An Architect-Turned-Barista Draws a Fine Line Between Brewing and Design

As the finale to our coffee series, we talk with Yeekai Lim, an entrepreneur from Los Angeles, about coffee, design, and the common ground(s) they share

Cognoscenti Coffee pop-up at the Hotel Normandie
Cognoscenti Coffee pop-up at the Hotel Normandie Image courtesy Yeekai Lim

Yeekai Lim is the founder of Cognoscenti Coffee, a coffee “pop-up” in Los Angeles and the principal of the collaborative design firm miL Studio. What better way to conclude our series on coffee and design than a conversation with someone who has a foot in both worlds? Lim began his professional foray into the world of espresso in 2010, when the economy began to take a turn for the worse and new architecture commissions were becoming increasingly rare. Concurrent with running miL Studio, Lim began his barista training with coffee workshops and home experiments. As things began to slow down in the office, more time was spent perfecting the espresso. “Less and less architectural projects came through the door and more and more time was spent working on coffee.” Lim says. “At some point, I realized that I wanted to share high quality and well-crafted coffee with others and that’s where the idea of taking it to the streets came about.” Instead of opening a cafe or refurbishing an old shipping container, Lim took it to the streets with a “pop-up” coffee shop. Inspired by the shipping crates used by art galleries, he designed and built a mobile barista counter, branded the coffee with shipping stencils to complement the Frieze-meets-freight aesthetic, and began setting up shop in temporary locations across LA. Cognoscenti Coffee quickly became a popular stop with the espresso elitists of Los Angeles, proving that it was indeed aptly named.

Lim was kind enough to answer a few questions via email, sharing his insight on architecture, mobile retail, branding, social networking, coffee, and the common ground(s) they all share.

How did you get started with Cognoscenti Coffee? 

Coffee started out as a hobby, experimenting with various coffee brewing equipment. I was trying to understand how to obtain the perfect cup using different coffee, grind size and amounts of coffee. I had an amazing cup of Ritual Coffee’s Hacienda La Esmeralda Geisha. The coffee turned my understanding upside down. The flavors were like nothing I had ever tasted in coffee and as soon as I thought great coffee was possible, it just made things more exciting. The fruit in the flavor of the cup was so in your face and obvious. Over time, many other coffees became more interesting as my palate developed and I noticed more of the nuances of flavor such as acidity and sweetness.

What kind of spaces did you first occupy? Was it difficult to find places to temporarily install your pop-up?

My first location was inside a restaurant I designed for my brother called Urban Eats. They didn’t have an espresso program so it was naturally a good place to insert myself, especially with their existing customer base. I was there for one month when I met an owner of a frozen yogurt shop close to where I lived. He too wanted to get serious about serving specialty coffee, so he was excited to have me pop-up in his shop and do espresso. It was a great opportunity for me to get comfortable with coffee and get behind a machine. Eight months later with some press, I got invited to join Na Young Ma to open up Proof Bakery where I would focus on coffee and she, baking. It seemed a perfect pairing on many levels.

What are some of the primary advantages of a pop-up coffee shop? 

The advantages were that I started out at full speed without the initial investment or overhead. I also was piggy backing off of an existing health permit and approved space for food service. The other advantage is that marketing yourself as a pop-up implies limited access to a product that may become unavailable, because a pop-up could last one week or two months. This creates greater interest on the notion of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And the disadvantages? How does the inherent limitations of a pop-up effect the coffee?

The disadvantage is ultimately the long-term set up. The pop-up idea is about temporality so the set up is usually mobile, which means everything is self-contained. This could limit the capacity to make a lot of drinks. There’s also a higher demand for maintenance — i.e. replacing five gallon water sources. This creates greater interest on the notion of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The other disadvantage is that the pop-up is usually about testing the market, so there may not be a legal contract in place. If the business grows and the model is successful, there is the potential that the existing business will want to capture more of the coffee profits and start their own coffee program.

You’re opening a full brick-and-mortar store soon, correct? Are you designing it yourself? 

I’m currently doing a pop-up now in a hotel in Koreatown, called Hotel Normandie. They’ve invited me to open up in one of their future retail spaces so this was an opportunity to test the market in the local community. I’m also opening up a shop in Clive Wilkinson’s new studio. I’ve gotten obsessed with geometries – not just for the cheap fabrication and big impact side of it. I’m trying to connect a spatial language to the science of coffee.

With two permanent retail locations on the horizon, will the pop-ups continue?

I will continue doing a pop-up as they seem fit to test certain markets and potential locations for a new shop. I also love the guerrilla-style set up, navigating under the radar of codes and regulations.

When you’re working in that “guerrilla” style, how important are social networks like Twitter or apps like Eat St? 

Social media has been an amazing tool in communicating what and where coffee is headed. It has been an integral resource to the pop-up concept in its power to immediately reach many people. Twitter more so than Facebook is an authentic way of expressing the voice/thought process behind an individual or brand.

And what about the role of design and branding?

Every aspect of design and branding, from the signage and the porcelain cups, to the space, is extremely important, as it also creates an experience. It’s a part of our visual senses that may provoke a memory. Since the design is created around a product, that being coffee, it has to be on par with the presentation. We’ve all been to restaurants where great design shines but the food doesn’t. In that sense, the coffee has to be produced at the highest level so our sensory experience is consistent throughout.

You were quoted in an article for Imbibe magazine, saying “Espresso extraction takes 25 to 30 seconds, but a building could take up to five years to complete. Yet all the variables for both are equally complex and volatile to manage.” