VWI by CHADWANG operates a network of four cafes in Taiwan, one of them open for a limited period. As the name suggests, the producer behind the brand is Chad Wang, the winner of the 2017 World Brewers Cup.
Having eyed overseas markets since its foundation in 2018, VWI has continued on a growth trajectory while standardizing staff training and store operations to ensure a certain standard. Now with 24 employees in its workforce, the company employs about 80% of them on full-time contracts.
Chad says he used to be a withdrawn, shy person. We explored how his life changed after he launched and has run his namesake brand in his continuous pursuit of coffee, and what did and didn’t change as he evolved from barista to owner. Through interviews, we retraced his footsteps to this day, trying to uncover a spirit brewing within VWI.
Eyes set on overseas
The name VWI is an acronym of the three forms of water: vapor, water, and ice. It is also an answer Chad arrived at after debating what drip coffee is.
“I believe drip coffee ultimately comes down to green coffee and water,” Chad explains, “at a ratio of 1.5% green coffee and 98.5% water. I want baristas to realize how important water is.”
Five filtering layers mounted on faucets show just how fussy Chad is about water. The first layer removes chlorine and other impurities. Then the water is cleared of off-flavors with activated charcoal in the second layer. The third layer brings the liquid even closer to purity. And the fourth layer adds magnesium ions and calcium ions to the water to increase the rate of coffee extraction. And in the fifth and final stage, when the water seeps through another layer of activated charcoal, it finally takes on the role of water for coffee.
VWI scrupulously inspects water at all its stores on an irregular basis to keep the water quality consistent across the board. The company pays extra attention in May and November – times of year when Taiwan sees fluctuations in rainfall and hence the water quality. With its eyes set on overseas markets, the company also lays out clear criteria as to water, calling for TDS (total dissolved solids) of between 40 and 60 ppm and pH ranging from 7 to 7.4. These guidelines ensure an organization that doesn’t rely solely on experienced baristas.
VWI sees island-wide expansion as a milestone. Currently, all its permanent shops are located in different areas, from Taipei to Hsinchu to Taichung. Since its foundation, the company was aware that keeping the brand’s standard would be difficult as it expanded. So it acted preemptively.
Workshops for store managers are part of such efforts. The training is not just geared to improving store managers’ coffee brewing techniques and customer service, but also designed to imbue them with the brand’s spirit and philosophy. All this ensures that the company functions without a hitch even without Chad or managers from the headquarters stepping in to help.
That said, VWI isn’t intent on organizing and standardizing every aspect of its operations. When it comes to customer service – something VWI is particularly committed to – the company takes an extremely personal approach. There is no standard operating procedure, and every member is left to their own devices, albeit with the company philosophy always in mind.
“That’s because we want to convey a human touch. Baristas are the ones who welcome people coming to their cafes as if they receive guests at their own homes. Baristas at VWI interact with customers like friends do, but their relationship is not close enough to go out for a drink together. There is a delicate balance there.”
When serving customers, VWI baristas make utmost effort to figure out what customers are interested in, what they want. Trying to understand the needs of customers through conversation, the staff provide just the right amount of information they need.
“I used to sell brand items at a department store. That experience taught me the importance of paying attention to customers all the time. I tell baristas at VWI to do the same, too – to be vigilant for any signs that indicate that customers may be trying to ask for something or share their feedback after ordering or drinking their coffee.”
VWI cafes use the so-called Greek-style for espresso machines, setting them up near a wall, so that staff members can keep a close distance with customers. Efforts to enhance customer satisfaction are visible in every nook and cranny of the cafes, from the spacious areas in front of the counter to lines of sight that let baristas look across the store.
“I urge baristas at VWI to be someone customers can count on as professionals with a wide range of coffee knowledge. In fact, quite a few customers come back to us whenever they want to know something about coffee or we stock new beans. That’s the proof that we’ve built deep, solid relationships with customers.
One of our values is to cultivate a relationship of mutual respect between the barista and the customer. We humans are all the same. We want customers to treat baristas with the same respect baristas show customers.
So when customers come to our shops with strong hostility, we ask them to never come back. We are grateful to have customers visiting us, but as the owner, I’m obliged to protect my staff.
It is for the same reason that we don’t serve anything that’s not on the menu and turn down any request that we can’t meet. That said, we do make exceptions every now and then. For example, when regular customers ask for a special coffee or ask us to brew a coffee with beans they bring themselves, it is up to store managers to decide whether to accept or not. That’s because it’s only natural for people to do their friends a favor. That line between dos and don’ts isn’t clear-cut. But that’s just the way it is because human-to-human relationships are special and complicated.”
To know everything about coffee
Though Chad of today actively goes public and speaks about himself in frequent media appearances, he used to be an introverted type who wasn’t good at making friends. As a child, he enjoyed swimming and diving in the sea and watching marine animals.
“Being in the water is very relaxing. It’s a tranquil, peaceful world. Especially in the ocean, there are plenty of fish in a variety of colors and shapes, each with its own behavioral pattern. I found joy in experiencing such a diverse world.”
There was a period of time when Chad devoted himself to sweets-making with a goal of opening his own sweets shop. Back then, coffee was just a necessary extra to keep his dream business viable. But as he learned more and more about coffee, it soon thrust its way into the heart of his life.
“The one big difference between sweets and coffee lies in how much leeway you have. With sweets, you have to follow a recipe down to the smallest detail. On the other hand, coffee has infinite possibilities. Each coffee has flavors of its own. And coffee can taste remarkably different depending on its origin, roasting method and the barista who brews it. Upon that realization, I was captivated by the world of coffee.
