Connections are created through coffee. A small community coffee stand in Aomori prefecture.
COFFEEMAN good is a coffee shop located in Aomori City, Aomori prefecture in the northeastern part of Japan. Run by the locally born and raised owner together with his Kanagawa-born wife, they roast their coffee in-house. A rarity in Aomori, the specialty coffee shop strives to serve customers by placing importance on seeing things from their perspective. We speak with the owner, Mr. Yudai Hashimoto and Mrs. Yuri Hashimoto who say, “The appeal of Aomori is that you can feel a real connection with people here.” ※Titles in the text are omitted.
Creating a coffee shop where people can casually enter.
“If there is anything you are interested in or have any questions, please feel free to ask me.” If you are a first-time visitor to COFFEEMAN good, you are sure to be greeted by the owner, Hashimoto.
Hashimoto says, “I try not to use industry jargon like ‘body’ or ‘flavor’ when I serve customers. In rural areas like Aomori, the culture of specialty coffee has yet to penetrate, so I try to guide customers about specialty coffee in a way that’s easier to understand.”
Hashimoto, who used to live in Tokyo and Yokohama for about nine and a half years, visited specialty coffee shops while living there and had doubts about the kind of customer service he often observed at the shops.
“I felt uncomfortable with how they didn’t listen to the customers’ requests and imposed their own values on them. That’s why in my coffee shop, I start by saying ‘thank you for coming’ first and listening to what they customer wants and try to satisfy their order as much as we could. If their request is beyond our scope of expertise, we have to tell them gently we can’t make it, but we try to make their experience in our shop as pleasant as possible, so they leave the store feeling content that we’ve done our best for them.”
Hashimoto’s character is evident in his careful consideration of others beyond the scope of customer service and hospitality. When he worked at a nationwide chain cafe in the Tokyo metropolitan area, he felt frustrated that he couldn’t embody his ideals.
Hashimoto says, “I worked at a cafe where hundreds of customers visit a day, so I didn’t have much time to spend with each customer. Even when my friends and loved ones came to the cafe, they often left before I realized it. I felt sad and apologetic every time. I think they were probably noticing how busy I was and being nice by not ‘bothering’ me.”
That’s why COFFEEMAN good never misses seeing off customers when they leave the shop. Hashimoto’s thoughts are also expressed in the message for customers on the website, “We recommend people to come to the shop by themselves or in twos because we want to cherish our connections with each and every customer.”
“Customers are customers, of course, but I try to make them feel they are part of us. I welcome them with ‘Konnichiwa’ or ‘Yokoso’ and many customers come in with ‘Ojyama-shimasu’ (Thank you for inviting me to your shop). When I was working at a cafe in the city, there was almost no response always when I greeted customers.”
“Having said that, many people in Aomori are shy and many of them seem nervous when they enter the shop. It must take a lot of courage for them to enter a small and independently owned coffee shop. In fact, I’ve seen people walking back and forth at the door for about three times, perhaps because they were hesitant and didn’t have the courage to enter. When I see such cases, I try to talk to them and let them feel relaxed so I can welcome them into the shop.”
“That’s probably why I’ve never said Irasshai-mase (‘Welcome’ in Japanese, which is often said to customers by shop clerks when they enter an establishment). I was never good at the word Irasshai-mase. If someone says that to me, I feel like I’m being treated simply as just one of their customers because Irasshai-mase is used as a formal greeting to customers in a business-minded context. Of course, I don’t think the person saying that has the intention of sounding distant.”
Fascinated by the world of coffee.
It was in the winter of his first year of working in Tokyo that Hashimoto became fascinated with the world of specialty coffee. He was only drinking canned coffee at the time to wake him up from feeling sleepy, but when he was walking around town on his days-off, he chanced upon a shop that would open the door to the world of specialty coffee.
“I was impressed by the natural processed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. Among the types of coffee and tasting comments written on the blackboard in the store, there was an expression saying, “It tastes like ripe grapes.” I thought they were joking, but when I tried it, it really tasted like grapes (laughs). That was the first time I understood about the terroir and flavor profiles of coffee, and that’s how I started to get hooked on specialty coffee.”
The taste of the coffee must have sunk into his body and mind as he was exhausted from the daily hard work at the cram school he had just joined working right after he graduated from university. It’s in his nature to get completely absorbed into things. He visited two to three coffee shops every day for about a month and a half, mainly in Tokyo, by referring to specialty coffee magazines. He realized that even if coffee comes from the same origin like Yirgacheffe, it tasted different at each coffee shop from variations in the processing and brewing methods. The more he learned about the depth of coffee, the more he became interested in it, so he bought all the necessary equipment, and started brewing coffee on his own.
