I enjoy coffee. And more specifically, a comforting warm cup of latte. There was a former high school classmate/volleyball teammate named Jan Yeung, that’s now a barista for years. I have not met him in person since our last day in high school. With coffee related matters shows up on my Facebook once in a while, I asked his advice just few years ago and he kindly shared his thoughts. That was about it.
Last month in June, I saw yet another cafe/restaurant got replaced by another near where I work in Sheung Wan. There’s a huge signature logo, a yellow neon-lit comma sign by their entrance window. I thought I should come by again during the day to at least check out their menu.
Not long after I read an announcement on Facebook, my very same former classmate Jan will be stationed at the cafe that I walked by. I thought how ironic, I should meet him in person and try his latte. I dropped by the cafe after the busy lunch hours. My impression to this place was, very bright and tidy. Their staff all dressed properly like a team. They’ve got the coolest denim aprons. It’s such a funny feeling to see someone so different after many years, especially at his workplace. I’m not entirely good with words and compliments but I guess my genuine smile would show enough of my appreciation. I ordered my favorite Piccolo Latte and we chatted for a good half hour.
Jan is a determined barista and now co-owner of Little Break Coffee and Kitchen. I’d like to share you his story, so you know what a non-franchise barista is up to in Hong Kong and more on what’s behind every cup he makes. Here’s my debut interview:
When did you discover your interest in coffee? how long have you been acting as a professional barista?
It was just 3 years ago, I got interested in coffee and wished to make my own perfect cup. I began by investing on a cheap semi-auto espresso machine. And in order to expand my coffee knowledge and I attended coffee courses and obtain all the resourceful help from the internet/blog, as well as the traditional way from books. With lots of practice and patience, I felt a sense of accomplishment when my first perfect cup was born. I then spent a year in Perth, Australia as a barista.
Do you consider being a barista is your second life?
Absolutely. This is my passion and I could make my living out of it. I used to study Environmental Science in University and worked for 2 years as instructor in the related field.
How different is a barista from the rest of the food and beverage line of work?
They all have their own expertise. Chef has knowledge in cooking, server knows how to read faces and serve people. Since Barista is still a relatively new profession in Hong Kong, people tend to feel mysterious about this profession. It’s all a bit over-fantasized. And the people in this field treated it like a cool type of job, this all multiplied and gave barista an aura so to speak.
I notice a surge of demand in serious bean. What do you think about the prospect of baristas and coffee related business in Hong Kong?
It all depends on the demand. When there’s a growing amount of people enjoying espresso based coffee or seeking for a quality cup of coffee, the demand will go up. The salary of baristas may also go up. But with the unique high-rent business environment of Hong Kong, a salary ceiling cannot be avoided for the business owners. There’s a demand for barista and I see people entering this field.
I agree that more and more people know their coffee. I would like to stress on it does not matter what type of beans or origin it’s from, as long as you’re getting what you enjoy from a cafe. It’s about how you appreciate the cup you ordered at the cafe, rather than all the science and lingo behind it.
I understood that you’ve been to Australia and Taiwan. How different is our coffee culture here and there?
I believe that their cafes in Australia is equivalent to our Cantonese diner (Cha Chaan Teng), very accessible and essential. The Aussies come in for breakfast around 6am and for work break around 10am. There’s the normal lunch and snack hour around 2pm. They tend to end their day early before 6. All business close in the evening, leaving the city like a ghost town. Cafe can close as early as 3pm. “They drink coffee like water” due to the lower cost per cup. I wish to import the Aussie coffee culture to Hong Kong.
The Taiwanese focuses more on the flavor, the cafe look and feel. They all come up with their signature coffee beverage, making it fun to visit. They like roasting their own beans, giving us an impression of a small production boutique roaster. They do not need to meet any sales target, as their rent is significantly lower than Hong Kong. The hand-drip and siphon methods are often used for their coffee. There’s a huge influence from the Japanese.
The baristas in Hong Kong love what Taiwan is doing, such as to own a manageable size shop, roast their own beans, serve a few side dishes and whatnot. However, it’s an impossible dream.
