializing in specialty coffee is consistent.
“I used to think that ‘good coffee always tastes the same’ but specialty coffee taught me that the taste varies depending on the type of bean, and that the same type of coffee can change from year to year. In the world of specialty coffee, it is considered to be good that each bean is different, and it is fun to discover new beans. I want to share the joy that I learned in this few years.”
Awakening to coffee
Although Higuchi is now a coffee drinker by trade, coffee used to be one of his weaknesses. It was a coffee shop he visited when he was a university student that got him into the world of coffee.
“I was fascinated by the bitter and rich coffee I drank there. I had never been a fan of coffee before, so it must have been a memorable experience for me.
It was not only the tastes but together with the relaxing atmosphere of the shop, I came to like their coffee. The shop was run by a couple in their mid-thirties, and I could sense the kindness in their mannerisms and the way they interacted with customers.”
As he went to that shop repeatedly, Higuchi became interested in coffee, bought coffee equipment and started brewing and drinking coffee by himself.
“The main reason I started thinking about owning a shop was because I had a close friend who was suffering from manic-depressive psychosis. When I saw how my friend, who had a lot of ups and downs in his moods, became calmer when he was at the coffee shop, I began to think of creating a similar space by myself.”
Having been determined to open a shop by the age of 30, the 22-year-old Higuchi dropped out of graduate school without consulting his parents or relatives. Although his relatives were angry with him for reporting it after dropping, he did not feel conflicted about getting off the rails.
After that, Higuchi, who had no part-time experience in a coffee shop, took a job as a contract worker at a cafe in Nagoya to learn the ropes of the coffee shop business. This was partly to save up for the opening of his own business but he also worked at other cafes on his days off to accumulate knowledge and experiences.
“In the beginning, my theme was to create a space, so I was not particular about coffee. At the time, I didn’t know much about coffee roasting or specialty coffee.”
It was a so-called cafe-restaurant that served not only coffee but also sandwiches, pasta, and sweets and at night it served a course menu as a restaurant.
“I think all the experiences at that cafe-restaurant, except for cooking dinner, are still very much alive today. Having experienced a wide range of work at a single restaurant, I felt that the essence is the same in all of them. In my case, it’s roasting, but if you master one path, you can learn other things faster, and I feel that what I learned in the process of mastering roasting can be applied to other things.”
Open local shop to avoid competition
Higuchi’s first encounter with specialty coffee and roasting was with the “coffee of the day” served at the cafe. He became interested in roasting when he visited the roaster who was the supplier of the coffee.
“The master lent me a hand-cranked home roasting machine, and I was hooked. It didn’t go well at all at first. Perhaps it was partly because I was a science major and was born to like experiments, it became interesting to see the gradual improvement as I repeated the process. Roasting, where you can see the results in ten plus minutes, also appealed to me because of the quick cycle of testing hypotheses.
After quitting the cafe-restaurant, Higuchi worked three years at a long-established coffee shop in Nagoya that was rooted in the local community. After deepening his coffee knowledge and honing his skills, Higuchi initially thought of opening a shop in Nagoya. However, there were many specialty coffee shops competing with each other in Nagoya, and he was concerned that it would interfere with someone else’s business in any district.
“I thought if there is a shop that is rooted in a certain area and the local people are satisfied with their specialty coffee, then there is no need to open another shop. I felt that it would be more suitable for me to expand the base of specialty coffee lovers in areas where specialty coffee has not yet penetrated.”
While his doubts remained unresolved, his decision to return to his hometown was supported by the fact that his wife got pregnant.
“One of the reasons why I decided to make a U-turn (going back from the bigger city to one’s hometown) was because my younger sister got married and moved out, leaving my mother on her own. Since my father died when I was in the second grade, I grew up in a single-mother household, but thanks to the support of my relatives, I was able to live as I pleased. After entering college, I only could contact my mother once a year. Those things made me feel that I wanted to repay her by being close to her.
Now that I am a parent of two children, I think that I was blessed with the environment I grew up in. Even now, I have relatives living nearby who take care of my children, and regular customers who often come to the shop to watch over my son and daughter as they grow up. I think our children are learning many things from this kind of interaction.”
I want to create peaceful world
At the root of Higuchi’s realization of opening his own coffee shop, which he dreamed of at the age of 22, is the regret of not being able to help a friend who was suffering from mental illness in college.
“As a person who grew up in a relaxed environment, I’m able to handle stress and friction. However, there are people who can be sensible to them, so I always try to create an environment that doesn’t create such problems. My goal is world peace, but I can’t do such a big thing. So at least, I’d like to start with something close to home, like the Butterfly Effect, where the flap of a butterfly’s wings causes a tornado on the other side of the world.
Higuchi applies his philosophy also to the staff working at the shop. Once we added parfait to the menu, as there was a request of a staff member who had experience as a pastry chef. Our staff sometimes organize and run a coffee class at their initiative. Perhaps that is why customers often say “Your staff always seems to be enjoying their work.”
“I want my staff to be able to work freely and show their individuality. There are certain principles that we need to follow as a shop but if we keep those principles in mind, we can have the staff members change the recipes for brewing or even the layout of the shop as they like. I think it’s also fine that the atmosphere of the shop changes depending on the staff members working at the time.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that Higuchi, who values the individuality of each person, would come across specialty coffee that makes the most of the individuality of the beans. And now, almost three years after opening coffee uno, Higuchi is working on the idea of opening a second shop.
“With one shop, we are limited in what we can do. There are many things I want to tell customers about specialty coffee, coffee producers, roasting and brewing, sweets and many others. That’s why we want to divide the shop into two and make each shop unique.”
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi
Photography by Kenichi Aikawa
I don't drink much coffee at home. but my three-year-old son who wants to do many things sometimes hands me and my wife a cup of coffee he has poorly hand-dripped. Coffee that we can drink together like that is something that touches my heart. Not only by my own child, but I feel that coffee made by someone else tastes a grade higher.