In 2013, Kenneth Shoji started coffee brand % Arabica as a small café in Hong Kong. Then, in 2014, the brand opened a global flagship store in Kyoto, Japan, under its “See the world through coffee” motto. One decade later, there are now more than 130 % Arabica stores all across Asia, the Middle East, and in major cities like New York City and London. The striking % logo and store design capture the spirit of Japanese minimalism, which advocates for the purging of unnecessary things. Indeed, the brand’s strategic location selection in iconic places coupled with its coffee quality control system are seen as qualities that helped % Arabica quickly become a rising global franchise.
When it comes to the daily life vibe, the café space usually focuses on creating comfortable, home-like place so that customers can stay long. % Arabica, however, somewhat intentionally creates non-daily elements with an aim to facilitate revisits or leave a specific impression on customers. In other words, the specialty coffee brand clearly shows where to focus in terms of the appropriate length of stay.
Keita Aono, Chief designer and director, no.10
Arabica’s target customers are cosmopolitan. I thought our café should be in a location that our global trotting customers found interesting, which is why we opened our global flagship store in Arashiyama, Kyoto. We never open a café in a place where there is nothing impressive.
Kenneth Shoji, Founder of Arabica
Welcome to the 92nd edition of B.
Coffee is widely perceived as a favorite food. This is based on the assumption that the best coffee varies depending on the taste of who is drinking it. Some say that any coffee that gives them a jolt of energy is the best, while others might say a quick cup served right away from a convenience store or an automated coffee kiosk is the best. Whether it’s a slowly brewed cup at home or a blended coffee topped with rich whipped cream, coffee can be perfectly tailored to suit each individual—a unique facet and, dare I say, privilege that only exists with coffee. The multilayered aspects of coffee have gained so much attention after the so-called third wave elevated the status of coffee in the world of gastronomy. Starbucks, Nespresso, and specialty coffee brands all have a role to play here. Just as a higher level of the culinary culture of a country does not mean that street food or fast food loses value, coffee is also diversifying to better serve these different needs rather than compete for ultimate superiority.
B covered Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle Coffee brands in the past, but this issue features % Arabica, a coffee brand that is ideally suited for an era in which the nuances of coffee have gained greater acceptance and appreciation. This Japanese coffee brand, which marked its 10th anniversary in 2023, is also a franchise that inherited some of the specialty coffee DNA. Kenneth Shoji, who founded % Arabica in his 40s, said in a number of interviews that he had been heavily influenced by Starbucks in his 20s. He also said that he was immensely inspired by Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle Coffee in terms of café space and their creative ways of dealing with coffee tools. But % Arabica cannot be said to be a mere copycat of those forerunners. That is because % Arabica has built its brand identity in a delicate, rigorous way—somehow telegraphing the aesthetic of Kyoto into its spaces, signature items, locations, and launching periods.
Kenneth Shoji is at the center of this success story. He is less of a coffee specialist and more of a brand enthusiast/global entrepreneur. He put efforts into formulating each location’s design language and perfecting branded goods, as well as selecting coffee beans and focusing on the quality of the drinks his brand will offer. It’s certainly not an exaggeration to say that certain key characteristics of the % Arabica brand identity come directly from the founder’s personality. In an interview with B conducted in Bali, Shoji said, “Specialty coffee sometimes prioritizes some nerdiness. But I don’t. I just do business in a normal way. The way I make coffee is similar to the way scrambled eggs are made. You just need to get fresh, top-quality eggs and stir them well. You don’t need to describe each and every color and flavor of eggs. It’s just about staying true to the basics.”
Just like that, % Arabica seems to be willing to become a global brand through coffee instead of uplifting coffee as a mystical drink of all drinks. Most pioneer businesses, it seems, are strongly driven by such a down-to-earth willingness. Business mindset tends to get overshadowed by stories about the artisanal attitude and spirit because there are already so many brands that have more or less attained a level of perfection and still introduce upgrades on the regular. But % Arabica demonstrates that the establishment and management of standards can also be part of the artisanal spirit. As such, I find myself choosing “franchise” over “coffee” to define this coffee brand. I’m looking at the brand as a franchise business, and I hope % Arabica’s journey—which started humbly in Hong Kong and really took off in Kyoto before expanding to the Middle East, the US, and the UK— will continue to pique my curiosity.
Content & Editorial Director