San Sebastian, northern Spain, is known as one of the world’s most renowned gastronomic hotspots. Around 20 kilometers to the east, Sakona Coffee Roasters – a roastery that includes a retail and indoor-eating space – took its first breath in 2015 in the city of Irun, along the border with France.
Its founder Javier Garcia Funez, a native of Irun, has a stellar resume of accomplishments, including five top prizes in national barista competitions and a fourth-place finish in the 2011 world championship.
Javier says that specialty coffee was the last piece of a puzzle. Through our interviews, we set out to find out what he meant by those words and retrace the trajectory of his career that began as a bartender.
Joy of discovery
Pieces of architecture can leave an unforgettable impression on the beholder just at first glance. A cylindrical building that houses Sakona Coffee Roasters surely counts among them. The structure, formerly a car dealer at one point and a fruit warehouse at another, covers around 300 square meters. Since no other building stands in its vicinity, its presence has come to be widely recognized by locals.
Javier, a man with rich facial expressions and a lot of body language, bought this peculiar building and opened his own shop there. The aesthetic of Javier, who is joyful enough to be a Santa Claus and entertaining enough to be a street performer, is also reflected in the packaging of coffee beans he sells.
Sakonita, an aquatic animal-like character drawn next to the logo, is an imaginary creature produced by a local illustrator. Sakonita is a traveler on the hunt for coffee. It carries a backpack full of equipment needed to brew coffee, and serves the drink to people it crosses paths with. The illustration comes in various versions. But the underlying concept remains the same. This playfulness is exactly what Javier brings to his day-to-day work, too.
“I want to be surprised. So when I order samples of green coffee from importers, I ask them not to explain too much about what kind of coffee they give me. For me to surprise customers, I need to discover coffees that surprise me first.
I particularly pay attention to consistency. When I take a close look at green coffee, I can tell whether the drying process was long enough or too short.
I basically evaluate the quality of coffee based on its moistness and freshness, which can be estimated from its appearance and fragrance. But I’ve learned over the past few years that I’d better not jump to a conclusion until I cup it. Sometimes, a visually ugly coffee can surprise you when you cup it. That’s rarely the case. But it’s possible.
In short, you shouldn’t judge. If you are looking for high-quality taste and flavors, then you shouldn’t narrow down possibilities. When I cup, I feel like a child who is going to taste a candy he hasn’t eaten before. One of the fun things about coffee is the discovery of new tastes. Discovering is one of the most wonderful experiences human beings can have.”
Perfect blend of coffee and customer service
With every coffee professional, there is a different story of how they stepped foot in the world of specialty coffee. Some are lifetime fans of coffee, while others were not interested in the drink at all. And there are those who have built their careers entirely in the coffee industry, while still others crossed over to coffee from completely different fields like music and IT. For Javier, who is on the cusp of 50 years old, the entrance into coffee was a bar where he started working about 30 years ago, after he graduated from high school.
“As I grew fascinated by the fun of interacting with customers, I began to like working at the bar more and more. People have different personalities, preferences and needs. But with the atmosphere created by staff, their service and the taste of drinks, you can get customers to open their minds. I always closely watched customers when I served them so that my service would exceed the expectations of people who chose to come to the bar.
For many people, a bar is a place to unwind and forget everything at the end of the day. The most important thing when serving customers is to have the eagerness to make a positive impact on them over the counter. Even after a bad day, if they talk with bar staff, they might be able to start the next day feeling better. People with problems may be able to go home with a glimmer of hope. That’s the most human way to serve customers.”
Javier also worked as a barista at the bar, whose selection of coffees wasn’t necessarily of high quality. He spent more hours serving whiskey and gin as a bartender than working with coffee as a barista. Serving customers was his foremost priority at the workplace.
Before he realized, he had been working at the bar for 10 years. All the while, he never developed even a modicum of desire to switch jobs, and he continued on the job as if to be guided by some force.
Around four to five years later, an encounter with a barista championship in 2006 became a major turning point in his life.
“I discovered the special power of coffee there, and had a fantastic finding that coffee is a fruit. I felt that I gained the two powerful weapons of high-quality coffee and customer service.”
It was a cup of coffee that further defined a path for Javier, who had started to try his hand at barista championships in 2008. When he took part in the 2009 World Barista Championship in Atlanta, he had a shocking encounter with a coffee from El Salvador.
