For Jennifer Liu, the founder and owner of The Coffee Academics, the humble coffee bean has come a long way. What began as a student hobby has since been cultivated as a passionate business and grown into a way of viewing the world.
Liu was studying architecture at Cornell in the 1990s when she became taken with the question of what made a great cup of Joe. Soon she had decided it was her “intention to share my passion for coffee and its culture – to explain the coffee experience as a lifestyle”.
Over the years, that passion paid off in the business arena. Since opening in 2012, The Coffee Academics – “purveyors and roasters of specialty coffee” – has grown from one store to six in Hong Kong, plus one in Singapore and one in Shanghai. Another is to open in Beijing this year.
Behind that success, in no small part, is the effort she puts into cultivating relationships with her employees and customers – something rarely seen in cities awash with coffee shops dominated by multinational chains. Her employees receive meticulous training and exposure to all elements of roasting and blending, turning many into highly sought-after expert baristas. “I am actually happy that employees have branched off on their own in Hong Kong, Sydney and Japan,” she says.
But it is not only human relationships Liu is intent on cultivating. She wants to turn coffee into a philosophical bridge. “We have evolved from a coffee shop chain concept into a cultural, inspirational hub that brings people together to share ideas,” she says. “We do this by creating regular events to connect people.”
This search for connection is reflected in her leisure time, when she tries to “do things that make me more empathetic towards young people and understand their world”. “I like to go to bookstores, the few that remain in a digitalised world, and travel abroad,” she says.
She travels with her team to plantations to study crops and beans and is proud of the direct relationship Coffee Academics has with its growers. She plans to visit Cuba, Jamaica and Peru. “I also want to visit all of Latin America. And while I took tango lessons in Hong Kong, I think it can only be properly learned in Peru.
“I travelled to Portland and Melbourne to check out their coffee culture. In these smaller cities people have more time and less financial pressure to try to experiment with emerging ideas. Like it or not, in a big city the imperative is to make money. Small cities are more experimental ... it is important to get out of your bubble.”
Travel has informed her perspective on Hong Kong’s youth. “The biggest differences between young people in Hong Kong and [mainland] China result from an uncensored internet in Hong Kong. Free information changes everything.
“Technology is moving faster than ever. Today, many kids rarely use email and Facebook has become unpopular. Instant messaging is a dominant communication force. In fact, we manage the Singapore store through WhatsApp, not email. So instant messaging is changing how we relate and communicate.”
She explains Hong Kong’s generation gap by saying: “They respect the hard work the older generation went through, but Hong Kong’s younger generation has more choices in their work and lifestyle than ever. This has created more expectations. The issue is how to channel this.
“Like other millennials from around the world, Hong Kong’s youth see life and their careers as a series of experiences to be collected. There isn’t necessarily a single path. So they are happy to move around like [they are in] a Pokeman game offering different adventures and encounters.
“As an employer, it means you have to do a better job managing their growth and career advancement.”
Liu is keen to help the new generation navigate this brave new Pokemon-esque world; one of her stores has partnered with Metta, an entrepreneurship incubator in Lan Kwai Fong, and her next project is with WeWork, a shared workspace leader in Causeway Bay. If cultivating a hobby into a business and philosophy was her first goal, cultivating the new generation is her next.