The Coffee Market Shoji Furuya

The Coffee Market

Shoji Furuya

Single-Minded Faith of ‘a Merchant’

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Shoji Furuya runs The Coffee Market, operating three locations in the Tennoji district of Osaka, western Japan: Roast and Cake Studio is a roastery cafe that also offers a wide selection of cakes; 145 is a relaxing space that caters to all generations; and + BAKES serves cream puffs and pastries. Each has its own characters. But coffee is central to all three.

Furuya started his career as a roasted coffee wholesaler. It was after the fading of Japan’s coffee shop boom when he opened his own store. Ever since, he has faced coffee and people working with it for more than 30 years.

“It’s hard,” Furuya says of running cafes, “but it’s getting more fun year after year.” We’ve delved deeper into his thoughts and vision for the future.

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Joy of being appreciated

Instagram feeds of The Coffee Market’s outlets show pictures of a range of foods, like pastas, bagel sandwiches, cream puffs and cakes. Original sweets, created by patissiers, are as well-crafted as at specialized sweets shops. 

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But their mainstay is coffee. More than 10 varieties of coffee are on the menus, catering to a broad spectrum of preferences. Customers get to enjoy them in a myriad of ways, from hand drip and espresso to cafe latte, affogato and coffee float.

“It’s nice to have sweets when you go out to drink coffee, isn’t it?” says Furuya. “And if I was a customer, I’d feel happy when that tastes good, as well.”

Pleasing customers is something Furuya values above anything else – a stance that’s reflected in how he runs his shops.

“I go to any kind of restaurant, from popular places to eatery chains to mom-and-pop shops with delicious foods. I also travel to places recommended by customers and staff because I want to see for myself what they like about those places. I can’t serve customers anything that tastes terrible, as long as I charge them for it. I often tweak roasting profiles based on customers’ reactions.”

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The three locations are within walking distance of each other, a 15-minute walk at the longest. Some regulars swing by a couple of times a day, and others hop from one shop straight to another.

“Sometimes, I go from one store to another and come across the same customers I saw earlier. They might feel awkward, but in my mind, they deserve an award, if anything. I always feel I want to give such customers some gifts. I would be remiss if I didn’t show them my gratitude.”

The joy of being appreciated is growing more and more intense in Furuya.

“It’s amazing that I get paid while being thanked at the same time. It makes me happy when customers tell me, ‘It was nice here. I had a relaxing time.’  Moments like that make me feel glad to be in this business. It’s even more fun now, everything from roasting to selling coffees to running the business itself.”

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Bringing pleasure most important

However, Furuya didn’t have the slightest intention to start a food and beverage business. That’s because growing up, Furuya watched his parents argue time and again as their coffee shop kept accumulating a pile of debt. And it also didn’t help that his mother ran the shop by herself and Furuya saw the toll it took on her.

For Furuya, though, coffee was an object of idolization. Spending his boyhood in the 1970’s when authentic, Japanese-style coffee shops, or kissatens, were all the rage, Furuya saw those places as a fast-track passage into adulthood.

“Coffee is cool, isn’t it? The first time I went to a kissaten, I rehearsed what I would say because I didn’t know how or what to order. I decided that I’d just say ‘American’ when they asked for my order.”

Growing up as the son of a roaster, Furuya was gradually drawn into the coffee world.

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After working at the wholesale section of a food company, Furuya joined coffee roaster and wholesaler Misuzu Coffee, thinking that if he would do wholesale, dealing with coffee would be more interesting. At Misuzu, he worked in sales for kissatens.

The once-thriving kissaten industry – where a successful kissaten was said to be lucrative enough to get you a building – was already in its twilight, its former glory nowhere to be seen. Then there was the rise of self-service cafes, the most notable being Doutor Coffee, prompting mom-and-pop kissatens to close their doors permanently. Whereas customers can grab a coffee for 180 yen at Doutor, a single cup cost 350 to 400 yen at kissatens. People were drawn into the more affordable, casual-style coffee that tasted good enough. 

And into this dynamic came the rapid proliferation of game kissa, a subset of kissatens that used game tables as a draw, in hopes of turning around their fortunes. But this boom pushed the authentic kissaten industry farther into decline.

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Most of Furuya’s clients – kissaten masters – were losing the drive to continue their business, disenchanted with the future of the industry. Despite all this, Furuya never thought of turning his back on the industry.

“I always thought kissatens are indispensable to this world, and that they could be highly profitable, lucrative businesses. And I liked their atmosphere where you can turn on and off your switch and feel stylish. Above all, I enjoyed interactions with kissaten masters so much.”

Some masters dug in their heels to fight against the odds, doing their best to serve delicious coffee. Back then, Japan was in the middle of an economic bubble, with an abundance of higher-paying jobs outside of kissatens. Chronically shorthanded, kissaten masters were in dire need of an alternative strategy to boost revenues.

With an intense focus, Furuya tried to figure out how he could help increase kissatens’ profit, and how he could please them. His commitment to kissaten clients was far more greater than that of a typical salesperson. He proposed lunch menus, shared information about nearby restaurants, and even at times stepped inside kitchens and helped wash the dishes.

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Using a coffee machine to make up for the labor shortage was a last-ditch — and effective, as it turned out — measure. “I’ll bring you coffees that will taste good even when you brew it with a machine,” Furuya told kissaten masters. “I’ll take care of coffee.” But he was up against kissaten masters “full of quirks,” as Furuya describes them, and getting them to nod yes wasn’t easy at all.

“People really were unforgiving back in the day. They would tell you off just to show how fussy they were about coffee. They would go, ‘Who in their right mind would drink this coffee? Bring something better!’” 

Nevertheless, Furuya recounts those days with fond nostalgia, saying that he actually enjoyed the back-and-forth.

