Breaking news today as our friends & partners at Verve Coffee Roasters have revealed plans to open their first cafe in Tokyo, Japan. This is part of a wider revitalization project happening at Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest train station, fielding an average of 3.7 million travelers a day. The 700 square foot cafe will open in April of 2016, and will be a fully Verve owned and operated project, as opposed to a franchising agreement. That’s an important detail: franchise projects for American coffee companies in Tokyo are nothing new, but this model of expansion—like Blue Bottle Coffee’s self-directed projects in Tokyo—offers a considerable degree of quality control and intent. It’s also a massive undertaking, and feels like an exciting sign of the times in the increasingly global world of New Wave coffee brands.

Verve was selected for this project through a rigorous secret shopping effort on behalf of the project in Tokyo, which visited several cafes across the United States in search of a potential partner. Verve was then offered the opportunity, and development of the project is now underway in Tokyo.

But it’s not the only project they’re planning for Japan. Sprudge co-founder Jordan Michelman spoke with Verve co-founder Colby Barr by phone from Santa Cruz to learn more about the project’s genesis and where this takes Verve next. If we may borrow from the California surfer parlance, the whole thing sounds pretty chill.

surf - kamakura

Hello Colby Barr—thanks for speaking with me about your Tokyo cafe plans. To start, please give our readers like a 500 foot overview of this project.

Colby Barr: Our first space in Tokyo will be part of a wider project, taking place at the Shinjuku train station—it’s their new south station, which they’re kind of retrofitting and rebuilding in anticipation for the 2020 Olympics. The station currently it has like 3.7 million people in and out of it each day— [laughs] which is pretty chill—and that means it’s actually the busiest train station in the world. It’s used mostly for commuters and locals—it isn’t like one of the bullet train stations. Our space will be along the outside-facing part of the building, facing this whole new giant outside park that will overlook the rail system that goes below it—it kind of reminds me of the High Line in Manhattan.

Tell us more about the neighborhood.

The station is right smack dab in the middle of Shinjuku—there is so much incredible stuff going on there. That train station is so busy, which is fascinating, and there’s all this new development, new buildings go up to serve especially the tech community in that part of Tokyo. Imagine a huge shopping center full of amazing brands, 13 stories tall and 3 blocks wide—Shinjuku has stuff like that.

But aside from all this crazy dense commercial the whole neighborhood is just super rad, really a street photographers heaven—everybody goes there and shoots street photography. There’s night life, there’s little udon and ramen places, there’s neon signs, little alleyways…it’s a really culturally rich and multifaceted part of downtown Tokyo scene. Shinjuku has…a lot of different reputations, if you know what I’m saying, but I like it. It kind of reminds me of Downtown LA in a way, although it’s hard to compare it to anything…it’s like DTLA on steroids, or ecstasy or something.

How many square feet will the cafe be?

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It will be around 700 square feet, which by Tokyo standards is either 3 times bigger than the average store, but not the biggest shop in town by any means. A lot of Tokyo coffee spaces are quite small. I would say it’s a solid size by Tokyo standards.

shinjuku station new south treminal
The new South Terminal at Shinjuku Station, under construction.

How did this plan come about with the train station?

Some people that were involved in the planning and designing of this entire new wing of the train station had been looking for a coffee brand, and they really wanted to bring an American west coast lifestyle coffee brand into Japan. And so they actually came over from Japan and did a ton of recon on coffee brands across the west coast, and throughout the United States. Unbeknownst to us, they had toured several of our spaces, and it turned out they really liked our brand. So they hit us up and wanted to come talk to us; we had no idea what to expect. But when we met with them and learned about the opportunity, we just thought it was super interesting and amazing, this particular location. It was just such a huge opportunity to be offered one of these retail spots for this particular location.

In the past, particularly back in the 90s, it was not uncommon to hear of American coffee brand selling their franchise and branding rights to outside companies in Japan. Is this Verve location a franchise?

That’s a great question and I totally know what you mean—I too am familiar with those old franchise arrangements, and I can tell you that this is 100% not that. It’s something that we are doing as Verve. We have a rad team we’re working with, and we’ll have help in japan putting that together, but it is 100% not a franchise situation. This is being done with Verve staff, the Verve brand, our Verve style of service, the Verve vibe, and with Verve coffee.

street crowd
Shinjuku street scene.

How will the logistics work? Will you be roasting from Japan?

For the moment we’ll be shipping coffee from Santa Cruz to Japan each week. The plan is, honestly, to treat this in many ways like any of our other cafes—although of course it’s more complicated, because of the international date line and the big ass ocean between us and Tokyo. But we won’t change the way we operate our stores and how we work with our product, and we want our staff and our cafe culture to be representative of who we are as Verve. The idea of roasting in Tokyo is totally attractive, and we have looked at spaces, but you know, honestly, the way the timeline cards are falling, this Shinjuku cafe is what’s coming first.

I would be surprised to learn of an American company expanding to Japan and just opening *one* location. Are there future plans to expand in Tokyo?

Yes, there are plans for the future, and we are currently looking at additional retail opportunities in Tokyo, in several of the neighborhoods here that offer a good lifestyle.

This opportunity with the train station in Shinjuku really sparked us thinking: why would we go there? What does this mean? We’re in it for the long run with Verve, so there were hard questions we had to ask in thinking about this expansion, for our brand and for our lives. But since we decided to go for it, we want to go and do it right. We want opportunities beyond this, to see if our brand is a good fit for Japan. The Verve lifestyle meets the Tokyo lifestyle—is it a good marriage? We think it is.

shinjuku station crowd
Shinjuku Station crowd.

Have you been given an assigned “you must serve coffee by this date” deadline from the the Shinjuku Station project team?

Yes—in my experience the business culture in Japan, in addition to being friendly and humble, is so on point with how they pursue projects. The current goal for our opening date has been set to work with the aims of the entire project—remember, this is a 3.7 million person a day train station, so everything has to happen on time. They’re shooting to have this whole project live by the middle of April, and we’ll be ready.

What will you do for food in the space?

We’ll work with a pastry maker in Tokyo that we’re just starting to talk to, and we’ve done some food tastings already to get prepped for that. It’ll be in the vein of how we’ve rolled in the past, you know, really nice baked goods, keep it simple, offer good croissants and danishes, and try to find high quality seasonal offerings. The space is small and there’s no kitchen, but we’ll have a solid baking program made for us.

Can you share info with us about the cafe’s design elements?

There’s nothing we can share yet, but I can tell you it will feel like a Verve store—it’ll have an open feeling, and rely heavily on residential aesthetics. All our stores are a little different, and that’s very much how Ryan & I and the Verve team like to do it. Tokyo of course offers a whole new style to play with, but we’re approaching it with an imagination of how our brand can fall into that, in the Verve quiver of how we design things.

shinjuku best street
Another street view in Shinjuku.

How about menu planning? Can you share what gear will be in the cafe?

We’re just getting there now internally, and will be able to announce more soon. The menu will reflect the menu choices we’re making back here in the States, but we’re looking really closely at like—where is fresh juice at as an option in Tokyo? Are people into fermented drinks like kombucha over there? We’re looking into all of that now.

Why are you undertaking this project? Why now?

It’s really interesting, I think, that this opportunity shook out the way it did, because we’ve talked and dreamed about working in Asia for like the last five years. We’ve talked about this for as long as we’ve talked about Los Angeles, which is now a reality for our brand. I think that, in so many ways, being based in Santa Cruz informs everything that we do, from the partnerships we’ve worked on with folks like O’Neill and Santa Cruz Bicycles, that there’s a really strong cultural pull here from across the ocean. I’ve always been so fascinated personally with Japan and especially the food culture there—I know it’s cliche, but I just think it’s so impressive how intentional and quality-focused it is. Food is amazing in Japan everywhere you go.

Tokyo as a market is so premium-minded and curious and into lifestyle and neighborhoods, and we just…it feels good for us. Me personally, as a coffee buyer and a green coffee traveler—I just got back last night from Guatemala—I’ve spent all this time traveling with coffee professionals from Japan, and me and the Japanese buyers are always loving the same coffees, and trying to buy the same coffees. I’ve traveled with coffee pros from Japan for years, and I’ve noticed that the coffees we love, the other folks buying those coffees are often Japanese premium buyers, so I’ve always thought, hey, maybe we have similar tastes. There is a possibility for connection there and I can’t wait to see how deep it goes.

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Surfin’ Japan at Kamakura, an hour from Tokyo and 5,000 miles from Santa Cruz.

All photos courtesy Verve Coffee Roasters. 

Read more Tokyo coffee coverage on Sprudge. 

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