With the concept of “From town roastery, to the world,” LEAVES COFFEE ROASTERS consists of a coffee stand and a roastery in an area of Tokyo full of working-class charm. Its owner, Yasuo Ishii, is a former professional boxer who came to solely focus his energy on coffee after managing seven restaurants. We spoke to Yasuo, whose goal is to become a world champion roaster and build a brand that will last for a century.
I can’t keep going without a dream
White tile walls with grease stains here and there, shutters that still give off the feel of a retro mom-and-pop shop, brick outer walls… The simple design of this store is built upon its space that was once used as a fish shop and a butcher’s shop, and reflects its owner’s concept of design, the “aesthetics of subtraction.”
The most noticeable of all inside of LEAVES COFFEE ROASTERS are its two roasters. The Probat U-15 (manufactured in the 1950s) enshrined in the back of the store has a particularly striking presence. It’s this roaster, seemingly out of place in the 15-or-so square foot space, that symbolizes Yasuo’s grand dreams.
“As my concept ‘From town roastery, to the world’ shows, I want my place to be loved locally while also being noticed around the world to create a brand that will last for over a century. The reason I’m trying to become a world champion roaster is because I think it’s a necessary step toward building a strong foundation that will allow LEAVES COFFEE to sail across the seas for more than a hundred years.”
Yasuo, the first captain of LEAVES COFFEE, often says that he wants to become ‘a goal for the next generation.’
“I want to show the next generation that this business is fun , and that you can also make a living if you do things right. At first, it can be a dream or a yearning. I’m trying to live my life in a way that’ll make more people want to open new doors in this world. One thing I’m always mindful of is balancing my dreams with supply and demand. Dreams alone won’t keep your business afloat, but if you get caught up in supply and demand you will end up creating only products that sell. That’s not healthy for your heart and mind. I say this because I’m someone who can’t keep moving forward without dreams. I’ve been obsessed with becoming No.1 in the world ever since I was in my teens, after all.”
Wanting to create a peaceful world
Yasuo was born and raised in Tokyo’s Kiyosumi-shirakawa, a Japanese mecca for coffee aficionados where there are many cafes and coffee stands. Though the neighborhood has now become yet another trendy part of Tokyo, it was a rough place in the 1990s, “like downtown L.A” he says.
In fact, fights would break out amongst groups of teenage delinquents almost every day when Yasuo was in middle school. Constantly finding himself in these brawls, he quit the school kendo club and began going to a boxing gym during his third year of middle school.
“Some of my friends got hurt so badly they had to be hospitalized. So I wanted to become stronger to protect my friends. It’s not like I was interested in boxing. I just started as a way to train my body.”
That said, Yasuo has always been the type to become easily engrossed. Just months after starting, he’d gone from training at the gym once a week to showing up every day. While he did find joy in becoming stronger as a competitor, he couldn’t pull himself away from his world of conflict either. One day, an incident took place that would decisively change his life.
“I used my boxing as a weapon and really hurt somebody, but that left me with wounds of my own. I don’t think I made the wrong decision, because my friends could have been hurt otherwise. Still, it made me realize that I could never escape conflict as long as I stayed in that world, and that’s when I knew I needed to draw a line and focused more on becoming a competitor in boxing.”
Having severed his connection with those he’d known until then, Yasuo began a new life with the goal of becoming a world boxing champion. With his natural athleticism and his ability to learn quickly, he received his professional license on his first try when he was 17, during his second year of high school.
“I didn’t just find something I could devote myself to, but I think boxing also helped me grow mentally, too. I never paid any attention to morals or rules until then, but boxing taught me how to live within the boundaries of rules. I feel embarrassed when I think back to myself as a middle school kid heading to the gym with big sunglasses on,” he laughs.
The title of “best in the world” grows distant
After receiving his license, Yasuo quickly learned what it meant to be a pro boxer. He was knocked down for the first time in his life when facing off against a world champion in practice. What’s more, it was a humiliating defeat in the form of being toppled by a body blow.
Half a year later, he had a breakthrough as a competitor and was able to vindicate himself against the same boxer. Though his opponent may have gotten careless, it wasn’t just Yasuo who felt that the victory was a real sign. He was a true diamond in the rough, further heightening the expectations of those around him that it was only a matter of time before he became a national champion.
