At Blue Bottle Coffee, no distractions are allowed: Cafe’s founder hopes to win over customers in tough Seoul market

May 06,2019
James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, poses with a cup of coffee at Korea’s first Blue Bottle Coffee store located in Seongsu-dong, eastern Seoul. [BYUN SUN-GOO]
The hype is real. Beginning early Friday morning and continuing over the entire weekend, multiple layers of serpent-like lines blocked sunlight from entering the floor-to-ceiling windows of Korea’s first Blue Bottle Coffee roastery and cafe in Seongsu-dong, eastern Seoul.

Social media exploded with testimonies of people’s experiences at the U.S. coffee company’s first store in Seoul: Coffee drinkers shared how long they waited, how their drinks tasted, how the new location differed from what they have seen overseas, and whether they would want to come back. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Seoul has Blue Bottle fever, as the new cafe was the talk of the coffee-crazed city over the whole weekend.

Blue Bottle Coffee, which opened its first store in Oakland, California, in 2002, has long been interested in the Korean market: The company speculates that about one-third of the followers of its official Instagram account are Korean. About half the visitors to at least two of its stores in Japan are Korean. This enthusiasm pushed the company, which is majority-owned by Nestle, to take action and make Korea its second international market. Before the first Blue Bottle Coffee cafe opened its doors, there was news that a second location was already in the works in central Seoul’s Samcheong-dong and will open in a couple of months.

“We thought maybe they are telling us something that we should listen to. Maybe we should bring [Blue Bottle] to Korea,” said James Freeman, one of the founders of Blue Bottle Coffee, who started the business by selling coffee at a farmer’s market in the United States. On the cafe’s opening day, he welcomed visitors who had waited hours in line into the space when they walked in the door. The two-story Blue Bottle location has a roastery on the first floor and a cafe space underground.

“Hype is easy and the business is hard,” he said. “Obviously we are not going to have lines outside for years and years, but we want to make coffee for the neighbors and [provide them] experiences that they want to tell their friends about.”

To satiate the taste of Korean customers who may have tried Blue Bottle Coffee in Japan or in the United States, the company plans to release a new drink that will only be available in the Korean market. Freeman explains that it will be similar to a small Americano, but it doesn’t have a name yet and is not on the menu at the moment.

The facade of Blue Bottle Coffee in Seongsu-dong, eastern Seoul, right. At left, baristas make coffee at the drip bar inside. [BYUN SUN-GOO, LEE SUN-MIN]
The cafe has also prepared snacks that have not been previously available in Korea. Working with Maison M’O, a popular pastry shop which sells out almost all of its products daily at its store in Seocho District, southern Seoul, the coffee brand is introducing a total of 10 different savory and sweet treats, nine of which are specially created for the U.S. coffee company. The Seongsu-dong location is Blue Bottle’s first without a kitchen, giving full charge of its food menu to its local food partner.

Baristas recommended a latte with a vanilla pound cake for those looking for something sweet, as the cafe doesn’t serve any sweet coffee drinks. A latte is 6,100 won ($5.20) while an Americano costs 5,000 won. Some Korea-exclusive props are available, including a clear cup with the logo, as well as a canvas bag.

However, those looking for a place to study or work with their laptops and tablets out for hours may not be able to stay too long here. There are no electric outlets and the store does not provide Wi-Fi for customers - a policy at Blue Bottle locations worldwide.

“That might get us kicked out of Korea,” Freeman said with a smile. After years of debate, he believes that providing a Wi-Fi connection distracts visitors from the experience the cafe provides. He understands that many customers come for the “white noise” of a cafe, but that’s not something he wants for people to have when they come to the cafe he started.

“I’m in favor of human interaction. Talk to baristas, talk to each other. Why not have a great 20 minutes, a fantastic 30 minutes [instead of] boring [yourself] for six hours?”

The founder, a former clarinet player who says his passion for coffee is just as strong as it was two decades ago, sat down with the Korea JoongAng Daily and the JoongAng Ilbo, to chat more about what makes Blue Bottle special to so many people worldwide and in Korea.

Q. Why did you choose Seoul?

We thought, “Let’s test Asia.” What better place [to do so] than Seoul? If we aren’t executing it well, Seoul is going to crush us, don’t you think? Might as well go to where it is hard - why open where it is easy?

Do you think that what you pursue in a cafe is different from what most Koreans expect?

I think it’s arrogant to think that we could change how Koreans enjoy coffee, but it’s not arrogant to think that we could change 500 people. Seoul is a big city. If 500 people in Seoul want what we do, that’s pretty good. Whatever that number is, we don’t need to convince everybody. There are people in Seoul, and I suspect, there are quite a few of them that might be interested in what we do. [Everything] will depend on how well we execute, how the coffee tastes, how it feels when they walk in, how people are treated by our staff. If we can do those things right, there will be enough people.

What is the second store going to look like?

I don’t want to spoil the secret, but the building is very different from this. We wanted to be folded into the neighborhood and that’s always our goal.

Where do you see the brand in the future?

Blue Bottle is different at every phase. It is less and less about my particular eccentricity or enthusiasm but more about where it makes sense. The future of the Blue Bottle is primarily going to be in Asia as it seems like that’s where people like us the best. Tokyo was such a great experience for us, so just building on that success makes the most sense.

Does your musical background have any impact on the music choice at cafes?

So much of the music is for the staff. If the staff is happy with the music, they are going to be more energized and that’s going to affect the guests. I’m not able to choose all the music because the baristas would all hate me. (Laugh). Staff chooses music, and I like my staff’s lists. [The choice of music] depends on the time of the day, and the room, and who else is in there, maybe a little up tempo early in the morning. You can’t have the same emotion throughout the day.

How much technology is employed to run Blue Bottle cafes?

There’s a lot, in terms of getting coffee in our door, in time to roast it, not to have too much it, and not run out of things. All that stuff is very complicated and can be very helpful to have the right [tech people] trying to solve these problems, because [doing so] could quite honestly make the difference between the success and failure of a cafe even if it looks busy. But that is not what I do and what I’m interested in. There are other professionals who went school for it.

What significance do you have as a founder these days?

I hope that my significance is not merely symbolic. I think what I do has a certain influence and my opinion has some weight to some in the company. I can still plant a little seed and it can grow. My influence is more editorial. I can tell people what shouldn’t be there rather than what should.

What are the things you have focused on?

I have a little workshop where I make coffee. I never had hobbies and it’s not like I fly around the world. In the last four months, I made one coffee. I made one and it was quite astonishing. Best one so far. For Blue Bottle, the coffee I have been working on is sort of like the sound of an orchestra, balanced with lows and highs. What I have been working on is one tone. The coffee is grand, one galloping note, low note. But, I have not been able to make it again. I took notes and everything but I’m not sure why.

Why go through this process?

I’m not done with coffee. There is no practical thing I could possibly come up with which would be any value to anybody than me.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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