Peer Coffee is a home-brew coffee shop with cafes in the trendy districts of Seongsu-dong and Gwanghimun. In 2015, Hwang Jin Wook founded Peer Coffee with his designer wife, who learned roasting techniques at MOMOS COFFEE. Peer Coffee is based on the idea that baristas working at the store and customers visiting the store are like-minded peers. We asked him what kind of environment he hopes to create in the cafe.
The key is to keep changing
The Seongsu-dong branch serves as a showroom and has an office-like atmosphere, while the Gwanghwamun store offers a relaxing atmosphere designed to make customers feel at home. In one corner of the store subtly sits a fire extinguisher with Peer Coffee’s logo, with flowers and trees decorating the store. The designer’s taste radiates throughout the space, welcoming visitors to the store.
One of Peer Coffee’s unique features is its diverse menu. There are always about seven seasonal blends and three regular blends, and they update their lineup by developing a new seasonal blend about every two months.
“Our customers and us would get tired of serving the same coffee for a long time. So it is rewarding to give our customers the pleasure of choosing limited-time coffee.”
Hwang, in charge of sourcing and roasting the green beans, has the final say on what coffee to serve, but the process is democratic. He doesn’t make coffee selections based solely on his judgment and prejudice but listens attentively to his staff’s opinions.
“One example is a blend we recently developed using anaerobically fermented coffee. I don’t particularly like it, but our customers do, especially young people, so I commercialized it.
We have nine staff members, but I always adopt the majority’s opinion. People have different senses of taste. Some people don’t find coffee tasty, no matter how good I think it is. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t serve coffee that doesn’t match the store’s policy or color.
The same is also true in sourcing and roasting green beans. Over the years, I have grown more old-fashioned with my preferred style, so lately, I look to the opinions of my staff, who keep up with current trends.
Anyway, the key to staying alive in the specialty coffee industry is to keep on changing. I believe that only by boldly taking on new challenges can we offer our customers a satisfying experience.”
Thinking of family and friends
Many first-time customers often find themselves unable to decide what to order because of the wide selection of choices on the menu. However, that is when the staff can show their true potential. When they notice a customer, they immediately offer suggestions to help them choose from the menu.
“We focus on how we perceive the coffee, not on the taste of the coffee itself. Therefore, the customer’s satisfaction will vary greatly depending on whether or not they decide after listening to us or not, even if they end up ordering the same thing.
I think an essential thing in specialty coffee is person-to-person communication. If that is not your focus, then you might as well install an ordering system using a tablet or some other device. Our goal is to help customers understand the appeal of coffee rather than just introducing them to good coffee.”
However, excessive customer service may come across as forced. A good sense of judgment is essential in this regard. The company believes employees should acquire coffee-related skills and knowledge after being employed at Peer Coffee. Therefore, it hires mainly those with the right mindset to serve customers.
“One person who taught us the importance of communicating with customers was a Swiss customer we met about a month after we started the business. He came into the store to ask for directions to a nearby embassy, but he couldn’t speak Korean, so we printed and handed him a map showing his location. Then after that, he stopped by Peer Coffee on his way back to his home country and gave us a Swiss water bottle as a gift.
We try to serve coffee to our customers the same way we serve food to our family and friends. We are thankful that everyone is prepared to fill the best cup of coffee we can offer, not something we should be ashamed of.”
Never forget the beginning
Hwang, originally in the food service industry, became interested in coffee in early 2010. He wondered if roasting coffee himself would be a better way to make it rather than being served it. This desire led Hwang to start his own business.
“I preferred sweet and fruity coffees to deep and rich ones. But at the time, there were not many coffee shops in Korea that roasted coffee that way. That was the backdrop of the times, and that’s when I decided to make my own coffee.”
There is one cup that Hwang will never forget: In 2012, he attended a pop-up event featuring coffee from MOMOS COFFEE barista Jung Joo Yeon (2019 Barista World Champion). The Colombian Geisha he drank there was stunning. The floral aroma did not disappear from his mouth for a while after he finished it.
In the course of drinking coffees from all over the country, Hwang was personally impressed by coffees made with a Probat roasting machine. The coffee that he liked the best, MOMOS Coffee, was also made with a Probat roaster so he decided to install one at Peer Coffee.
About 10 years have passed since then. Hwang has improved his skills and knowledge of coffee, going from being a single roaster to a business owner, but there is one thought that has remained unchanged since before the establishment of the company.
“The first time I brewed coffee at home and served it to my parents and wife, I was so happy when they said, ‘This coffee tastes good.’ Keeping that feeling in mind is the most important thing for me as I work.”
Cherish the world in a 5-meter radius
Peer Coffee is currently planning to open its third café in Hannam-dong. The first store in Hannam-dong was relocated to Seongsu-dong, and its second store opened in Gwanghwamun, halfway between Hannam-dong and Seongsu-dong. However, regular customers from the old Hannam-dong store were constantly expressing their disappointment so the company decided to reopen a store in that area.
“Whenever I open a new store, I spend about a year on the Internet carefully researching information before making a decision. One reason is that it is near my home, but I also felt that the distance between the roasting place and the cafe, where I spend most of the time, made it difficult to manage, resulting in lower quality of customer service. Anyhow, I think business is easier in an area where there are a lot of regular customers.”
Generally there is a high job turnover rate in the coffee industry, but Peer Coffee is unique in that its staff never quits. Although four staff members have left to start their coffee shops, almost none have left because they were dissatisfied with the company. The longest serving staff member has been with the company for four years.
At the core of this is a system in which new staff members are given a two to three-month training period, ensuring no one is left behind. Before Corona, once a year, the company would close the store for two or three days to take the entire staff on a domestic tour of cafes and specialty coffee shops.
“The most important thing in specialty coffee is the people. Beginning with the producer, going through the import/export company, the roaster, and the barista, finally, the customer is handed the coffee. This industry would not be possible without connections among the various people involved. Yet, we cannot think without the ‘people’ in the process.
For instance, the industry-wide issue of low salaries compared to other industries also needs to be resolved. But, on the other hand, it may be one-factor driving staff to start their businesses.
We need to provide an environment where our staff can grow and be involved in the coffee business for a more extended period. I believe it is the owner’s role to manage the shop and guide the staff toward a better future. It is the duty of the owner who works the store.”
When a staff member who worked at Peer Coffee starts their own business, Hwang generously offers advice to help them succeed. He sometimes refers them to machinery and equipment suppliers and even talks them into getting discounts.
“I try to share my expertise with them as much as possible as equals. I went through a lot of trial and error when opening my store, so I hope those who are just starting can get their businesses off the ground as quickly as possible without going through that process.”
Hwang says that his friends are those heading to the same destination together. As a result, in a “sustainable society,” people will nurture those who cherish the world within a five-meter radius of their homes, where they spend time with those closest to them.
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi
Photos: Park Jiwoo
After work, I come home and take care of my small children. After they go to bed, my wife and I enjoy coffee, the best cup I've ever had. I usually have a cup of Peer Coffee cold brew coffee or drip bag coffee at home.