OBROS COFFEE is a coffee shop that opened in Koriyama City, Fukushima Prefecture in May 2016. The founders are the Ogino brothers, born and raised in the area. We interviewed Mr.Yumehiro Ogino and his younger brother, Mr.Wakaki Ogino, who both say, “It was natural for us to open a shop together.”
An unexpected encounter with coffee
After Ogino brothers opened OBROS COFFEE in 2016, they established the concept that they could create unexpected encounters with coffee, while serving customers on a daily basis. The concept was actually born 15 years ago.
At the time, Yumehiro, was in his third year at a commercial high school, and was having a hard time deciding what to do after graduation. One day, he came across a latte art at a neighborhood café, which had such an impact on him that it determined the direction of his life.
Yumehiro: “I thought I was there to drink coffee, I never expected to be exposed to the element of latte art that pleased my eyes. I wanted to be on the side of providing such surprises to others. As I began to feel this way, I decided to make a living from coffee. It was a great experience for me to encounter coffee that was unexpected ; it was not far from what I had expected.”
About eight years later, Wakaki, had a similar experience: at the age of 20, his older brother took him to UNLIMITED COFFEE ROASTERS, a roastery and coffee shop in Tokyo, where he had an unexpected encounter.
“The barista told me ‘A cup of that cappuccino changed me from a person who does not care for coffee much to a coffee lover. I had never experienced such a wide emotional range like that before. I still have a vivid memory of that time, and it motivates me to keep serving coffee to customers at our shop.”
As a “suggestion” shop, OBROS COFFEE offers single origin coffees, specializing in roasted coffees that clearly reveal their natural flavor and character.
Wakaki: “It may not seem very customer-friendly, but I think that by narrowing down their choices, we make it easier for them to feel the impact of encountering something they have never tasted before. I think that first-time customers are divided into two groups: those who are so pleasantly surprised that they become regular customers and those who decide it is not for them and stay away.”
Five years have passed since the establishment of the shop, however the reaction of the customers has changed as the shop has gradually gained recognition as a place that does not offer ordinary coffee.
Yumehiro continues on like this: “The number of customers who come to our shop to have a non-ordinary but different kind of coffee has increased, so the degree of surprise is naturally decreasing. In the beginning, I wanted to create an encounter that people could never forget, but recently, I have come to think that it is okay to serve coffee with small surprises and discoveries or coffee that is taken for granted at the time of drinking but later feels awesome.
In fact, more and more customers are noticing small differences : tastes that used to be felt simply as citrus are now perceived more precisely as orange or lemon. I always wear the same kind of clothes, but there are some customers who notice that the fabric of my clothes is a little different from usual or that the size of my clothes looks a little different (laughs).”
I don’t remember having exchanged vows with my brother.
When they opened OBROS COFFEE in May 2016, Yumehiro was 27 years old and Wakaki was 23. The idea of opening a shop had been in the works for about six years.
“I was 21 years old at the time and had just become a manager of a café that was part of a nationwide chain, in other words, I had no other choice. My brother and I talked about things that we didn’t even consult our parents or friends about, such as our future career paths or our girlfriends. It was so natural that I don’t even remember when either of us started talking about it. It was like we were deciding where to go out. At least, I don’t remember us having formally exchanged sake cups (laughs).”
Even for Wakaki, who was in his second year of high school at the time, there was no hesitation in opening a shop with his brother.
“I am still like that, but I have always been the following-big-brother type, and it was like ‘if he did it, I would do it, too’. I joined the tennis club in junior high school because my older brother was on the tennis team, and I liked to wear his hand-me-downs. After graduating from high school, I immediately asked my brother to come and live with me for about two years.”
After deciding to open their own shop, they designed their lives backwards from that goal and followed their careers accordingly. After working at a coffee chain shop for five years (including two years as a manager) to get to know the workplace, Yumehiro worked at a furniture store for a year to learn how to create space, and then at a coffee equipment maintenance company to accumulate knowledge about equipment.
In the meanwhile, Wakaki also worked at a coffee chain shop different from his brother’s for a year to get to know the field. After that, he worked as a full-time employee at a cell phone sales company for three and a half years, not only to learn how to serve customers but also to save money for opening his own business.
Why did they finally choose Fukushima, their hometown, after considering Tokyo and Kyoto as possible locations for their shop?
Wakaki explains: “There were already single origin coffee shops in Tokyo and Kyoto, so it was difficult to differentiate our shop as a business, in those big cities, I was attracted to the idea of creating something that didn’t exist. The biggest reason was that I wanted to provide a moving experience to people who otherwise didn’t yet know the appeal of coffee, just as I was moved when I didn’t know how delicious it was.”
“Graduation” from my brother
OBROS COFFEE used to employ baristas, but is now run by Ogino brothers. Yumehiro, is in charge of the overall management including branding, brewing, and customer service, while Wakaki, bis in charge of roasting and customer service. The two brothers are now able to share their roles well, but when they first started the business, they were not able to utilize each other’s (individual) strength.
