The photo for this article was provided by the interviewee.
Ukiyo Koffie, a business that sells coffee from a bicycle cart, caught my eye on Instagram. Aside from the aesthetic of the page, I was intrigued by the idea of serving coffee from a mobile bike you could take anywhere.
Earlier this week, I got on a call with Jonathan, the founder of Ukiyo Koffie, to learn more about his business. I asked about how he got started, why he opened a coffee cart, and about the unique challenges he faces working outside. I hope you enjoy the interview.
Before we begin, could you tell me how to pronounce the name of Ukiyo Koffie?
I had some visitors from Japan, and they pronounced it u-key-yo. My friend, with whom I collaborate on the tea tastings, speaks and sings in Japanese. He pronounces it u-key-yo.
What is Ukiyo Koffie? When did you get started?
That brings me back to a lot of good memories. We will make this short and sweet.
I moved to The Netherlands in 2018 after traveling the world with my wife Irma. We met in the sunshine state of Florida in the summer of 2014. She soon had to move back to The Netherlands and I stayed. I would go visit her or she would come to visit me from time to time. After two-and-a-half years of a long-distance relationship, we had the crazy idea to travel the world together. We both love the outdoors and love to travel, so we went for it!
We bought a one-way ticket to Colombia and our adventure had started. We gave it the name "Aventuras del Sur". In a little over a year, we traveled through South America and Southeast Asia, with one of the highlights of every location the visit of local coffee places. After this year we were ready to slow down and settle somewhere to start our next chapter together. We chose The Netherlands. Irma was pursuing her career and I was ready for a new challenge.
I started Ukiyo Koffie in 2019, a mobile coffee bike inspired by our travels. The idea was to serve cups of joy to the community of Utrecht so that they can pass it on to others and spread joy. It's a way to connect with strangers and locals and to be of service. It was in Japan where I was introduced to the culture of coffee and the art of making coffee. The attention to detail and craft seen in Japan resonated with me. My time there was a big influencer and inspiration for both starting the coffee bike and naming it Ukiyo. Ukiyo is a Japanese word that means to slow down and appreciate the little things in life. I believe that through a cup of coffee or tea you can pause for a bit and simply enjoy the moment.
There's a certain craft in making pour-over devices. I see Japanese influences in both coffee culture more generally and in the art of taking a step back to focus on the process.
There's beauty in the process of making pour-over coffee.
For me, making pour-over coffee is a ritual. It's a time I dedicate myself to in the morning. It is mainly the experience that I enjoy so much. That's it. It's that simple. It's a good gateway to maintaining a meditation practice. It's putting the kettle on, weighing the beans, grinding the beans, smelling the fresh ground coffee, sitting down quietly, and tasting the coffee slowly. It's just a great way to start the day.
There is something special about experimenting with the variables that make up a cup. It's these little subtle details that are so interesting for making a cup.
There are many variables. There are always new trends. There are always recipes. But, at the end of the day, it is you enjoying making a cup of coffee that you like. Ultimately, there can be many ways to brew it, but there is no best way, only improvements. Enjoy the process, keep experimenting and see where coffee takes you.
Why did you choose to open a coffee cart over a traditional store?
For me, the coffee cart was a more feasible opportunity to start than a traditional store right away. I had some money left after our travels and I was ready for a new challenge.
The coffee bike was a good fit to start something that: (i) connected with the community, be of service, since I didn't know anyone (ii) fits my lifestyle, being outdoors, meeting new people, biking around. Those two things were the main keys to start a coffee bike.
It's not the culture to have coffee bikes here in the Netherlands. It is mainly cafes where you go and sit down, have some coffee and perhaps something to eat. Coffee bikes are not a big thing, especially because of the outdoor weather conditions. Winter is very long; it feels very long. I have had challenges, but overall, it has been a great investment and project to start a coffee bike. The future looks bright and I aspire to move into something more stationary but keeping the concept of something small, cozy, comforting, welcoming, and "Gezellig". While keeping the coffee bike running.
