In 2015, FELT Coffee opened a showroom that was designed to provide an environment where people can focus on coffee as much as possible, and has since opened two new cafés, all of which are stylish and sophisticated but intentionally eliminate any similarities in their designs. We spoke with representatives Mr.Yong-hyun Kim and Mr.Dae-won Song, who have been friends for several years and founded FELT Coffee as a natural progression of their similar tastes, perspectives, and passion for coffee.
Harmonizing while protecting identity
Currently, FELT Coffee operates three shops in Seoul (one showroom and two cafés), as well as a roasting facility that also serves as a training center.
“The first shop we opened in Jangjeon-dong was a showroom. The reason why we opened the showroom in Jangjeon-dong was because we wanted to convey the fact that we make good coffee with good ingredients, as well as our philosophy and stance as a brand.”
There are no tables in the shop, just a simple bench, so it is not a space where customers can relax. They designed it so that customers sitting on the bench can watch the baristas brewing coffee in the shop.
“I wanted to create a space where people could concentrate on the coffee as much as possible, so I tried to eliminate decorative elements that would interfere with it. As a service provider, we use the bear minimum, including machines and tools, so that we can concentrate on making the coffee taste good.”(Kim)
It seems their intent got across to their customers, as many came all the way to Jangjeon-dong shop, which is not in a good location, just to drink coffee. Now the shop prioritizes the customer being able to enjoy themselves on a typical day and offers sweets such as tarts, just like other shops. The idea of opening a café after the showroom was there even prior to the company’s founding.
“We will continue to build more shops, mainly in Seoul and metropolitan areas. However, we don’t want to open a lot of shops quickly, but rather build them up slowly as we find good locations.”(Song)
What makes FELT Coffee unique is its urban and sophisticated atmosphere. They worked with different designers for each of their locations.
“The first shop, in Jangjeon-dong, uses the signboard of a former piano school, and the second shop in Gwanghwamun is located underground. The third shop in Shimasang Park has collaborated with JUUN.J, a global fashion brand from Korea, and fused the image of JUUN.J and FELT Coffee.
Each space has its own identity, so I wanted to show FELT as a brand that takes many forms, rather than just copy and paste the same design here and there. I will continue to create spaces that harmonize well with their locations by combining the characteristics of the space, the identity of FELT, and the sense of the designer who interprets the space.”(Song)
A coffee that is a little special, and can be enjoyed in everyday life
The packages of drip bag coffee sold by FELT Coffee have illustrations of hedgehogs, owls, and bats. These animals don’t seem to have anything to do with coffee, so why did they choose them?
Song, the co-chairman of the company, said “An illustrator from a design company suggested it to us. Drip bags are a product that can be enjoyed at home, and if you can drink drip bags anytime, you can enjoy your coffee even in the middle of the night when all the cafés are closed. I wanted to express this idea with illustrations of nocturnal animals.”
FELT Coffee’s vision has remained unchanged since the company’s founding in 2015: to provide coffee that can be enjoyed casually, on any typical day, and that was repeatedly mentioned in our interview.
“But it’s not run-of-the-mill coffee, it’s coffee with something a little special about it. We want to make specialty coffee accessible.
There are three things that we focus on to achieve this. The first one is the quality of the coffee. Every year, we visit the coffee origins and new farms to ensure that we can always purchase a stable supply of high quality coffee. Currently, we purchase about half of our green coffee through direct trade, but we would like to gradually increase this percentage.
The second is customer service. We try to create an atmosphere and space where people can easily and comfortably enjoy specialty coffee in our shops.
The third is to provide a variety of ways to enjoy coffee. We not only develop products that can be enjoyed at home, such as drip bags and cold brew, but also provide consumers with the knowledge and skills to make good coffee at home at our training center.” (Song)
Kim, the co-chair of the company also says, “The reason we practice direct trade is because we place great importance on the essence of the ingredients we use. We believe that the time and the effort that goes into making a cup of coffee, from the producer to the barista, is what makes it special.”
FELT Coffee adds one or two new coffees to its lineup every week to keep consumers coming back for more. The true value of FELT Coffee may lie in the exquisite sense of specialness that it puts within easy reach.
I want to foster specialty coffee culture
Kim got into the coffee business when he started helping out at his mother’s coffee chain after he finished his military service. He found it interesting to talk with customers, and began to study coffee as a tool to stimulate conversation.
As an extension of this interest, Kim opened Mad Coffee, a specialty coffee shop where he introduced the coffee he wanted to drink. Eventually, he met his friend Song, who was working at another coffee shop, and the two of them hit it off and started FELT Coffee because they felt they had a lot in common.
In his late twenties, Song studied fashion in London. He had previously worked as a barista in a café for three years while he was a college student in Korea.
“When I first came into contact with specialty coffee and espresso culture in London, I was impressed by the fact that coffee has taken root in people’s lives and become part of their culture as a whole. In Korea, on the other hand, the coffee market is limited to cafés, and specialty coffee is still not well known. I wanted to nurture a coffee culture like the one in England.”
In order to nurture a culture in a certain country or region, it is necessary to protect what should be protected as a brand, but also to broaden the scope of the brand to meet the diverse needs of the people. That is why FELT Coffee has expanded from a showroom to a café and training center that offers courses for the general public. The brand name “FELT Coffee” is a perfect example of their way of thinking.
“We finally chose ‘FELT’ from a list of candidates we put together based on friends and acquaintances’ opinions, and we really liked it because the shape of the letters and the sound were charming and easy to remember.
The coolness of a brand is not determined by its name, but by the personality of the company or person using the name, so we didn’t think the meaning of the name was important in the first place.”
FELT Coffee does not make one feel pestered, nor does it make one feel as though it is trying too hard to express itself. At the same time, it does not try too hard to be accomodating. FELT Coffee has the most attractive attribute there is: it oozes originality. As with the brand’s design, which eliminates unnecessary things to the utmost limit, they never say much, and their quiet, even indifferent tone is a sign of the unshakable confidence they have in their brand. If something is truly cool, people will see that and it will attract them. Perhaps that is what they believe.
FELT Coffee’s coffee will probably find its way into the daily lives of many, much like Kim and Song, who have been friends for several years and have similar tastes, perspectives, and passion for coffee naturally started their own business together.
Written originally in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi.
Dae-won Song: Many cafés in Seoul use coffee beans that we roast or are our friend's cafes, so the coffee I drink when I travel abroad or to the countryside lingers in my memory. Drinking coffee in the early hours of the morning at a café near where I stay makes me feel like I am genuinely enjoying coffee. That's why when I travel, I always check to see whether or not there are any cafés nearby before deciding where to stay.
Yong-hyun Kim: Like him, I also like the cafés that I happen to come across on my trips. I also enjoy having a cup of coffee while fishing, which is my hobby, so I always bring a coffee set with me when I go to fish.