An Interview with VCR Trainer Kendall Cheap on Verve's Shinjuku Station opening.
VCR // K-Cheap! As the training guru at a large specialty coffee company, you’ve got deep roots in American Specialty Coffee Culture. How does the burgeoning coffee atmosphere in Japan compare?
KC // For starters, the pretentious barista type doesn’t exist in Japan. At least from what I could see, the respect and honor pouring out of every person I interacted with is something to put snobby shops to shame! There is such a genuine excitement for coffee and excellent service everywhere. It’s an exciting time for Japanese coffee culture with more room for experimentation in roast profile and, I think, a potential for espresso drink quality to be better than ever before. It also seems that coffee companies in Japan have an opportunity to really shape and guide a consumer base in a particular direction. Unlike the individualistic American consumer, there is a baseline of going with the flow in Japanese culture that could really add to the growth of a new way of doing things like thinking about coffee as a fruit and what that means for taste profiles.
VCR // Legit Japanese food. Talk about it.
KC // The Japanese food scene is out of control. There are these vending machines that stand at the entrance of every Ramen restaurant where you sort of hope for the best when pushing a button labeled in Japanese. You’re then ushered to a seat and mysterious hands deliver you a big steaming bowl of tasty ramen, and you hesitantly pop the whole squid into your mouth. The quality you find everywhere is impressive to say the least! Everyday working in Shinjuku, I wandered the vast food court where you could find anything from teriyaki mochi skewers, 38 types of dumplings, an insane line up of high quality Paris inspired pastries, sushi sushi sushi everywhere, to fresh blended kale juice (yep, kale)- all carefully wrapped up in 5 layers of bags, sometimes with a mini disposable ice pack to keep that salmon citrus salad fresh! I had one of the single best meals of my life in Tokyo: a line-up that included a face-melting spread of sashimi, fried chicken, and miso soup with tiny mushrooms exploding with flavor! I could literally talk about the food in Tokyo for pages. Moral of the story is, if you love food (especially greasy bowls of ramen and all things fish) go to Tokyo and eat your heart out!
VCR // Verve culture is distinctly… California. Where did that show up in your training strategy in Tokyo? How did that settle with Verve’s foreign-exchange-baristas?
KC // A big part of my training strategy was to lead by doing. A little hands-on help is necessary when helping our Japanese baristas dial in or shred latte art. The language barrier stands tall between us, but the process empowered me and Edward (shout out to American Edward O’Hickey who is slaying bar in Tokyo until June) to be ourselves, shamelessly bringing the California fun-time vibes. I think that if you can embody a vibe and spread it through a room, despite the language barrier, the energy becomes contagious! Once the nerves of opening day subsided and everyone got in their groove, posi vibes filled the air!
VCR // You’ve been around for your fair share of Verve café openings. What was the energy in Shinjuku Station like on opening day?
KC // Oh man, there was so much anticipation leading up to our official 11 am opening! Not only was it a big moment for Verve, but also for the entire brand new wing of Shinjuku, complete with a press congregation in front of Verve. There was a line 30 minutes before we opened our doors (starting behind a Verve branded skateboard- pretty fun). The crew was so nervous and excited! They were seriously feeling the pressure in a way that is only evidence of how much they really care and carry this Verve opening as a badge of honor. From there, energy was super high and the organization of everything on point! Not a single person walked into our doors without a 6-person chorus of “Konnichiwa!”
VCR // The barista is the last person in the supply chain, in the story of coffee, before it lands with the consumer. By that token, Barista Trainers have an important role in the industry. How does this inform the way you train and teach?
KC // Like most educational environments, the teacher/trainer has the incredible task of getting people engaged and excited about the topic at hand. I take my barista training sessions super seriously, knowing that if I don’t seem to care much that I can’t expect my trainees to care much at all either. As a trainer you have to give a hundred and fifty percent, and hope that those you’re teaching meet you at a hundred percent. The impact training has on an individual is everything. The difference between a quality espresso and a totally repulsive espresso is very fine (get it?) and I believe that once a Barista becomes aware of their responsibility [to the consumer], they will never serve the under-extracted shot. So, that’s where I start. Coffee travels thousands of miles and moves through hundreds of hands to make it to us. It is truly some sort of miracle when coffee makes it to our shelves unscathed with its quality fully intact. We will not be the ones held responsible for ruining that cup of coffee or shot of espresso. It’s a beautiful challenge and injects so much pride in the process.
VCR // Tokyo is notoriously ahead of the curve in the fashion department. Come across any wacky looks?
KC // There was the wacky, the colorful, and the oh-my-goodness-you-make-my-best-outfit-look-frumpy. The whole time I was like, that’s your definition of casual? It was pretty amazing to see! It seemed like everyone from the tiny toddler to the elegant grandmother was just oozing style. One of the wackiest looks I saw was a Victorian era hoop skirt get-up with all the accessory details perfectly arranged, bonnet and lace socks to match. And she probably wasn’t on her way to audition for “Gone With the Wind.”
VCR // What’s in store for Verve abroad? Are you hoping to make it back one day?
KC // I’m not entirely sure of the details, but I think we can be fairly certain that there will be more Verve cafés in Tokyo! I would absolutely love to make it back one day. I was utterly smitten by Tokyo and know that I only began to scratch the surface of all that there is to explore! Even more, I would love to travel around more of Japan and get a feel for the beach-towns… Japan style.
Words: Kendall Cheap
Images: Yoichiro Iwata; Kendall Cheap; Colby Barr