Brew-haha is justified
Take one coffee shop, add a teaspoon of authenticity, a generous dash of American lifestyle and culture, and stir. The end result is a soothing place where customers can grab a cup of joe and relax after work. Sun Yuanqing reports.
Finding a coffee house where you can get an authentic coffee in a third- or fourth-tier city in China can be very difficult. But people in Guizhou province’s capital Guiyang have had one for seven years. American restaurateur Christopher Delong offers not only coffee but also the knowledge and lifestyle that come with it.
“We want to create a space for authentic coffee, an American experience to learn about coffee culture, as well as a soothing place for people to relax after work,” the 49-year-old says.
In a city that doesn’t yet have Starbucks, Costa or McCafe, Delong’s Highland coffee shop is more than a shop. It has become part of the city experience. This is where local youth meet, travelers linger and the few Western residents get a taste of home.
Delong is both the cafe’s boss and the walking signboard. He educates locals on coffee and pastries, and shares recipes he and his wife create.
The work starts as soon as the customer steps in the door. In a Chinese coffee shop, the customers are used to having a hostess wait at the door and take them to a seat. They then wait for the server to take the order. They are not accustomed to stepping up to the counter, looking at the menu hanging on the wall and deciding what they want.
“They would sit on the seat and wait for someone to come. That was the first thing that we explain about our service,” Delong says.
Then the real work begins: the education about coffee. Delong recalls that, in the early days, people would come in and casually ask for a Blue Mountain Coffee — an expensive variety grown in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. But cheaper fakes that are actually produced in South China’s Yunnan province are commonplace in the country.
“They are accustomed to the name but they have never tasted the quality of it,” Delong says.
“And people who really know what Blue Mountain Coffee is wouldn’t buy it because it was too expensive.”
What Delong offers is a traditional American-style coffee house menu that includes espresso-based beverages. It also offers hot and iced teas, hot chocolate and smoothies. All the ingredients and equipment are imported.
“Local coffee shops don’t use imported equipment that costs tens of thousands of yuan, because locals don’t recognize the quality of coffee anyway. But we decided to do it, because I won’t give a customer something I don’t cherish myself,” Delong says.
“So it’s also educating about quality.
It’s small enough for you to feel comfortable, but it’s also big enough to offer big business opportunities.” CAFE OWNER CHRISTOPHER DELONG
It’s like walking with them hand-inhand through the experience of teaching them what good coffee tastes like.”
Delong’s efforts have paid off. When he first started, nearly all customers needed to be educated. Some have themselves become educators.
One of the customers told him she once went to a local coffee shop and asked for a decaf, but the owner didn’t know what that was.
“In the end, my customer had to explain to them what decaf coffee is. In one sense, our customers know more about coffee than the owners of other coffee houses here. Because they have been customers for a long time and came to understand coffee,” Delong says.
Not only are the coffees popular, the pastries are a success, too. The Oreocrusted cheesecakes are so well known that travelers often bring them on planes when they fly out of Guiyang.
Delong operated a high-end automobile business in his native state of Indiana before he sold it and came to live in Guiyang with his Singaporean wife and two kids in 2003.
He had traveled through East China in 1996 and returned in 2000 to travel through the western regions. While he saw the western part, especially Guizhou, was much less developed than the coastal area, he also realized there were a lot of business opportunities to explore.
“It has a small-town feel to it. You can pretty much walk to anywhere within half an hour,” he says.
“I like that feel. It’s small enough for you to feel comfortable, but it’s also big enough to offer big business opportunities.”
Delong, a lover of food himself, decided to open a coffee house. At the time, Guiyang had no Western food establishments except for a KFC. Once Delong found his niche, he insisted on honing it rather than diversifying.
“We try to keep things traditional rather than to change them to make them Asian, which can be common in international chains,” he says.
“I choose to do things from my heart, things that I know about.” Contact the writer at email@example.com.
Yang Jun contributed to this story.
Christopher Delong likes educating local people on coffee and pastries and recipes he and his wife came up with together.