Wakaki recalls : “Before and after opening our own business, my brother was my teacher ; he gave me all the information I needed. It was my brother who introduced me to UNLIMITED COFFEE ROASTERS, which had a big impact on me. Some of our customers must have wondered whether I was really reliable, for I was just following my brother. They would almost sound like ‘Are you sure you can do it?’”.
In fact, my brother did all the selection from the property to the coffee equipment and furniture, and he also did all the branding and PR through customer service and social networking. All I had to do was brew coffee or wash dishes, which anyone could do. So I didn’t feel like I was starting a business ; I was just carrying out the instructions my brother gave me. Of course, I wanted to provide customers with a stimulating experience, but I rarely did any of the work on my own.”
Such being the case, Wakaki gradually felt a sense of crisis. He felt that there was no meaning to his existence if he was just stuck with his brother. “I have always been interested in artisanal work, so I decided to try my hand at roasting.” Consequently, in June 2017, the second year of their business, Wakaki began to work toward establishing a roasting facility.
The name of the activity is ‘OBROS COFFEE 1095’, where 1095 refers to the deadline of 3 years = 1095 days. First, he went to GLITCH COFFEE & ROASTERS in Tokyo once or twice a month, where they were looking for a shared roaster, and began training in roasting. At the same time, he operated a mobile café at a local hotel and grocery store on weekdays. “In the beginning, I didn’t have any customers. Even if I tried my best, I could only sell about 2 kg of coffee beans in two weeks. 2 kg of coffee beans takes only 8 minutes to roast, but it took more than 10 hours to travel between Tokyo and Fukushima by midnight bus just to do that ; so it was not profitable at all.
But it didn’t bother me, or rather I was enjoying experiencing a whole new world of roasting. The staff at GLITCHwere also very kind, and they stayed up late at night with me for tastings and gave me advice.”
Wakaki started roasting at WAKAKI COFFEE in 2019, about half a year earlier than planned because he was ready to make his debut as a roaster.
“Now, my brother directly tells me that the coffee is delicious, but in the past when I had a chance to introduce new coffee beans to him, he often gave a curt response or made no comment, as if he was embarrassed. It was only when I read an article in the media where my brother said ‘Guatemala my brother roasted tasted really good’, that I eventually realized he appreciated it (laughs).”
As a result of starting OBROS COFFEE 1095, Wakaki had to select equipment, make appointments to sell at hotels, and apply for permits by himself. The 1095 that Wakaki started to learn roasting skills is a proof that he has graduated from being a person who can only brew coffee and continues to follow his brother’s footsteps, and he has started a new life as Wakaki Ogino.
“I don’t wear garish clothes in the shop, and I don’t wear rings or accessories at all, for I think coffee should be the main player. I try to make people focus on the coffee as much as possible.
I can’t stop it because in the world of coffee, every couple of years, the conventional knowledge gets overturned and you repeatedly get new tastes and experiences you have never had before. The more you learn, the more unexpected encounters with new coffees you will have, so I have never felt I explored everything.”
We are brothers, but we are different
When Wakaki started 1095 in June 2017, Yumehiro was in the midst of a hectic schedule to open his second shop. He often had to leave the shop to the other staff.
“In the beginning, I felt like I was playing a role in the city’s development, so I was driven by a sense of mission to open more shops in order to increase my influence.”
The second shop opened, but they had to close it after about six months when the two staff members quitted. They returned to their roots as two brothers.
Yumehiro said, “I thought about hiring new staff, but the negative feedback I received from customers about the fact that brothers were not in the shop even though it was named after us (Ogino Brothers = OBROS) was a big factor. I think people who had an assumption that we brothers are good friends with each other and do the business together interpreted the fact we were not in the shop together as a sign we had fallen out. I think there was a part of them that entrusted us with the ideal and wish that brothers should get along well with each other.”
For OBROS COFFEE, the closing of the second shop is not a negative history, but a tactical retreat leading to a new future.
“Since we were both baristas, there were times when I tried to impose my own opinions. But after my brother started roasting, I stopped focusing on coffee in a good way. I have come to realize that there is another person who roasts good coffee, so I can extract it without spoiling it and focus on other things.”
Four years ago, when Wakaki began to walk his own path, the two close brothers, always together, became partners, utilizing each other’s individuality and strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses. Nevertheless, the sound of Wakaki calling Yumehiro ‘big brother (Onii-chan)’ is still filled with the intimacy that tickles me.
It has been about 30 years since they ‘unexpectedly encountered’ as a family. Having spent most of their lives together, it is certain that they are creating a new image of siblings.
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi
Photo by Kenichi Aikawa
Wakaki: “I am very attracted to coffee that has been brewed by a person in front of me, such as a barista, while presenting it with love and passion. When I drink a cup like that, I can feel that it was a good day.”
Yumehiro: “For the past two months, I have been making it a habit to drink a cup of coffee that I brewed by ignoring the recipe when I come to the shop in the morning. I am hoping to have an ‘unexpected encounter’ with tastes and flavors that I haven't felt yet.”