Barista Jam is one of the oldest coffee shops in Hong Kong, so I had to visit the place. When I bumped into the owner William So, we started talking. Before long we were in the middle of a full blown interview and I got to know William So as a modest and humble man. Some people will tell you that William So, and his coffee shop ‘Barista Jam’, are the founders of Hong Kong’s coffee culture. William So, however, will be the first person to tell you that he will not take credits for that. A single man can’t create a culture.
William So: It all started in Australia
- First of all I would like to thank you for this interview Mr. So. It is an honour to meet you and I hope that my audience will get to know you, and the story behind Barista Jam. Can you tell us something about yourself and your coffee shop Barista Jam?
My name is William So and I am the founder of Barista Jam; a small coffee shop in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong. My story starts in Sydney, Australia where I first got in contact with coffee. The coffee culture was already flourishing there and it caught my attention early on. When I was a student at the university, an advertisement about a Barista course caught my attention. I decided to participate in the course, which was done by the Australian Barista Champion. It was there that I tasted my first ‘real’ coffee and I can remember it vividly. It was a single origin bean from Cuba and the coffee tasted amazing! Earthy, tobacco, dark chocolate, sweet and the syrupy mouthfeel; that was the moment when I knew that I would dedicate my life to coffee.
Eventually I opened up my own coffee shop in Australia and spend six years running it. At one point I had to sell my business and moved back to Hong Kong permanently for personal reasons. When I lived in Hong Kong I couldn’t help but notice that there was no place where I could get a quality cup of coffee like Australia. With all due respect, the coffee culture in Hong existed out of Pacific Coffee, Starbucks and a couple of very local coffee shops. The coffee you could buy there didn’t connect with me as a person, it really felt as if something was missing. My love for coffee took over and so I decided to open up my own coffee shop: Barista Jam.
- With the coffee culture being non-existent, I can imagine that Hong Kong was ripe for the picking when you opened up Barista Jam?
It was far from easy in the beginning. Early 2009 I started making preparations for opening Barista Jam. There were no shops where I could buy my equipment other than some webshops. Since I had little to no equipment, I had to ask La Marzocco in Hong Kong if they would roast coffee beans for me. But that was only the start; I had no place to rent and no personnel either. It took me more than six months to prepare for everything but I managed to open up Barista Jam late 2009. Barista Jam offered a unique concept back then, and still does today: experience specialty coffee in a place where you can grab a thing to eat and buy your Barista equipment. But it was a difficult time for me back then because the local people didn’t have any interest in coffee, there was almost no clientele at all. It was just a man, his shop and his passion for coffee.
After a year or so I met up with some Australian friends who were in Hong Kong on business. They were craving for quality coffee and ended up at Barista Jam. That was the beginning of better times; word of mouth made sure ex-pats and Australian people knew where to find Barista Jam. After three years 70% of my guests were office-people from around the area and ex-pats. Those were the people who didn’t just wanted to drink coffee, but experience it as well. As business got better by each passing year, it wasn’t until 2014 that the local people of Hong Kong really started to drink coffee.
- Some of your former staff have opened up very successful coffee shops in Hong Kong. Do you see yourself as founder of Hong Kong’s coffee culture, as some local Barista’s like to say?
William So starts laughing and says:
I cannot and will not take credit for that. I happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right knowledge and expertise, but it was not just me. As I said earlier there were some very local coffee shops who served coffee back then as well. I worked seven days a week at Barista Jam and trained my staff to the best of my abilities. Of course it is a compliment that some of my former staff members opened up successful coffee shops in Hong Kong, but their success is mostly because of their hard work. Therefore it does not mean that the coffee culture in Hong Kong flourished just because of me and Barista Jam.
- Competition is all around you and everywhere shops are using gimmicks to get ahead of the competition. What do you do to keep Barista Jam in the picture?
I have been in the business for a long time, and Barista Jam opened up in 2009 already. My concept is still unique as there is no other coffee shop that offers what we do. On the ground floor you can enjoy the Australian coffee shop vibe. You can sit down, have bite to eat and enjoy seeing the Barista’s at work. Upstairs is my favourite spot and it is where I sit most of the time. It is a quiet room in which you can enjoy your coffee and look at al the Barista equipment we have for sale. For a true coffee geek it is like a Toy’s R’ Us and even I still feel like a little boy when I sit here. On top of that we hope to give our customers a complete coffee experience. And that is what Barista Jam is all about: giving the people an experience by informing them about the beans, brewing methods and what they can expect when drinking our coffee.
When I left Barista Jam that evening, it was already way past closing time. This accidental interview turned out to be an open, fun and interesting conversation between two people who share the same passion: coffee. For all I know, William So and Barista Jam might just as well be the founders of the coffee culture in this magnificent city. I also know that he will never take credits for it, after all: a single man can’t create a culture.