The road to becoming Japan’s top barista – with the expectations of the company on my shoulders.
You then finally took your first step to become the number-one barista in Japan.
My deciding I wanted to be the best in Japan didn’t start anything.I was lucky because there was an internal movement at Ogawa Coffee to train baristas from within the company.
Being an old roaster company, Ogawa Coffee never intended for us to do espresso, but cafes were becoming trendy in Japan. There was no reason to shun the trend so Ogawa Coffee also had to build its own espresso technique.To do so, we needed baristas who were coffee experts.
That’s where the barista training started, and when it did, a part-time worker named Okada said that he wanted to be number one in Japan.With that, they decided to involve me in the project.
So it was lucky timing that the company wanted to train baristas and I wanted to become one. It was really great timing.
How did the project progress?
The goal was to become number one in Japan at the competition. So there was a need for extraction techniques that complied with competition rules, and for recreating the expected taste. It was all trial and error in the laboratory.
The definition of a barista at Ogawa Coffee goes beyond making espresso.They must have expertise in all kinds of extraction technology, and a broad. I collected various beans in the laboratory and performed tests from many perspectives, since there was no one in the company who had made espresso.
I examined the taste that resulted from specific beans, roasting methods, and espresso machines.
It sounds like lonely work.
It really was. I guess others in the company were thinking, “This guy Okada joined as a barista, but what is he actually doing?!”
Back then I was in contact with my supervisor who brought me to the main branch where I continued my research in silence. The only chance I had to go outside was when I did lectures at the coffee seminars that Ogawa Coffee sometimes held. But that experience became very important later.
Unlike knowledge taught by others, knowledge gained by my own trials is more real. It was a really big deal that I was able to explain things through my own words and experience, no matter who I was talking to.
Earning the title “Best Barista in Japan” and flourishing as an advertising draw.
And then you finally participated in a barista competition.
In the competition judging is done in two major areas.First is the color, polish, acidity, bitterness, sweetness, and aftertaste.The other regards the skill itself of baristas – whether the actions are effective, not wasting the coffee beans, and whether the extracting tools are used appropriately.
And overall it is judged whether the barista accurately produces what he or she wants to express in the coffee.I thought about my recipes for the competitions, starting with the blend and roasts, so that I could bring the peak flavor of the coffee on the day of the competition.
You earned the name of “number one barista” and were called “Mr. Ogawa Coffee.”
I was 2008 when I became number one in Japan. It was my fourth year at Ogawa, since I joined in 2004. By that time I was not the only barista in the company. There were baristas in every store and the organization got even bigger.
While participating in several competitions, some people joined the company out of admiration for me. I had started this by myself but it became bigger, with many people, so at some point I began to be called “chief barista.” I was chosen as an advertising draw for Ogawa Coffee and appeared in various campaigns.
I had an increasing number of roles at Ogawa, and began to work with the sales and production departments. I sometimes aided product development by giving opinions on blending and roasting techniques that suited espresso. I sometimes worked as a sales promoter, going to hotels and restaurants to convince them to use espresso. The influence of “Barista Okada” gradually got bigger.
As you become more well known, your responsibilities increase, too.
The barista training project succeeded and the outcome was becoming more visible.
I and others around me were satisfied with the outcome, but at the same time the job was gradually becoming different from the job I really wanted to do.
From the beginning I was a person who liked getting attention and loved being in front of people, but “Chief Barista” is a management job. The main job is to train junior staff and manage the team, and it didn’t suit my personality.When I thought, “Is this the job that I wanted to do?” the answer was “no.”
Even you were in such an honored position, it wasn’t what you wanted?
It had been ten years since I joined Ogawa Coffee, and I was in my forties.Thinking about the rest of my life, I knew I wanted to do a job where I was in front of people.
At the same time, if I stayed with the company, they would treat me well.There was even an idea of starting a coffee academy, with myself as principal, and many other possibilities. But not all the great players want to be great coaches.I was not lured by being given a special position in the company.
Making a place where I can shine. Finding the ideal shop.
So you decided you wanted to be a player for life?
Put simply, yes. I wanted to be in a position where I could shine as a performer, no matter how small the shop was. That thought consumed me and I started to think about many things.
Of course there was a risk. But even if my salary suffered, working at my own store would let me work with more passion. I knew I wanted to make a place where I could shine brightest.
You already had a great track record, so your independence went smoothly, right?
No, no, not at all. I wanted to start my own shop but there was no place to start.I was particular about starting in Kyoto, where I grew up, my hometown.
However, this area is a highly competitive market with many restaurants and hotels. Many real estate companies told me I’d never be able to find a good place.They told me that the best listings make their way around the restaurant industry first, so they are not available to the public.
So how did you find this shop (Okaffe Kyoto)?
When I visited the last real estate company, I was told no. I took a step outside and thought, well, in that case I’ll find it by myself.
So I decided to walk around and look for a building on my own. It might sound rude but I thought there must be some old cafe somewhere with no one to take over, thinking about closing. The size was 50 square meters – just big enough to look around the whole store from behind the counter.
I found this place suddenly, ten minutes after leaving the real estate office.
Yes, it’s quite funny. This place was originally a cafe called TeaRoom Jun.The owner was an old lady named Junko, and she had been running it for 40 years. It was the retro, Showa era cafe that I had always envisioned. The size was also ideal, as was the location, and the owner was this old lady.
“How much longer will you run this store?”That was my first conversation with Ms. Junko.
“If possible, I want to close at some point next year,” she replied.I had wanted to take over next year, too.I made an offer: “Could you let me take over?”
Actually, Ms. Junko had already had several offers, but she rejected all of them. First, she said no to the bars and izakaya (places that serve food and alcohol) because it would disturb neighbors.
She was thinking very seriously about what would happen after she left.
How did you persuade her?
One lucky thing was that Ms. Junko’s had been buying beans from Ogawa Coffee for her café. She said that the sales reps from Ogawa were all nice and trustworthy.She looked at my Ogawa business card and told me, “I can trust you.”After that, my plan for independence moved dramatically onto specifics.