Transitioning focus. Experience at Round K Coffee.

My focus is transitioning (though I still can’t help throw in my 4 cents if I see something that could be more sustainable in a coffee shop!). I’m ending the typical “Shop Hop Series” and sharing more from talking and meeting with people about interest in developing an infrastructure to eliminate disposable cups in NYC.

Round K Coffee, Manhattan. I stumbled across this place a month ago. I’ve been wanting to visit it since. I finally made it back there today (November 30, 2017).

I enter into what would otherwise be mistaken as a bar if it weren’t for the roaster in the front window (they do bottle serve spiked coffee and other alcoholic drinks I learn later).

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I introduce myself to the owner, Ockhyeon, who I met briefly when I peaked in to the shop the first time I saw it. I don’t know if he remembers me. Ockhyeon has calm domineer, but from my conversation with him, I see glimpses of a dynamic personality, extroversion and a hint of rebellion that burst up like the compressing and releasing of a spring.

I ask for a taste of the drip. He starts grinding some coffee, comments quietly how good it smells, and then takes an order from a customer asking for a cappuccino. Feeling a bit confused, wondering “Why was he grinding coffee?” and “Did he forgot my order?” I decide to head to leave telling Ockhyeon I’ll be come back another time. Ockhyeon responds saying he just starting to make our coffee. “Oh wow! He’s going to prepare something!” Feeling horrified I might have offended him, I apologize and decide to look around while he finishes preparing the customer’s drink.

There’s a back room full of seating, hidden behind a curtain. I push aside the white canvas which reveals an intimate space with that iconic New York brick wall, wooden beams, and miscellaneous vintage pieces.

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I return to the front. Ockhyeon brings out a glass brewing vessel. He begins pouring hot water slowly over the freshly ground coffee. It foams up, forming a small dome – an aroma dome (the technical term) – which I’m told holds flavor and and you want to avoid it bursting. Ockhyeon also says he’s careful to make sure the water does not spread to the paper filter, which can effect the flavor.

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At this point, I realize the level of seriousness in coffee preparation at Round K, and for Ockhyeon. It’s an art, a craft. This is not really for a grab-and-go, but to be savored and experienced in full.

Observing this conjures a memory of the type of culture I witnessed at the NYC Coffee Festival. I ask if Ockhyeon went there. He did and had run a workshop on Japanese and Korean style brewing.

I ask Ockhyeon how long he’s been doing this. Thirteen years. He was in Korea, then Italy, and moved to America five years ago.

They roast their organic, Biodynamic coffee weekly. The machine is heated to 185°C, meaning the beans are at 175°C – just below the temperature caffeine content begins to reduce.

Ockhyeon pours me this beautiful dark brown coffee, in a tea cup. I hadn’t remembered to specify this, it just happened. I tell him this is great, environmentally and for business (saving costs on inventory and trash). He silently ponders these words, and says he agrees, but his reason for serving drinks this way is for the flavor and experience.

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A man in a black turtleneck and dark hair walks in. “Espresso?” Ockhyeon asks. “Yes” the man says.

I’ve observed Ockhyeon do this with several customers. He knows their preferences. He had started a drink for one guy who hadn’t even set foot in the the store, and when that customer left, he hit a gong above the bar. I laughed watching this, asking if it was a  tradition. He smirked and said he does this for fun for some people he knows. The gong came from a friend who brought it from Korea.

The man with the espresso – who I’m going to call Matt because that’s the closest sounding thing I can get to the Russian version he told me – sits down at the bar, and asks for water, which Ockhyeon serves in a stainless steel cup. I naturally praise this action, and transition to talking about my interest in reusable cups. Matt joins in and all three of us enter into a conversation that lasts for almost an hour.

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Ockhyeon again explains he uses the stainless steel cup for the flavor. I ask why coffee is served in tea cups. He mentions something about  it being light, easy to sip and have a conversation. It’s also related to Japanese and Korean culture that he wants to bring to the store. Matt, also comments that he learned from his dad (who was an engineer) that  thicker material cools drink down faster, this thinner design is best if the cup isn’t heated up first. I noticed Ockhyeon had heated up the cup – I’m impressed at the level of effort that goes in to make a cup of coffee.

Matt says to me at one point when discussing how to reduce disposable cups, “You know what the solution is to change?” I give him an inquisitive, eye-brow lifting look. “If coffee wasn’t served with milk.” I am caught off guard. I know this would solve other issues, like health problems (apparently the chemical combination of milk and coffee creates a glue substance – not so great for the arteries!), but changing drink preferences to reduce disposable coffee cups? He continues on, saying if people didn’t put all that stuff in their coffee, changing their tastes, and were drinking it for the taste and experience, they’d want to sit down and enjoy it, for-here.

I realize what Matt is getting at. Changing peoples’ habits and attitudes around consuming (drink/food). He drinks his espresso for here, not because of the environment, but the experience. He contrasts his attitude towards with his wife’s, who prefers eating on the go, in the car. For her, it gives the feeling she’s saving time. Convenience is something Americans value.

This discussion with Matt brings up another interesting insight. Different places in Europe less than in North America, but for varying reasons. Nordic countries may be motivated to reduce waste for altruistic reasons (e.g., wanting to be environmentally responsible), while southern countries, like France, Italy, and Spain produce less waste simply because of their lifestyle (such as valuing the dining experience, eating “for-here”). So tapping into altruistic motives and promoting an experience-driven culture might target different types of people, but produce the same desired outcome when it comes to reducing disposable cups.

As our conversation wraps up and I’m getting ready to leave, I hear an order for an egg cappuccino. It’s a popular menu item. The ordering customer also tells me about their matte black latte, another signature (its vegan too!). Well, now I’m going to have to come back to try this.