With the goal of becoming a barista in mind, Hashimoto joined a nation-wide major coffee chain, Doutor Coffee’s first specialty coffee shop CAFE LEXCEL as a part-time employee. In his second year, he became a full-time employee in charge of the store while actively participating in competitions such as the JBC (The Japan Barista Championship). As he was getting more immersed in the world of coffee, he met Nakamura, the owner of COFFEEMAN good.
When Nakamura lived in New York, he often visited coffee shops when he felt lonely. He felt he was helped and healed by the baristas there. The word “BARISTA AT WORK” written on the door of the store represents Nakamura’s aim to enrich the lives of people who gather where the barista is present.
Hashimoto recalls, “I didn’t know there he had this intention, and when I visited the store by chance when I went back to Aomori, it never crossed my mind that I wanted to work there. It was the next day that I had changed my mind. The owner of the store came all the way to Yokohama the following day and asked if I wanted to work there.”
“He said to me that he wanted to create a space where communities are formed through coffee, and he wanted to take specialty coffee to Aomori. At the time, no one in Aomori was up for it.”
“When I heard the owner’s passions, I thought, “I don’t know if I could do it, but I could try. If I did my best, maybe I can make it happen.” Another reason was that I was attracted to an environment where I could feel a thrill and a real connection with people rather than working for a big company where I had to focus on my assigned work to secure sales and profits. I also wanted to expand the possibilities of coffee, not only as a barista but also through roasting.”
Connecting with people through coffee.
In August 2017, Hashimoto who is originally from Aomori and his wife who is born in Kanagawa made ‘a U-turn’ back to Aomori. Before he took over the shop as the owner, he had to deal with sometimes only having two customers in an entire day.
Hashimoto states, “It was a small store, so I was planning to run it by myself at first, but thanks to the unexpectedly large number of customers we got later on, we quickly became known as a husband and wife-run cafe.”
The store’s specialty is an original drink made by combining seasonal fruits and fresh local ingredients mixed with specialty coffee. “Tsugaru Miso Caramel Cappuccino” is the most popular drink during the winter season while “White Peach and Basil Coffee Tonic” is the most popular drink during the summer season. The seasonal drinks reflect Hashimoto’s wish to make it easy for customers to enjoy specialty coffee.
“Thanks to the support of word of mouth and social media, we have been very busy. Since I came back home to Aomori, my goal has remained the same: I want to nurture a coffee culture in Aomori that will eventually be recognized on a global scale.”
Now that the couple has been living in Aomori for four years, they are approached by regular customers and acquaintances in the local shopping district when they walk around on days-off. They knew almost no one in the beginning when they moved to Aomori. They say, “People in Aomori are so nice.”
Yuri, his wife, says, “When I first came to Aomori, I didn’t know what to talk about with customers, so I would just hide in the back of the shop. I’m still not good at serving and interacting with customers. I think I am shy by nature but many people around me accept that. But now that I have met so many like-minded people, I’ve warmed up to Aomori. It has become a place where I feel secure and comfortable.”
Feeling so grateful for customers who visit, and also towards Aomori for having been so welcoming that Mr. and Mrs. Hashimoto personally say ‘see you later’ to them when the customers leave.
Hashimoto says, “There are people who come to the shop while they are on a business trip or as tourists, people here to attend university, people who have moved here for work, and people who have always lived in the area. People with various backgrounds gather in a small space that only has seven seats and enjoy conversations over a cup of coffee, creating laid-back connections among them. That’s not only so precious but it’s a blessing for us, too.”
“I think coffee has a way to relieve people from loneliness. I’m shy and have a melancholic personality, so I rely on coffee to help me connect with various people and share my feelings. That is how coffee is saving me every single day.”
Interviewed and written originally in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi.
MY FAVORITE COFFEE
Yuri Hashimoto: “My favorite coffee is a cup I drink at my favorite coffee shop on my day-off. It gives me a sense of accomplishment, the freedom to relax after completing a task like a big event. It helps me feel rested.”
Yudai Hashimoto: “At my store, I serve coffee to customers only after I taste it. The most enriching moment is when I can share my excitement and joy of its taste with customers. Sometimes the same coffee tastes so much better than usual.”
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