To what extent do you think having a coffee cart influences the relationships you have with your customers, considering you do not have a stationary space?
Dutch people are very straightforward but curious and excited that this odd coffee bike guy is biking around serving coffee. I want you to have this little moment of joy in your day. I know that sounds cheesy but maybe spread the experience to someone else; other people.
That's the relationship I have seen with my customers, some of whom are now my good friends. They enjoy the notion that they can go outside for a walk at the park or flower market and grab a good cup of coffee, hang out for a bit, have a chat, and move on to something else. I sometimes have books, soft music playing, matchbox puzzles, and plants; to create a pleasant atmosphere. The best part of it is that we are outdoors enjoying the fresh air with the best view.
What interests me is bringing people outside even when the weather may not be great.
Some days are rough when it rains or if it's cold and windy. I don't get many visitors. But it's The Netherlands, there is no excuse here, rain or shine, you go to work, run errands, and of course, on occasions stop by for a cup of coffee on your bike. So one of the challenges being outside is the weather for sure.
On the other hand, if it is beautiful outside, why not be outdoors and have a nice cup of coffee?
I think I've seen on your Instagram that you offer pour-overs. Do you think that is a way to connect with your customer?
I think there is a connection no matter how you make coffee. But, there is something special with pour-overs. With my setup, the customer is in front of me. The customer can stand there, be quiet, and enjoy the show, and others like to engage in a conversation. Depends on the vibe.
Pour-over coffee offers that openness; it is a good start for a conversation. Customers can ask questions like "What is that? Why this method? What is slow coffee?
It is a conversation starter. "Why are you using this plastic brewer?" is a perfectly reasonable question when someone sees their coffee is not coming from a machine.
Definitely a conversation starter since a lot of my customers make their coffee from a filter machine or a Nespresso capsule machine. However, the Moka pot or a french press is also quite popular.
For some of my customers, pour-over is new or a memory of how their grandmother used to make coffee. That's great and I am excited for them. Pour-over brewing opens up this world that has been around for a while.
I'd love to go back to something you said earlier about tea tasting. Can you tell me a bit more about why you went down the tea tasting route? What does tea mean to you?
The tea tastings are a collaboration with my friend who is a singer-songwriter. The tastings take place in a homely realm of one of the wharf cellars in Utrecht dated from 1150. We both had an instant connection for tea and Japanese culture and it was a spontaneous idea to collaborate on a project where we can enjoy storytelling over tea and live music performances. The tea sessions consist of two types of teas in a gongfu cha style sometimes called "Chinese tea ceremony." We focus on taste, aroma, mouthfeel, and aftertaste intertwined with music.
To me, tea has taught me creativity, movement, and to let go and relax. It's also a great way of getting friends and strangers together.
Have you done any coffee cuppings?
Yes. I collaborate with a local roaster with whom I do cuppings or I cup at home. I don’t do public cuppings or coffee tastings yet. This would be another gateway to engage with my customers who are more into coffee or just want a different experience. I would like to do coffee tastings just like the tea tastings. That will be another collaboration in the making.
I like to end these interviews with a quick-fire round where I ask questions quickly and get the interviewees' short thoughts on them. To start, what's your favourite brewing method?
The V60. Simple and ritual. I also enjoy the Aeropress.
That knocks out my next question: what is your favourite non-pour-over method of brewing. Onto my next question. What coffee(s) are you drinking at the minute?
I have quite a bit of coffee on the shelf but I am currently drinking a washed caturra from Colombia. It's from a roaster in Spain that I got as a gift from one of my customers. I'm drinking a sweet natural from Ethiopia that reminds me of fresh berries and mango.
And of course, I am drinking Ukiyo's first-ever coffee. A washed processed caturra varietal from the Huila region in Colombia that reminds me of home.
I am the same. I have quite a bit of coffee, albeit in small quantities for each coffee. My final quick-fire question isL what is your favourite snack to have with a coffee?
A slice of banana bread or a cookie always hits the spot.