Another reason I was drawn to coffee is because I get to receive words of joy from customers way more often. After all, we can see customers’ reactions in a matter of two minutes or so, from taking their order to brewing a cup of coffee.”
Later on, as Chad took his coffee studies to another level, he decided to take a teaching position at Specialty Coffee Association. That’s because he felt “using SCA’s educational program was the fastest route to improving my skills,” he recounts.
“If I worked at a cafe and had established rules to follow, there’d be only so much I could do. If I became a teacher, meanwhile, I figured I could get to know other baristas and coffee lovers, which in turn would help me study coffee from various angles and understand it holistically. Thanks to the teaching job, I learned to respect differences between coffees.”
Overcoming stress to top the world
After becoming a SCA trainer in 2015, Chad set his sights on a new goal of winning the WBrC. That ambition traced its roots to his encounter with Stefanos Domatiotis, a former world champion. “You are a great player,” Stefanos had told Chad, “so you should come join the competition.” That word of encouragement was just what Chad needed to make up his mind.
A year later, as if to prove Stefanos right, Chad won the Taiwan qualifier in his first participation in 2016 and took home a third-place in the subsequent world competition.
“It turned out later on that I wasn’t the only one Stefanos approached,” Chad says. “It doesn’t matter whether he genuinely believes in baristas’ potential or he just met them. That’s his way of cheering up baristas. Either way, I took his words too seriously,” Chad laughs.
Whatever intention was behind Stefanos’s words, there is no disputing they ignited a passion in Chad’s heart. As Chad debated what he could do to claim gold in the world, he expanded the scope of his research beyond brewing techniques and presentation skills into the emotions that go through judges’ minds when they give their scores.
Chad’s introspection didn’t end there. He started asking himself, how he could perform to the best of his abilities, how he could stay himself on the competition stage, unperturbed by the nerves. An answer he came up with was to train inside a “goldfish tank.”
For his training room, Chad picked an approximately 8-square-meter room in a cafe. He refurbished a front-facing wall with floor-to-ceiling mirror to check his facial expressions and gestures when giving a mock presentation. Aware that he would come under the scrutinizing stare of a large audience at the competition venue, he replaced the right wall with see-through glass. Not a word exchanged with observers, Chad focused on his training, feeling like “a goldfish at an aquarium,” he recalls.
“There was just a single window about 30 centimeters square on the left and back walls. Also, for lighting, I used incandescent lamps, which are often used in a science lab. The idea behind these is the same. I wanted to put myself under a lot more stress than at the competition venue to train my mind. It paid off because when the time came for me to step onto the stage, the venue looked spacious and the air felt fresh.”
These efforts paid dividends in 2017 when Chad won the world championship in his second appearance. As the next step, he decided to cultivate a namesake brand.
“First and foremost, I wanted to open a cafe and put together a team to pass on my coffee expertise and skills. Second, I wanted to create a place where people can see me when they want to and I can meet a lot of people, too. After all, even if I brew the world’s best coffee, it’s not worth a penny if there is no one to drink it.”
Living in imperfect world
It’s been around four years since Chad founded VWI in 2018 at 29 years old. In the years since, Chad has gone from barista to owner. Where he previously served each customer personally, now he manages his team and grooms store managers and baristas to follow in his footsteps. Recently, Chad has begun to see a new joy in life.
“I’ve been able to open up myself more thanks to frequent interactions with people. It’s become more fun to mingle with friends.”
Still, his path wasn’t all that straightforward. Chad once believed that treating his staff with the same intense discipline he imposes on himself would be a shortcut to their growth, until that turned out to be counter-effective. His rigorousness took an emotional toll on a few members and ended up undermining their job performance.
“That prompted me to introduce the current system, where I have middle-managers in between me and frontline members as a cushion when giving instructions to the staff. Whatever I want to tell my staff goes through the managers. I go relatively hard on team managers at the headquarters and store chiefs who are responsible for training baristas. The change of structure has improved things. I try to be nice and cheerful when I go and talk with the staff at their shops.”
In 2021, Chad renamed his personal Facebook page from “Brewing With Style” to “Brewing With Heart.” The decision reflects a change in his way of thinking and feelings within.
“Humans can’t fully understand each other. Based on that assumption, I’ve been thinking about what needs to be done to better understand others. The answer my heart taught me is mutual respect. But who knows? I may come up with a new idea a few years down the line. Humans are complicated, after all.
Facing such reality, I always tell myself, ‘The world is not perfect or equal.’ That’s not some pessimistic excuse to stop trying, but a positive outlook to drive myself to grow. And seeing the world this way, I can easily forgive others and myself.”
Memories of the WBrC are still vivid in Chad’s mind. As he waited for his turn, he kept repeating a line to himself like a mantra: “I’ve done every training I needed to do to win. There is nothing more I can do. No one knows what will happen here. The only thing I can do is to put on my best performance today.”
“I tried to protect my mind by convincing myself that things can’t be perfect. Things can be seen from multiple angles, and everything has a lot of room for improvement, which is why I always remind myself of how important it is to stay curious forever and continue to confront things head-on.”
VWI taught Chad the joy of interacting with people. Enamoured with coffee, Chad probably sees VWI as a big research lab to unravel an intricate world. “Things are complicated. That’s why they are interesting.” Chad was enchanted by such depth of the world. He will continue on a never-ending journey, one that alternates between introspection and implementation.
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi
Photos by Ray Jiang @fade_aray
Humans are complicated animals. It can be difficult to stay happy every day. But it’s pure bliss when I drink an amazing coffee beyond my expectation, regardless of whether I brewed it or others did.