Sakao Atsushi is the founder of Onibus Coffee, one of the most respected roasting companies in Japanese specialty coffee, especially among industry peers who in this Tokyo Coffee Profiles series have routinely named it as one of their must-visit coffee shops.
Onibus borrows its name from Portugal’s public bus system, and draws inspiration from the idea of connecting people to each other. Under Mr. Sakao’s leadership, Onibus Coffee has expanded into four thriving locations in under five years, including their popular to-go cafe and concept store, About Life Coffee Brewers, in bustling Shibuya.
Most recently Onibus opened a retail cafe and roastery in Naka-Meguro in order to make room for their new 15-kilo-capacity Diedrich roaster, which was needed to keep up with in-house and wholesale demand. The cafe sits next to a children’s park and seamlessly blends the available interior and exterior space to create an open, welcoming environment, reminiscent of the Australian streetside cafes that helped lure Mr. Sakao into the coffee industry.
How did you get into coffee?
I’ve more or less always been interested in coffee, but always thought it was bitter. When I was 25 I went to visit Australia for a few months. I was really impressed by the cafe culture there and by the coffee. It wasn’t bitter at all, very easy to drink. I guess that was when I developed a deeper interest in it.
What is your favorite thing about coffee?
I like how coffee and cafes build communities. It links people together and provides the place and the means for people to meet each other. I noticed that in Australia. People come to the same cafe every day and talk to each other. The baristas and the regular customers all know each other.
Why did you decide to make coffee a career?
Since visiting Australia I had wanted to start my own cafe. I wanted to build a community like the ones I saw in the cafes out there. That’s one of the reasons why we opened Onibus in a residential area rather than somewhere retail-heavy. I started working at Paul Bassett and learned about coffee and roasting there and when the timing was right I opened Onibus Coffee in Okusawa.
What’s the philosophy behind your coffee?
You can’t make good coffee without good beans. I think sourcing the highest quality ingredients is the key to making a good product. Staff training is also important, as is roasting, but with that you can only go so far. We have been going on origin trips to farms in order to build relationships with the farmers and buy top-quality green beans. We also have some good importers that we trust.
What drew you to the Diedrich roaster?
I think that the Diedrich machines produce a very clean flavor. It really matches my personal preferences. The Probat machines are very popular in Japan, and I think they roast excellent coffee, but I just preferred Diedrich. It also helps to differentiate us from other roasters.
Where do you see the coffee scene going in Tokyo?
The economy isn’t booming here, so it’s hard to say. If the state of the economy gets better then specialty coffee may continue to expand. But Japanese people like chains, so Starbucks is really strong. You can also by a cup of coffee at the convenience store for 100 Yen (the rough equivalent of $1USD), and that is fairly popular. I think if we in the industry focus on improving on what we are doing right now, versus expanding, and give the best service possible then the future will be good. But really, it hinges on the economy.
(note: parts of this interview have been paraphrased. The interview was conducted in Japanese and was adapted to English by the author.)