“It tasted clean and fruity, something I didn’t expect at all. I even asked the person who brewed it if it was really coffee. That’s when I decided to dedicate my life to coffee.
I’ve had many coffees since. But I’ve never been as surprised as when I tasted that cup. It probably had a cupping score of around 87. And that memory is still vivid in my mind, and that’s what led me to where I am today.”
Special service meets specialty coffee at Sakona Coffee Roasters
Javier went on to take part in seven national barista championships from 2008 to 2014, and took home the gold in five of them. A fourth-place finish in the 2011 World Barista Championship is just another feather in his cap. And in 2015, he made his foray into roasting and founded Sakona Coffee Roasters.
“Specialty coffee was like the last piece of a puzzle for me. It seemed like my passion for exceeding customers’ expectations and the tools to do so fell perfectly into place. Customer service and serving coffee – Sakona is the natural destination where these two passions of mine merged together.
When I pour a cup of coffee that I know is tasty, I get excited imagining that this experience is going to be something the customer in front of me doesn’t expect. I feel the word coffee itself carries a powerful ring to it.”
A customer once gave Javier a compliment he says is unforgettable.
“She told me, ‘Javier, I remember you twice: Once when I drink coffee here, and once when I drink coffee elsewhere.’ It means that she remembers me because my coffee gives her better sensations and emotions than coffees at other places do.”
Of course, not all feedback has been positive. Once, a customer yelled, “This coffee is too fruity, expensive and bad,” and left in a huff.
“I look back on it as a good experience. Whatever the job, there is none that can please everyone. If you try to satisfy everyone, you end up having to bend your principles. It’s insincere to lie to yourself just to make money.”
Know your mission, answers will follow
More than 10 years have passed since Javier decided in Atlanta to devote his life to coffee. Now, six years into Sakona Coffee Roasters, Javier is putting together a new puzzle.
“What I want to achieve through Sakona is to create a path. When heartfelt service meets delicious coffee, customers will have an experience they want to tell others.
People are inclined to reject something when it is forced on them. But when they discover something themselves, they get the urge to talk about it. I think that’s the way to spread the coffee culture to more people.
The same goes for customer service. If you do a job that makes people want to see more work from you, you can win their trust. Spanish has the word ‘picardía.’ In a dictionary, it’s defined as the skill and prowess to control a situation to make the most of it. But for me, it can also mean pulling a prank on customers to amuse them, give them a better experience than they expect. In short, picardía is to fool someone but always in their favor.
For instance, suppose that I dropped something in front of a customer in a bad mood while I was cleaning. It’s a mistake, but also a big chance. Depending on how I respond, it may lead to an unexpected conversation and a better experience.
In other words, in every situation, there is a chance to entertain customers. Of course, it doesn’t mean you have to put on a circus. You need to closely watch the atmosphere, situation and the customer and act appropriately.
Picardía is merely a means to an end. If you understand that your mission is to make people happy, the rest will follow automatically. The most important thing is the power of will. If you genuinely want people to have fun and relax, creative answers will arise naturally. It’s also important to keep accumulating tools and experiences to use in specific moments.”
As a child, Javier liked to perform magic tricks for his family. His mother, a pianist, would tell him, “You should become an artist,” perhaps because he was a giddy, mischievous soul who would dance to her piano and entertain his “audience.” Even in his earliest childhood, Javier knew his calling.
“As I grow older, I think I am tilting more toward spiritual things like life and emotion. Since I cherish coffee and communication with people around it, time really does fly by.
A cup of coffee is a gateway into a more private, intimate conversation. It can spawn encounters with people you didn’t expect to meet, which can evolve into lifetime friendships. No other experience is as beautiful and mystical.”
For Javier, who, as an adult, turned from a waiter into a barista to bring joy to people, Sakona is a dreamland that embodies his experiences and ideals. “With my service, I want my customers to lose track of time,” he says. Javier will continue on with his journey, working his magic with a wand called specialty coffee.
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi
Photos by Raquel and Iñaki
Let’s say I cup coffees with friends who work in coffee. Ideally, out of 10 coffees on the table, there is only one that everyone likes and wants to talk about because that’s the prime opportunity to bring coffee lovers together.