Mesh Coffee is a small roastery founded in 2015 and is located in the eastern part of Seoul where there had not been a cultural base for specialty coffee. We interviewed Mr. Hyunsop Kim and Mr. Kihoon Kim, the co-founders of Mesh Coffee, who left their jobs at a coffee fair trade company after tasting the coffee brewed by the founder of Coffee Libre Mr. Pil-hoon. After going through a preparation period, they launched Mesh Coffee.
To create a store where people would come to drink coffee
There are no chairs inside Mesh Coffee. Outside the coffee shop, there is a row of handmade yellow chairs made out of plastic cases with wooden boards attached like those found in a casual izakaya, a Japanese-style bar. Not only these chairs but all the furniture in the store is handmade, not because they are particular about it, but because they simply don’t have the money. There is no sense of sadness there when they say this with a laugh. In fact, they are proud of it.
Mesh Coffee co-founder Hyunsop states, “We’ve had this shop since 2015. We have aimed to become the locals’ favorite. Our shop is located near a large park like Yoyogi Park(A large famous park in the middle of Shibuya area in Tokyo), so we get a lot of visitors from all walks of life- park goers, business people who work at nearby companies, restaurant owners, and so on.”
Hyunsop states, “Generally speaking, cafes in South Korea are more places where people gather to communicate and are not to experience good drinks or good coffee. On the other hand, our store has no seats inside, so customers can only do take out. Basically, our customers come to our shop to drink our coffee.”
Mesh Coffee was born out of the desire to share the delicious coffee they love with local customers.
Hyunsop states, “The coffee that won the Cup of Excellence is the best coffee in the world, and I really want people to drink it every year. If you drink it, you will realize that coffee is not just caffeine. People will start having the perspective that coffee is like wine or high-quality chocolate, and this point of view will change people’s behavior and bring about a change in our lifestyle.”
“As for myself, I was also shocked by high-quality coffee; it changed my life. That is why I recommend various coffees to people so that they can also experience the changes in their attitude towards coffee, and their taste. A single experience can simply change your life.”
“That said, I don’t try to be pushy. We make it easy for first-time customers to come inside the shop easily and enjoy coffee in a relaxed atmosphere. Our strength lies in the customer service provided by our friendly and dynamic baristas, who are able to energize and cheer up customers, and successfully give information about coffee and the coffee industry.”
The coffee shop as a community hub
In the past, Hyunsop and Kihoon used to work as clerks for the same fair trade coffee company. When an acquaintance suggested that they learn about cupping and roasting, they visited Coffee Libre, a pioneer in the specialty coffee industry in South Korea.
Hyunsop states, “The CEO of Coffee Libre Mr. Pil-hoon taught me how to roast coffee in 2011, and when I drank the coffee he brewed, I was shocked. It was that single cup of coffee that made me decide to quit my job and challenge myself in the specialty coffee industry. Around the same time, Kihoon also quit his job and started working at El Cafe Coffee Roasters, a pioneer in the specialty coffee industry in South Korea.”
After gaining some experience, they left the coffee shops where they were working, and started to prepare for opening their own business.
“We were able to take the plunge because we believed that we could succeed in the business as long as high-quality specialty coffees exist. We believed that people would understand our passion and efforts for coffee.”
They chose to open a store in an area where there were no specialty coffee shops because they wanted to challenge themselves to grow the coffee culture in that area.
“To sell coffee well in that market, we used to offer a second cup of coffee for free at the store in the first year of business. We wanted to change the mindset and habits of customers who thought that one cup of coffee a day was enough. We wanted to suggest to people that coffee is a good drink, so we wanted them to feel free to drink more.”
In addition to quality coffee, Mesh Coffee also has placed importance on its role as a small community where people gather and local information is available.
“Customers became fans of our coffee, and the shop’s friendly atmosphere would induce them to come back whenever they had time. As a result, a community made up of customers was born, and they started coming here to chat with each other. That was the kind of local business we aimed for. We would provide the place for customers to build a community by themselves.”
As time went by, Mesh Coffee served as a small community hub where local news, real estate information, and various other types of local information could be shared among customers. In fact, people who want to live in the area have visited the store many times to look for a place so they can live in the area.
“Over the past six years, we have talked a lot with our customers and have come to know each other very well. But that’s changing now. It’s sad to see that more and more customers are just looking to have one single cup of coffee. Maybe we feel this way even more because we still serve at the counter and see our customers every single day.”
In order to maintain a good store, the store is sometimes faced to choose customers.
“When we get customers who are rude to our baristas, we sometimes kick them out. I’m gentle to good people, but I take a firm stance on arrogant people. I sometimes return the money to those rude customers and take away the coffee we served them.”
Setting the standard of the local area
“When Coffee Collective from Denmark, a pioneer in the global specialty coffee industry, was opened in 2007, they located in residential areas where there were no stores nearby. Today, the entire area where the Coffee Collective is located has changed dramatically, with many famous restaurants lining the streets. I didn’t think our store had become such a tourist spot, but many people have started to visit this area as well.”
Driven by the specialty coffee boom spreading rapidly in South Korea, the number of coffee shops in the area has increased from only two coffee shops when Mesh Coffee opened in 2015 to more than twenty.
“At that time, there were no retail stores in the area, but there are now famous restaurants, clothing stores, nice bars, very good chocolate stores, and tea shops there. The rents have gone up about five times more than they were back then. That shows there has been a transformation in the area.”
Mesh Coffee has been providing a coffee that is clean-cup, mild, and nicely flavored since the founding of the shop, so local people are familiar with the taste.
“The coffee shops that have opened after us in the area offer Geisha or comparable quality coffee. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be accepted here. I think that we have made an impact in the sense that we have set the standard of coffee for this area.”
As long as you have passion
Currently, Mesh Coffee is looking for a new location to start a business that would be rooted locally. For the coffee culture to take root, they are focused on finding locations where high-quality specialty coffee is not yet well known.
“Eventually, I want to establish a specialty coffee culture in Seoul, so I don’t want to stop after just opening the next store. I want to expand to one area, and then to another area, and so on.”
While having such ambitions, he is also consistent in his commitment to high quality. With a roasting method that clearly shows the characteristics of coffee, although it is difficult for many baristas to handle, they rarely sell coffee beans wholesale.
“We can open more stores, but to maintain the quality of our stores, we need to spend at least a year training baristas. We have to plan for the long term. At the same time, we also believe in the potential of high-quality coffee that we use. When we combine it with our own passion, and that of my staff, we will surely be able to maintain the quality.
It’s not that we have a lot of money, but we try to travel to as many locations as possible to learn about coffee, such as Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Scandinavian countries. We use almost all the profits from the store to gain the experience in different countries and share it with our customers. We are able to do this because we are very passionate about coffee.”
Their carefree smiles including that of their coworker Seohee at the interview sometimes make them look like little children who have no doubt about a bright future that is surely coming. Kihoon states, “We want to show other baristas that you don’t have to have a lot of money. As long as you have passion for coffee, you can make it this far.”
Hyunsop states, “People in the coffee industry, especially those in the specialty coffee industry, are our friends, and they support us. That’s probably because we embody the ideals of the baristas.”
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi.
“My favorite coffee is cappuccino that I drink every morning to start my day. Sometimes I make it myself and other times someone makes it for me. I also buy it other places occasionally. If it tastes good, I can start the day with a happy feeling, but if it doesn’t taste good, it could become a bad day. I can’t start my day without this daily routine and it’s a very important habit for me.”