Taoyuan city is home to the biggest international airport in Taiwan. Once an industrial district, as the infrastructure connecting the city to Taipei improved, it has become a popular location with the younger generation.
It is in this growing city that Shen began his specialty coffee roastery, and in 2004, opened his cafe. In 2019, Shen decided to take the business he started out of his friend’s garage and build a brand behind it, extending his flagship cafe and giving it a new look. The redesign replaced the retro decor and antique interior with a fresh, modern, minimalist design.
A Taoyuan local, Shen’s coffee journey began here from the desire to serve good quality coffee to those around him. Now, 30 years since he first roasted his own beans and still in the coffee business, we asked Shen what it means to craft the perfect space for enjoying coffee.
Good business is built on good trust
Taoyuan is a city on the up. Host to a wide variety of cultural and art events, it is also known for having some of the most delicious food in Taiwan, and will soon be home to the beautifully designed Taoyuan City Main Public Library. Urbanization has seen the population increase to 1.3 times what it was 20 years ago. High rise apartment blocks and office towers line the street opposite Shen Cafe, and this area is quickly becoming the place to be in Taoyuan.
But for Shen, who has been here since 2004, this change was completely unexpected. When he first opened his cafe, there was nothing but empty land in front, and you would be lucky to see a car a minute, it was so quiet.
Thanks to the increased popularity of the area, Shen’s trade boomed and he was able to open a sister cafe in 2021. Yet, his stance toward his business remains the same. While he does use social media, Shen does not have a website or online store. He still holds to the importance of face-to-face interaction.
“Coffee has to be tasted, it has to be smelled to fully enjoy the experience,” says Shen. “I try my best to describe it, but nothing beats the real thing. That’s why whenever I introduce a new coffee to a customer at the cafe, I always give them a tasting.”
In other words, if you want to purchase Shen’s beans, you have to visit the cafe. Occasionally, regulars who have moved away can order the beans to be delivered. But this is an exception to the rule.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic was almost catastrophic for Shen Cafe. When Taiwan went into lockdown during the worst part of the pandemic, the government enforced a takeout-only rule, banning people from eating inside cafes and restaurants. A lot of roasters depended on online sales to stay afloat. Despite the lack of an online presence, Shen Cafe were able to keep the damage to a minimum thanks to the relationship they had built with their regulars.
“During the pandemic, I got emails and phone calls from more than 20 customers, asking how I was getting on. And when I told them, most of them would increase their regular order, saying that they wanted to support the cafe.”
Good quality will always sell and craftsmanship is something that Shen places great importance on. It’s no surprise then that everything at Shen Café, from the coffee and desserts, to the ice cream, are all made in-house. In fact, Shen invested in an ice cream maker so that he could tweak the balance of ingredients to create the perfect flavor.
“I’ve never had an ice cream where I was happy with the flavor. Whether it’s coffee or ice cream, the only way to get the flavor I want, is to make it myself.
I’m really into my food and I’m very choosy about what I eat. If Ｉdon’t start my day with a delicious breakfast, it’ll ruin my mood for the whole day. And until recently, I was usually the one cooking the family meals too. Eventually, I want to add snacks and lunch to the cafe menu too.
When I find something I like, I want to share it with everyone. That’s why I love it when people who enjoyed something at the cafe ask how it was made. That’s how we earn the trust of the customer, and it’s one of the qualities that makes them want to keep on coming back.
Last year, there was a huge scandal in Taiwan over mislabeling by a food company. Since then, consumers have been more and more concerned with food safety. A knock-on effect has been a bigger demand for organic – but organic doesn’t necessarily mean safe. What’s really important is trust. If people don’t trust you, they’re not going to trust the safety of your product, no matter how much you try to reassure them.”
Good things take time
Shen first entered the world of coffee at the age of 17 when he took up a part time job at a cafe. And with the exception of a year’s compulsory military service, he has always been involved with coffee in some way or another for the past 25 years.
As a university student, he checked out websites and other people’s roasting methods to build his own roaster using a powdered milk can, and then later by reengineering a popcorn machine. Playing around with the roasting times, Shen discovered that a light roast allows you to savor the flavor of the coffee more.
In 2000, after finishing his military service, Shen bought a 5 kg roasting machine, and set up an ad hoc roastery with his friend, in the friend’s garage. He would spend his days roasting beans, and trying to find customers to buy them.
Fortunately, Shen’s venture came at a time when the coffee culture was beginning to develop in Taiwan, and orders for the beans kept coming in. Daylight hours were usually reserved for sales, which meant Shen would have to do his roasting at night. He loved what he was doing, but he was working around 12 to 16 hours every day.
Then one day, Shen and his friend decided to go their separate ways. The friend wanted to prioritize quality, and kept buying in the most expensive beans. But for Shen, quality meant creating a coffee that matched the needs of the customer. While they both wanted to produce the best quality coffee, Shen wanted a stable foundation to build his business on, and ended the partnership before an argument developed.
Shen had been getting a good response from the wholesale clients and so decided to open a roastery cafe (Shen Cafe) in his hometown, Taoyuan. He could have opened a cafe in the more popular Taipei, but opening it here, in the place he had grown up, felt more authentic.
