Mr. Kondo’s coffee shop is located not far from Kyodo Station in Tokyo, a short walk from the lively main street. The entrance to the shop is tucked away, giving it the feel of a bar known only to those who know it.
I had heard rumors about Mr. Kondo’s shop before he opened it that there is a very enthusiastic person who had left a foreign financial service company and opened a roastery. Not long after he opened his shop, he won first prize at an international roasting competition in Taiwan and second prize at the Japan Coffee Roasting Championship (JCRC), and his skills became widely known.
We owe Mr. Kondo and he is a great benefactor to TYPICA because he allowed us to use his shop for our very first cupping session and was also the first buyer of our coffee. Nevertheless, this time was the first time I had a chance to talk to him at length and I would like to share some of his amazing life stories that came out one after another.
“It’s interesting because that’s the world I don’t know anything about.”
Mr. Kondo states, “After graduating from a university, I joined the Saison Group in the middle of the bubble economy. Since I have always liked subcultures of music and movies, I became interested in the Saison Group because it focused on cultural affairs. I was also influenced by Mr. Seiji Tsutsumi, the founder of the company. In my second year after joining the company, I was suddenly sent to London. It was a training program for the Nomura Securities, and since I had graduated from Sophia University with a degree in Science, I was chosen as a trainee being told, “You can speak English and are good at numbers, right?” I thought that I would not be able to speak English just by hanging out with only Japanese people during the training, so I negotiated with the company to allow me to attend an English language school. Half of what I did in London was study English so that I could speak English better. “
“I was in London for about six months. When I came back to Japan, I worked in finance at the company. It was interesting because I didn’t know anything about finance. The bubble economy was still going on in Japan, so I was in charge of overseas business departments in Hong Kong and Singapore as well as the acquisition of InterContinental Hotels.”
“Then, I got another chance to go overseas. At that time, Japanese companies were sending people to universities overseas and the Saison Group also had such a system, so I took an internal exam in the company and was accepted. They said, “You need to go to a good university, otherwise, it won’t lead to good publicity,” so I was allowed to study for the exam for a year while working for the company and was accepted to the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in the United States. When I returned from the U.S. with my MBA two years later, the wave of the bubble economy had already receded and the Saison Group was about to sell the InterContinental Hotel it had acquired, so I changed my job to a foreign financial services company.”
“The culture of a foreign company was completely different from that of a Japanese company and it was a world that if you didn’t produce results in one year, you are fired. However, I found it interesting because it was the world I didn’t know anything about and I ended up working there for about ten years. I wasn’t interested in finance at all but I enjoyed the work. I don’t think work has any relation to my interests. I think it’s about how to find fun in a given place. I am happy now though because I happen to be working in something that I am interested in.”
For Mr. Kondo, when he doesn’t know anything at all, that makes it interesting and he is immersed in exploring it. This curiosity also manifests itself in the world of coffee.
Doing everything by himself.
Mr. Kondo states, “Eventually, I started to think that I wanted to do something with my own hands. I love food and culture, so I wanted to do a fusion of the two. Around that time, I came across light roast specialty coffee and I was struck by the individuality of the coffee producing area and its beautiful acidity, and I was also attracted to it because I saw something in common with the way I thought about food, which I liked.
Mr. Kondo discovered the next ‘completely unknown world’ and began his quest by visiting roasters and drinking all kinds of coffee, attending numerous seminars, and thoroughly acquiring knowledge and skills. He finally opened his own coffee shop in 2016.
Mr. Kondo states, “When people, who used to work in the financial industry open a coffee shop or restaurant, they often just provide the funds and don’t do anything themselves, but for me, I did everything on my own. Not only serving coffee but also I was planning to serve food at the time, so I learned pastries and how to make bread from scratch. I tend to do everything thoroughly. I think it’s more interesting that way. When it comes to movies, for example, I watch all the movies related to my favorite film directors thoroughly. I used to watch at least three movies a day on my days off back in the day.”
Mr. Kondo’s profound understanding of the cultures has attracted many cultural figures to his shop, including a famous stylist. Mr. Kondo is profoundly knowledgeable about music and named his roastery FINETIME after a song by New Order because he was into punk music when he was younger.
Mr. Kondo’s experience as a company employee became the source of the persuasiveness in the coffee he makes.
“When I worked for a foreign financial services company for ten years, I was making a lot of money, so I ate a lot of good quality food. I think that trained my palate quite a bit. I think the experience of ‘eating top-notch food’ is important when you are working with coffee. Whether it’s sushi or tempura, top-notch food is outstanding in a certain way. I am trying to achieve that with coffee. When you think about it, coffee is a wonderful product that allows you to enjoy the first-class taste at a reasonable price compared to restaurants.”
Next, we asked Mr. Kondo, what are his thoughts on roasting?
“I had to be good at coffee in a short time and needed to maintain reproducibility, so I analyzed data thoroughly and repeated trials and errors at first. Even if you try to rely on your senses, you can’t beat the senses of someone who’s been doing it for years. Also, I put focus on each production area that has its own ideal taste, and it is important not to waver from that. My ideal taste is quite exact and precise and I think some of my peers don’t understand that point.”
About the future
Mr. Kondo’s quest for coffee continues.
Mr. Kondo states, “I came in second place in Japan in the JCRC, but I haven’t come in first place yet, so I want to challenge myself to get there in the future. By participating in competitions, I can make new contacts and get new information from them, so I think it’s worth it to keep participating in them. I am also interested in the production areas. The other day, a Filipino acquaintance who produces coffee in his backyard brought green beans to me, and to my surprise, they tasted really good. It’s interesting to roast such a unique lot.”
I get the sense from Mr. Kondo that he has a wide capacity to accept anything unconditionally. No wonder there is no end to the number of people who come to see Mr. Kondo. This is probably because of his vivid and active working experience in the past and the depth of things he has explored in each phase of his life.
Today, people continue to be drawn into the narrow streets of Kyodo in Tokyo to see what Mr. Kondo’s ‘ideal taste’ is and to listen to the stories about food and music.
The text was originally written in Japanese by Ayane Yamada
I usually drink coffee for checking the quality at work, so I don’t drink it much for other reasons. I used to take my own coffee with me when I traveled, brewed it at the inn, and drank it slowly after breakfast although that’s difficult to do it these days.