The nightmare struck when Yasuo was 19. A major injury during a fight left him with no choice but to retire.
“I was tormented by a sense of despair. I felt I’d lost my reason to live. But part of me also felt a sense of peace and freedom. I was still mentally immature. So all the expectations people had of me only weighed me down. The pressure started to feel suffocating, and at some point the sport I thought I loved seemed like nothing more than self-torture.”
Of course, it wasn’t easy to suddenly fill the hole that had been pierced in his heart. Every time he saw news on TV or the papers about a Japanese boxer challenging for a world title, part of him hoped they would lose. He asked why it wasn’t him standing there in the ring. But no matter how many times he asked, it wouldn’t change the fact that he was no longer fit to compete. With no outlet to vent his frustrations, he grew jealous toward those who were fortunate enough to challenge for world titles, and Yasuo started distancing himself from boxing.
“I started working in the restaurant business after that, telling myself that I was never going to be the best in the world at anything. I’d already become a father at that point, so my priority was making money.”
The answer is always inside you
It was around ten years later in 2010 when coffee took hold of Yasuo. As he finished training and opened his own store, an acquaintance hand-delivered him some coffee to celebrate the occasion. This is what would draw him into a new world.
“I was moved by its fruity, berry-like aroma and sweetness. It was a fresh, new experience to me as someone who was never able to drink black coffee and only saw it as something dark and bitter.”
Wanting to learn more, Yasuo began to go from store to store, drinking coffee. It was only natural for him to open a coffee stand attached to his restaurant. Soon after the opening, one customer came to Yasuo’s coffee stand, saying that she couldn’t drink anything that tasted as bad as coffee, but that she wanted to try a cup brewed by Yasuo. After that, the customer started coming back every day.
“I’ve always had a strong desire to be self-dependent or to achieve things all on my own ever since I was trying to become a world champion boxer. That’s why I always avoided finding a teacher, whether that was in boxing or coffee. I’ve actually never worked at a coffee store before.”
Having taught himself how to brew and roast coffee, Yasuo opened a coffee stand in 2016 and a roastery in 2019. As someone who sought to reach a higher level as a barista, it was only a matter of time before he developed an interest in roasting.
“I couldn’t stand the way I would blame the roaster when the coffee I brewed didn’t taste the way I imagined. I’m the kind of person who can only believe something that I’ve experienced myself. Even if something is highly regarded, I don’t think it’s good unless I’m happy with it. That’s why I imagine that if I become the best roaster in the world someday, I’ll probably start cultivating my own coffee next.”
In 2019, shortly after he began roasting, Yasuo took 3rd place in the Japan Roast Competition, proving that the path he carved out himself had not led him astray.
“I have started to think lately that I may have come as far as I can on my own. People like Olympic gold medalists who are the best in the world have strong teams supporting what they do, whether that’s in physical, mental, or even dietary ways. That’s why I’ve started to be more flexible when it comes to incorporating other people’s opinions and advice, and I feel like that’s turned into real results.”
Living a burdened life
Since Yasuo went independent at the age of 28 in 2010, at one point he had expanded his operations to seven restaurants in different categories, such as a Spanish bar, casual French, American diner, and others in addition to LEAVES COFFEE.
“I couldn’t abandon people who came to me saying they wanted to work at my restaurants or run a restaurant with me. My way of thinking was that if I couldn’t hire any more people at the restaurants I had, I’d make a new one. Even if that worked out for everyone at that moment, I would be left having to clean up the mess if those people decided to start their own stores. I realized last year that my way of doing things wasn’t going to get good results in the long run.”
But Yasuo had realized early on that this wasn’t truly what he wished for. He didn’t want to create a company that was like a family. He wanted to focus on what he loved, coffee, and become the best in the world at it. This only became clearer to him when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, bringing with it financial difficulties to his business. So in 2020, Yasuo let go of all his stores aside from LEAVES COFFEE.
“I didn’t want to leave the managers and head chefs who took over those stores with debts, though. While I could barely pay any severance, I instead gave them the restaurants after taking on all their debt myself.”
