%Aarabica’s founder Kenneth Shoji was taught by his Japanese father: Never go into a business that you will have fun with.
But he did. He opened the first %Arabica café in 2013 and now has 90 locations worldwide. On June 11, its first U.S. location opened in Dumbo, Brooklyn.
“The world has changed and the idea of work as only hard work and struggles has proven outdated,” says Shoji. But his new business also came out of the changing environment. As the third generation of a printing material manufacturer, he had to come up with a viable future plan, as the digital world steadily obliterates the industry.
Coincidentally, after the Tohoku Earthquake wiped out his house in Fukushima Prefecture in 2011, he moved to Hong Kong. Then Shoji, an avid coffee lover, realized two things: there were no decent coffee shops in Hong Kong and coffee was the second most traded item after crude oil in the global market. He saw an opportunity.
As soon as he decided to start a coffee business, he went to Hawaii and purchased a coffee farm. “I thought it would be imperative to own a farm if you are serious about coffee.” He also became the Japanese distributor of the Slayer espresso machines, the exporter of the Japan-made Tornado King coffee roasters and the Asian distributor of Chemex coffeemaker.
Shoji opened his first café in Hong Kong in 2013. The idea was to operate a small chain of cafes in the country with up to 10 locations. But the plan shifted dramatically right after he opened the flagship cafe in Kyoto in 2014. He got flooded with franchise applications from all over the world.
“Back then I had been frustrated that most coffee shops in Japan were copycats of Melbourne or Portland cafés. The enthusiastic reactions to the Kyoto shop convinced me that I could build a global coffee brand that is uniquely Japanese,” he says.
“Just as Brazilians are outstanding in playing soccer, the Japanese have keen senses in creating the best taste and flavors in simplicity. Our idea of coffee corresponds to classic Japanese sushi, which represents the chef’s endless pursuit of the highest quality possible.” The minimalistic décor and the simple menu of %Arabica are the reflections of the Japaneseness he describes. For example, the matcha latte on the menu is made with the finest matcha green tea powder Shoji handpicked. “If it doesn’t taste good, something is wrong with you,” he laughs.
The 90 existing locations of %Arabica are all franchise operations, except for the three in Kyoto. Currently, the vast majority of the cafés are in Asia and the Middle East.
Shoji moved to Bali, Indonesia in 2020. “I am 50 years old. Surfing has been my passion since my late 30s but I have spent my entire 40s to get the coffee business to take off. I truly enjoy running %Arabica but I cannot keep going like the last 10 years. I want to live my life well.” He now conducts his business from Bali, living with his wife and three sons, 14, 13 and 8, and of course, surfing every day.
Shoji’s quick, go-getter mindset was cultivated from a very young age. He was born in Tokyo and raised by parents who were enthusiasts of a universal language called Esperanto. At age three, he began traveling abroad to attend the annual conference of the Esperanto community. He accompanied his father’s business trips to various countries as well. “I saw rich people who are unhappy and poor people who are very happy. At around 10 years old, I started to wonder who I was and what kind of life I wanted to live.”
Now his life exemplifies the answer to these big questions and the answer is constantly being updated; living in Bali is the latest.
His life philosophy is extended to his business. “I know that most of our employees won’t stay in the café industry for the rest of their lives. So, just as I learned from the multicultural experiences in my childhood, I want them to see the world as much as they can. If they know the global standard, they can build upon it and pursue their dreams successfully. I regard %Arabica partly a school of life for younger generations.”
That is why he actively provided his global staff with training programs in Kyoto before the pandemic. “These cultural exchange programs will be one of the essential parts of our business when we can resume them,” he says.
Shoji is planning to open 30 more cafés worldwide by the end of 2021. He only chooses sites that are iconic of specific locations on earth – the moment you have a sip of coffee, you can also feel the gravity of being in that unique place – like when you get the full view of the Brooklyn Bridge at the café in Dumbo. “We want our customers to see the world through coffee.”
As for the U.S., he is working on two more cafés in Manhattan and considering L.A. and Honolulu after them. But he is not rushing to expand the chain. He visits every franchise location by himself to check the site, design and any other details to make sure the new café will perfectly meet his expectation. “In order to sustain the quality, I can open only one location per week maximum. After the 500th cafe, I will let my kids take over the business.”
His sons have plenty of time to set their own global standards.
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