IMOM COFFEE ROASTERS is a roastery and cafe located in Nagakute, Aichi Prefecture. They serve not only coffee but also monthly toasts and sweets. Akihirio Nonaka, a manager and barista of the cafe, has been with IMOM COFFEE ROASTERS for 5 years. He first encountered the world of coffee and has been passionate about it for 7 years. What’s the story behind him?
A concept called “a life with coffee”
Nagakute is a commuter town adjacent to Nagoya, also known as the youngest city in terms of average age. The owner of IMOM COFFEE renovated a spacious warehouse with high ceilings so the cafe has a hotel-like atmosphere. A spatial design of the store is like that of cafes in San Francisco and Portland, giving us a glimpse of IMOM’s commitment to create a relaxing space.
“It’s a cafe type of store, but I think a great thing about cafe is that everyone can be with us. Parents walk in pushing strollers with their children and no one cares even if you get heated up in the conversation. I want to create this kind of atmosphere from our cafe and share it with the society”. (Citing from Wantedly). Said the owner of IMOM COFFEE, Yuuki Matsuda.
Their corporate mission is “Creating a tolerant society”. They have operated SIENA COFFEE FACTORY (predecessors of IMOM COFFEE ROASTERS), as well as a welfare business since its establishment in 2016. The manager and the barista of IMOM, Akihiro says,
“I have been proactively involved in quality control of coffee and creating new food recipes since I have joined the company. I also started roasting in this company.
The concept I want to convey to our customers is called “a life with coffee”. I want to increase the number of people who simply enjoy coffee just like in the UK, Germany, Denmark, and other European countries where drinking coffee is rooted in their daily life.
To achieve the goal, I try to satisfy customers by combining coffee with baked sweets and foods, not merely by serving coffee. I develop new recipes like ‘a toast with figs and basil on cream cheese’ and ‘a toast with shrimp and avocado’. I have created these new recipes based on the foods I have seen in cafes while traveling overseas, and I serve them as a monthly changing menu. You know, I am a bit estern wannabe(laughs)”
To the new world
After graduating high school, having been influenced by his father who was a chef and having his own restaurant, Akihiro found a job at a company that manufactures tableware after he had experienced several different jobs.
“I simply liked tableware, but I also realized that the impression of dishes can be completely changed depending on how you present the foods and what tableware you use. That’s why I chose to work at the company.”
He was working in sales, but he was also thinking that he might be fitting to other kind of jobs. He thought he should do something more fulfilling. During that time, he encountered the world of specialty coffee after he visited a coffee store located on the first floor of the apartment he lived in.
“At that time, I did not know anything about specialty coffee but as I listened to the story about it from the owner, I was getting interested in a coffee related job where I could interact directly with customers. I had a feeling that I wanted to get a job where I can be a creator making products with my own hands. So becoming a roaster or barista which I could get feedback directly from customers was a perfect fit. I felt like a new world has opened up for me.”
Akihiro went to the store as a customer for 6 months and he was recruited by the store owner to work at the second store that had just opened. He started working for them right after quitting the company. That was 2014, and he was 28.
“The store owner was a second place winner in the World Barista Championship. He taught me the basics and necessary skills of becoming a barista. As I visited famous cafes in Japan while working, I eventually fell in love with specialty coffee. “
After working at the coffee store, he switched jobs to work for IMOM. Matsuda, the CEO of the company, expected Akihiro to take advantage of his knowledge and skills about coffee. Akihiro had visited coffee farmers in Rwanda, to participate in a project that contributes to improving the living standard of the locals.
“There was a time when I was involved in ‘Huye Mountain Coffee’ as one of the founding members. It’s a project to promote and spread Rwandan Coffee in order to provide health insurance premiums to coffee producers annually.
The project was operated as not mere donation but was a crowdfunding-like system to support farmers in the long-term. If we give them cash, they tend to waste it, so we sometimes ask them to use money for soil improvement to increase yields and improve the quality of coffee.
To meet expectations of people he has involved with
For Akihiro, who found something he is passionate about in his late 20s, coffee became his identity. There were at times that he was only focusing on coffee, but after joining IMOM, his perspective has broadened. He has started looking for something his customers can enjoy with coffee, such as baked sweets and toasts.
“About 3 years have passed since I have joined the company, and now I feel I could discover a whole new world through coffee. For example, STEREO COFFEE in Fukuoka, they hold an annual event selling limited edition original T-shirts of local coffee shops in Kyushu. Coffee can be a bridge to other cultures including foods and that fascinates me. I never got bored because coffee has so much potential.”
With his passion for coffee, Akihiro continues to “travel” the world of coffee. Last year, when Japan AeroPress Championship was cancelled due to covid-19 pandemic, he participated in the competitionship held by volunteers as one of the judge members.
“I love coffee but now that I made up my mind to make a living from it, I feel like I need to push myself hard and keep moving forward. I’m just taking it upon myself, but I want to meet the expectations and the sense of love that customers have for our coffee.
That’s why I want to convey the attraction of coffee in the right way. I am just satisfied when customers say our coffee is “good”. I think one of the best things about cafes and coffee shops are that there is a sense of temperature that can only be seen by human interactions not only through words, but also through facial expression, tone of voice, and gestures.”
It’s not only IMOM’s customers that Akihiro feels he is entrusted with.
“Once I visited MANLY COFFEE and I was reading a book that they sell. The owner, Ms. Sunaga, told me “You can have it, so keep up with it”. I can see the thoughts of people like her and visualize the faces of farmers I have interacted with in producing countries. That makes me feel like I must roast coffee well and serve a fine cup of coffee.
Akihiro says he recently had a memorable experience.
“A girl, who had been our customer for two or three years since she was a college student, recently became a part-time staff at our cafe. She once got a job at other company, but she could not give up on coffee and started a new life, which reminds me of my old self.
At first, I just wanted to work in the food and beverage industry, so it didn’t have to be coffee. But I encountered coffee and it really has changed me.
I just want to be faithful to coffee itself that changed my life and showed me a new world. I expect and hope more people come to love coffee. For about 30 years, until I got to know coffee I couldn’t find anything that I was passionate about. Maybe that is why I am expecting and entrusting myself to be committed to coffee.
Written originally in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi
Photo by Kenichi Aikawa
I like to drink a cup of coffee with an empty mind, without thinking about work. A cup of coffee I drink with coffee lovers and talking about coffee with them also enriches my life.