Perhaps it’s Yasuo’s nature to take on more burdens than he needs to, even if they might be too much for him.
“I hated conflict even when I was in my teens, and yet I got into brawls because I thought I had to fight for what’s right. I’m a lazy person by nature. If you leave me on my own, I’ll just live a life of doing whatever I feel like, eating what I want, and sleeping. Maybe that’s why part of me feels like I need to be responsible for some kind of burden.”
A once-in-a-lifetime challenge
In order to open his roastery, in 2019 Yasuo spent the yearly salary of a high-powered businessperson on a vintage Probat UG-15 roaster, taking on a burdened life once more in the process.
“The iron from back then is more dense than it is now, so you don’t lose as much heat. That heat has an amazing effect on the coffee, creating a deep and lingering flavor—but I only realized this afterwards. I can’t count how many cups of coffee I’ve had at stores from around the world, but every single one that I thought was good had been made with coffee roasted with a UG-15.”
Of course, a UG-15 isn’t the kind of thing that an individual with no capital, no influence, and no collateral can buy. Though he was introduced to and negotiated tenaciously with a dealership that specializes in vintage models, he wasn’t able to win their trust in the end. In order to show just how serious he was, he paid half the cost as a deposit to finally manage the purchase. After a year and a half, his dream had come true at last.
“All I counted on was my own experience of delicious coffee that had been roasted with a UG-15. Fortunately, I’m a simple man. Once I believe something, no other thoughts are going to get in the way of that! I thought I’d somehow find a way to make the rest work on my own.”
While he says this, the UG-15 was the first roaster he’d ever used, nor had he ever been taught how to roast. He discarded failed attempts of roasted coffee day after day, even straining his back in the process.
“The stress was unbelievable. I was in such a bind that I didn’t know if I’d be able to make it another month. There was a future I wanted for myself so much that I was willing to take that kind of risk. I tell my staff this all the time, but growth never comes from comfortable places. Even if you’re in a slump, you only have to start seeing it as part of the process needed to grow, and that’s when you see breakthroughs.
It will soon be three years since Yasuo opened his roastery. Business is stable now, and he’s repaying the debt from his seven restaurants and two roasters through what LEAVES COFFEE earns alone. He’s now able to savor the knowledge that he made the right decision to take this once-in-a-lifetime challenge.
“I really do feel like coffee is what’s keeping me going. It might sound like I’m trying to act cool when I say that, but it’s the only way I can explain it. It’s what provides me the fuel I need to keep on living. Even our decision in October to switch to compostable coffee packaging materials is because I wanted to give back to coffee.”
Coffee as a supporting role
Twenty years have passed since Yasuo moved into the restaurant business. Having worked in positions from preparation to service to management in a variety of genres, what was it that made him choose coffee in the end?
“I think what makes coffee great is that even if it may not take the center stage, it can act as a supporting role in so many different situations. It has a kind of power that’s not visible to the eyes but brings people together and brightens moods. Whether you’re on a date with your loved ones, enjoying time with your family, or in a meeting at work, coffee can have a major impact on how things go. It’s all of these magical elements that make coffee such a wondrous, romantic thing to me.”
Yasuo will be turning 40 next year. These extraordinary feelings he has about coffee are indivisible from his dream of becoming the best in the world– a dream he couldn’t fulfill through boxing. It was coffee that reignited the embers smoldering deep within his heart for all of this time.
“When I look at people who have become world champions in roasting, I do feel the same kind of envy I felt in the past. The big difference now is that I’m able to accept that as reality and learn from it. I’ve grown as a person and can see the bigger picture. Now that I’m responsible for my staff and my brand, I’m able to use that as a positive fuel. My child is going to turn 20 next year, giving me another chance to confront a kind of life that I’ll be happy with.”
Yasuo proves through his way of life that there are some heights one can only reach if they never give up. Wherever his voyage in search of his distant dreams may take him next, coffee is sure to be there by his side.
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi
Photography by Kenichi Aikawa
Even if I'm feeling sad and alone, all I need to lift my spirits is a cup of coffee nearby. Whether I'm relaxing at a resort with the vast ocean in front of me or feeling stressed out by end-of-month payments and other paperwork at the office, coffee is all I need to enjoy the moment.