The Midori.so building is covered in vines. Greenery hangs across the walls and windows like a living blanket. It’s a Tuesday, which at Midori.so, a shared workspace, means a communal lunch in the cafeteria. It also means coffee—as provided by Wataru Yoshida of Coffee Elementary School.
Yoshida is setting up when I arrive. He brings everything from home, and it usually takes about an hour to get ready. We talk as a chef buzzes around preparing lunch. Yoshida brews an iced coffee.
“Before this, I was a teacher at [an] elementary school,” he says. “That was some 20 years ago. But as a teacher, I wasn’t free to do much else; I was always looking after my class, thinking about the students. I had to teach everyone and help them grow up.”
Yoshida says he stopped teaching to pursue his own dreams. He wanted to make something and sell it directly. He thought about opening a restaurant and happened to discover coffee. He liked that people of all ages could enjoy it. He liked the craftsmanship of it, and the communication.
Yoshida tells me he studied at L’ecole Vantan and attended cuppings and coffee workshops around town in his spare time. That was his coffee education.
We stop talking for a moment as people wander into the cafeteria—web designers, illustrators, event organizers, writers. Many order coffee and stop to chat with Yoshida about recent happenings, or whatever happens to be on their minds. Everyone calls him sensei, or teacher. Yoshida whips around his cramped workspace, brewing to the sounds of conversation, a warm, friendly mix of Japanese and English.
Between brews—of beans courtesy of Onibus Coffee, Arise Coffee Roasters, Obscura Coffee Roasters, and Café Façon—Yoshida tells me his coffee catering career started at Midori.so. He met building organizer Miho Koshiba at Freedom University, Midori.so's education center, and she invited him to start on Tuesdays. Little by little, Yoshida made connections and filled his week with work serving coffee at locations like PR Times.
The story made me think of the vines around Midori.so, of organic growth in nurturing environments. Yoshida says this is the best thing about catering.
“When you own a cafe, you have regulars you see all the time, and I like that, but when you move around [and work across the city] you meet people you’d never meet otherwise. These connections spark new encounters, new meetings, and new collaborations.”
Chance encounters are a running theme for Coffee Elementary School, and Yoshida attributes all his success to good fortune. Even his soon-to-be-opened cafe in Daikanyama is the direct result of sitting next to a guy who knew a guy who wanted a coffee kiosk in his building.
“Isn’t it funny,” I say, “how being in the right place at the right time can change everything?”
“It goes both ways,” Yoshida says. “At school, kids don’t get to choose their teachers, you know? Whatever class they’re in, the teacher is the teacher, and the kids have no way of knowing if the teacher is correct or not. So when you’re a teacher, your customers are your students.”
Listening to Yoshida talk, I feel the sense of responsibility he’s brought from one job to the other. He talks about how good it feels to meet past students again, and how important it is to value those around you. He says understanding customers isn’t so different to teaching young students.
“There’s this idea that adults simply teach children, and that’s school. But it’s not like that. For children it’s all about them, so you always have to see things through their eyes. Coffee is the same—if I serve something I think is delicious, but the customer doesn’t like it, that’s no good.”
He pauses for a moment. “I don’t want to forget that,” he says, “the importance of seeing things through the customer’s eyes. That’s what I learned through teaching.”
I watch people finish lunch and go back to their desks. A few stick around to brainstorm ideas and chat, and others pop in sporadically for coffee. A young woman shares homemade Danish sweets with Yoshida, and they talk about collaborating.
Yoshida says that even after he opens the new cafe, he wants to keep catering. He hopes to find a partner to help balance the workload—catering has been a source of good experiences and good friends, and he doesn’t want to lose it.
Serving coffee and teaching children might be worlds apart in some ways, but those 20 years as a teacher seem part and parcel of the man Yoshida is and the way he works. So perhaps it doesn't matter if it's teaching mathematics, or pouring a cold brew—in everything we do, there’s a chance to enrich the lives of those around us.