Also in Hong Kong, baristas here like making their own private coffee brand and treat it as a side business for pocket money. They roast and re-sale their own beans. They’re quite a lot of it out there. But when everyone dives into this niche market and the actual demand is only this small, it’s not sustainable to do it independently.
Thailand is similar to Hong Kong in terms of development.
The South Koreans are good at marketing and designing the shops. The cafes are often beautifully dressed. From what I heard from my Korean friend, there’s plenty room for improvements on their coffee.
Are we there yet and what needs to be done to become one of the top places?
The quality of coffee we do in Hong Kong is high but the mass majority of baristas are still lack in professional experience, making our overall standard still behind Australia. There can be a skillful barista on site and their second in-command makes just an average cup. It’s all affected by the character of a person, whether they’re willing to listen and learn from a experienced mentor is up to them.
On the other hand, if the public can be more knowledgeable about food and lifestyle. It’d be a boost to cool down the overrated coffee and food franchise brands. People would then not follow blindly to the brands without realizing there’s much better choice out there, while I understood franchise cafes are offering their space, not their coffee drinks.
When an order of coffee can cost as much as a meal in Hong Kong, will it be possible to match that Australian pricing in Hong Kong one day?
It’s all up to the supply and demand. We’re trying to do that here with the combination of food order from customer. But quite frankly it’s the rent.
I totally think that a coffee place should be as accessible as it could be and to live and possibly grow with the community, the district. Have size and location formed (upstairs) a unique (in a good or bad way) coffee atmosphere for us?
To whose who don’t know about this type of upstairs cafe, it’s often conceived as the high schooler chill-out spot. Back in the days we used to visit these places for board games and they offer poorly prepared food. It’s about time for them to be replaced by the modern ‘coffee-centric’ cafes.
It’s affected by the high rent, in order to survive people need to move their business to the hidden upstairs location. When high rent gets in the way, lots of compromises would be made which at the end hurting the overall coffee business. The lower food costs, the lower the food quality. It’s a cycle. Only franchise could survive in this game. The rapid expansion trades off for quality and consistency. Many had started out okay when small and eventually becoming rip off places.
There could be great baristas around town. They tend to get hired by those who could pay them well, usually the franchise higher bidder.
What’s your specialty?
Latte art is my specialty. I studied and practiced a lot in control. And my experience in Australia helped me dearly, it’s all about learn by doing. To this day, my record was using up 3kg of beans in two hours by myself. I have the speed and without sacrificing any quality. I see latte art as an enhanced presentation, something additional that’s pleasing to the eye which could make a cup of coffee even better.
Tell me more about this cafe Little Break.
Little Break is a cafe/restaurant focuses on food. We believe food is usually what draws customers to a restaurant because we get hungry all the time. Although the coffee part comes second, I still do my best to serve up my customers with the best we could make.
Little Break started in Lai Chi Kok, Kowloon in an remodeled industrial building. Our chief owner Will also knows coffee and his cousins are passionate folks with their unique skill set such as cooking, dessert making. Will hired people to operate including me. He’s highly sociable, so you know he’s our PR!!
And until recently Will found this amazing Sheung Wan shop open for rent, making it our perfect opportunity to land on the Hong Kong Island – a slightly more upscale location. We are still adjusting our menu and working on the marketing for this shop. Currently during our soft opening, we close early at 6pm. Eventually, we want to set a dinner menu and have customers come in hungry, leave happy.
What’s the first thing people should try when visiting you/Little Break?
It’s up to what’s hot on the OpenRice page! But my recommendation for food is to try the Pancake hamburger, our chef makes everything from scratch. Due to its complicated procedure, It’s only served in the morning and afternoon with limited quantity. Our chef is also good at the steak department and he fine tunes his own sauces.
What’s your opinion about takeaway coffee? It’s a big ‘NO’ for those who know coffee.
Coffee is often treated as a leisure activity. But in fact, it can just be your any beverage commodity. Whether it’s a takeaway or not, people should drink up fast not letting it hang around hours. And yes, we do takeaway coffee in Little Break too!
He does not want to see people walk around with the one and only super tall 16oz. takeaway cup. Then we chuckled…
Thanks your awesome coffee and I’ll have you introduce us your own company for Fairtrade products on the coming post.