“Connections became deeper once I overcame that point. That tendency was particularly true for those with the harshest tongue. And I was hungry for such connections perhaps because my parents were strict and I was hardly praised growing up. It felt really nice to help my clients out of trouble and be appreciated in return.”

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Some time later, Misuzu Coffee, his employer, decided to close its office in Osaka, and Furuya took over the business for free. He initially sourced roasted coffee from the company and sold it to clients. But after a while, he merged his business with his father’s and opened his first cafe in 1992 when he was 29 years old. 

But a few years later, he clashed with his father, who devoted his career to roasting.

“We got into an argument over taste. I worked in sales, so I was more focused on making coffee that customers liked. If they asked for Colombia, I would make a blend with Colombia. I put their requests first. My father, on the other hand, focused on his own taste, pursuing his ideal roasting. In the end, he told me to do it myself, and cut his ties with the business altogether the following day.”

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Mutual growth, spurred by commitment to coffee

Coffee was a special thing for Furuya, for whom pleasing customers was more important than holding firm to his ideas and preferences. Since his days as a salesperson, he told kissaten masters over and over again to value coffee.

“You can’t keep your kissaten afloat if you take your coffee lightly. But as a coffee bean supplier, it wasn’t my place to tell them how to brew coffee. So I repeatedly made rounds of my clients, showing them how to brew coffee properly and asking them to do the same. But they would never stick to it. That was my dilemma.”

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After racking his brain to figure out how he could help his clients, he decided to open his own shop where he would showcase his ideal style.

“I wanted to set an example about how kissatens could attract customers. I aimed to be a model shop of sorts. When I worked in sales, I felt that shops frequented by customers were the ones with an uncompromising commitment to coffee. I wanted to prove that theory. So I disclosed my store’s revenues and expenditures.”

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In around 2000, coffee became even more special for Furuya after an encounter with specialty coffee.

The taint-free taste prompted him to seek to serve more delicious coffee to customers. But he feared that customers might stop coming if he changed taste drastically or hiked prices. So he decided to cut back on a profit margin to continue to use specialty coffee.

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“I really debated myself. The less taint means lighter taste. So I started to question my roasting. I tried different approaches to add more body to the taste.”

He adjusted roasting in increments to avoid sudden changes in taste. Still, he received complaints about lighter taste from time to time. But Furuya was undeterred.

“I tried various coffees, but specialty coffee tasted better. It took many explanations and fine-tuning tastes in accordance with customers’ requests before I could finally convince them to let me do it my way.” 

Furuya kept a steady stream of business perhaps because the relationships he had cultivated over the years were strong enough. Only then did he realize that he derived the biggest pleasure not just from accommodating clients’ wishes, but also from growing together with his clients. Today, he makes it a point to present coffees in accordance with clients’ preferences and level of understanding.

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As his way of thinking changed, he grew more sympathetic to his father’s stance he couldn’t understand before. “Grand Father’S BLend,” a new product that was unveiled to coincide with the 2002 grand opening of Roast and Cake Studio, was a product he developed to make his father admit his coffee was delicious.

Still, his foundational principle – to be a merchant – remains unchanged.

“My foremost motto is to make delicious coffee that lives up to my clients’ expectations. I like my clients, after all. So I can’t bring myself to insist on my way and force it on them. Doing my best to satisfy customers suits me the most.” 

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Staff growth is beauty of business

With a consistent focus on customer satisfaction, Furuya has never hit a major wall over his 30 years of business management.  His only headache was human resources. Many of his staff members were part-timers until 2012, when he opened his third outlet. So he had to run the business while coping with a high turnover rate.

Out of a desire to work with those who devoted themselves to his shops, he began recruiting regular employees in earnest. Now, around a third of his less-than 30-member staff are full-time workers. Three of them have been with the company for about 10 years.

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As can be seen in the company’s management philosophy to “produce people who shine in coffee business”, Furuya aims to cultivate staff who go on to set up their own shops. In fact, eight members have gone independent. Some of his employees are former customers. As they frequented The Coffee Market, their desire to open their own restaurant was ignited. One of them said, ‘I left the restaurant industry before. But coming here rekindled my passion.’”

“If possible, I would like all my staff to open their own shop. I want them to know the fun of running a store. My dream is to see them work hard to make revenues through highs and lows and eventually make their ideal store come true.”

That’s precisely why Furuya rarely teaches his staff step by step how to brew coffee. As members are mostly left to their own devices, many of them end up less certain of their skills and customer service, Furuya says.

“You can learn and grow from seeing whether your approach worked or not based on customers’ reactions. When my staff lose confidence, I tell them to drink a lot of coffee and check out other shops, too.”

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The most rewarding moment for Furuya is when staff overcome difficult stretches and start to look different. He gives advice to staff members who aspire to go independent.

“I tell them to have a mindset to make money. Or else, their business would end up declining just as the kissatens I’ve seen. I tell them it’s important to make a profit so that they can do something new down the line, like renovating a shop in 10 years or opening a second location.”

Furuya himself wasn’t at all interested in making money before. But that changed after he realized he needed to develop his employees into independent, full-fledged members.

“Watching them work with love for my shops, I remind myself that I need to whip my old body to work harder still. It’s tough. But running kissatens is becoming more and more fun each year because their hard work inspires me.”

It has been 30 years since Furuya became a cafe owner, a path he never imagined he would go down. The joy of being appreciated has now become a fuel for him to cultivate the next generation, driving him forward.

Originally written in Japanese by KANA ISHIYAMA
Edited by Tatsuya Nakamichi
Photos by Misa Shinshi

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MY FAVORITE COFFEE

I feel joy when I roast in a way that reflects my customers’ feedback and get the coffee exactly as I expected. I also feel happy when the coffee my customers like is also the coffee I think is delicious.

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