In the beginning, Shen Cafe was mostly deserted. Without social media, it took a while to get its name on the map. But Shen was not worried, especially as the income from the wholesale business was enough to keep him going. Five years after opening, the cafe finally turned a profit.
“Growth was slow but steady. Every month I could see an improvement. Customers would come and rave about how great the coffee was, and I was getting so many regulars. I knew that one day people would understand the value of specialty coffee, and that belief kept me going.”
No compromising on perfection
But even Shen came close to leaving the world of coffee once. After finishing his military service, Shen decided to find a job in sales.
“I’m a very shy person, and not great at talking to people. When I was young, I couldn’t even speak to my friends’ moms. I knew that this part of my personality was holding me back, and to become a better version of myself I would have to change. I would need to put myself in a situation where I would be forced to talk to people all the time.
I decided to sell coffee beans because it’s something I know a lot about. I’ll never forget that first visit to a prospective client. I was too nervous to go in, so I just skulked around outside. After about ten minutes, the manager noticed me, came out and asked me what I wanted. If he hadn’t done that, I might never have got that first sale!”
We all have strengths and weaknesses. Shen might not be the best communicator, but his stubborn determination to see things through is why his business has continued to thrive.
In 2007, Shen bought a bag (30 kg) of Blue Mountain coffee. At the time it was one of the most expensive coffees around, selling for around 100,000 to 150,000 Taiwan dollars (3,100 to 4,600 US dollars), and Shen had read and heard how once it was so good, once you tasted it you never forgot it.
The purchase cost him three to four months wages. Trying to find the perfect roast to bring out the flavor, Shen spent a month experimenting with different methods. By the end of the month, he had used up all the beans, but he had not found a flavor he was happy with.
And if he was not happy with the flavor, he was not happy to serve it in his cafe. With no money to buy a second bag, Shen gave up on the Blue Mountain coffee idea. Even though he lost money on it and his friends and family thought it was a foolish venture, Shen doesn’t regret his decision.
Because good enough is never enough for Shen. The standard has to be perfect. That is clear in every part of his business, even down to his decision not to have an online shop.
“To make the online shop a success, I’d need to hire a professional. If I or someone else working at the cafe did it, we could damage the brand or the value of our products. It’s not that I don’t want an online shop. It’s that if it can’t be done well, then it’s not worth doing.”
One crack and it all comes tumbling
Shen is also very particular about who he employs in his cafe. When he interviews an applicant, he is looking for someone with a personality that suits him and the cafe, someone who he can feel a connection with.
“All the staff here are really kind. Everyone has a similar personality. I try not to choose people with strong personalities that might clash with the people around them. That’s how I keep the environment an easy one to work in.”
Shen sets the bar high for applicants. Once they pass the interview, they have a month’s trial. Only 1 in 20 applicants make it beyond that. Often, the decision to let someone go is based on the opinion of the other members of staff.
“It’s not about the person’s individual skill. It’s more about their attitude to work, and whether their general vibe matches the cafe. People who are hired tend to stay for a long time. The average is around five years, and one employee has been here right since the beginning, around 18 years.
I want each member of staff to take pride in their work as a professional, and provide a great service. They are part of creating a safe and comfortable space for the customers to enjoy their coffee. One mistake could bring the whole thing tumbling down.”
All of the ten staff working at the cafe are full-time employees and Shen takes employee development seriously, inviting in a professional once or twice a month for staff training programs. When it comes to managing, Shen prefers the staff to act independently, developing their own sense of professional responsibility, rather than giving them detailed instructions. If he does find something that he needs to point out, he writes it in the diary shared by the whole staff.
“You could say my job is not to get in the way of their job. As long as they don’t break the rules, I want them to be able to use their skills as best they can. They don’t think of me as their boss, but more as their colleague and their partner.”
Yet even Shen has had to admit that striving for perfection does not always give you the desired result. Back in 2016, Shen was visiting a cafe with his wife and children when he realized something: Instead of enjoying this time with his family, he was busy obsessing over the quality of the coffee in the cafe.
“Once you have kids, things change. Not everyone who comes to the cafe are professional coffee drinkers. A lot of people just want to enjoy a nice cup of coffee in a place where they can relax.”
For 44-year-old Shen, that place is Taoyuan. The city where he was born and raised, and where he’s planting roots for his family and business.
The world is developing at such a dizzying speed that sometimes, we forget to look at the things right in front of us. Dazzled by the bright lights and possibilities displayed on our screens, we are getting more and more out of touch with the physical world. Shen’s uncompromising authenticity stands in stark contrast as a wake-up call, inviting us to build a better world.
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi
It’s been nearly 20 years since I opened Shen Café. Because of what I do, it’s impossible to just enjoy a cup of coffee. I’m always rating it, thinking about how to fix it or make it better. And now that I have two kids, I’m even busier than before. So I’m looking forward to when I retire and I can go to a cafe with my wife, and just relax, have a cup of coffee and enjoy it for what it is.