The train station at Shinjuku, in the east of Tokyo, is widely considered the busiest transit hub in the world, with an astonishing 3.5 million people passing through it each day on average. So it’s no surprise that the newly renovated Shinjuku Station south exit is a bustling hub of activity—nestled behind an open platform that watches over trains rolling in and out of the station, it’s a hive of fashion boutiques, restaurants, dessert shops, and cafes. And in this mix of brand new opens, sits a slice of California: Verve Coffee Roasters.
The new store reflects the Verve style, says co-founder Colby Barr—meaning the design is light, welcoming, and residential, with equipment that mirrors what they have back home; a custom made Kees van der Westen espresso machine, Kalita Wave on the pour-over, and even nitro cold brew, a first in these parts.
The coffee menu offers three different pour-over choices—at present it’s Alexander Martinez, Honduras; Karogoto, Kenya; and Elida Estate Green Tip Gesha, Panama—along with the standard range of espresso drinks, Cascara cherry tea, and a Tokyo-only beverage they’re calling the Latte Valencia.
Here in Tokyo to personally oversee his brand’s Shinjuku launch, Barr told me, “We were talking about a signature Tokyo drink that ties to the California west coast, and I was thinking of the flavors of California, and I started thinking of wild flower honey and oranges. So the drink is espresso, with steamed milk or soy milk, with honey and some freshly squeezed Valencia orange and a bunch of shaved orange peel on the top.”
Six of the Japanese staff members began their training Stateside; Barr says they went through the Verve training course and worked shifts in Santa Cruz before returning home to prepare for the grand opening. At the same time, Barr sees the new cafe as a source of synergy and culture sharing—with California staff members making regular visits to Tokyo for two month stints.
“We don’t want this to be a unilateral brand thing,” he tells me, the hum and rush of opening day at the cafe buzzing around us. “We aren’t just exporting California to Japan. For me, it’s more interesting if there’s synergy. And I do feel that, in the appreciation for quality, lifestyle, design, and food. There’s so much in Japan and in Tokyo that can be brought back to California.”
Verve’s arrival in the Tokyo market feels like fortuitous timing; new wave coffee is becoming more and more common among Tokyoites, and it’s ushering in a further push for quality coffee. People are curious and interested, and hungry for knowledge and education. For Barr, there’s an element of déjà vu to it, reminiscent of Verve’s beginnings in 2007.
“It’s kind of surreal because it feels like this happened once before,” he says. “When Verve entered the market, I felt the tipping point then, as well as in the brands around that were influential to us opening, and who inspired us. I could feel it, and I wanted to be a part of it. Now, coming to Japan, and before we agreed to do it, [when we were] investigating, I started having this deja vu, this feeling again of timing. It’s a very interesting time, and I feel very fortunate to be part of it.”
The small space, with its modest counters and stools, feels like a microcosm of the Verve experience—everything as it always is, but a little more compact—but Barr hopes the future will see them set up shop in a more residential area, where they can better create the space and relaxed vibes Verve is known for.
But until then, Verve is happy to carve out their first home in the center of the busiest train station in the world. It’s a chilled out space in the belly of the bustling beast, and a pleasant change of scenery.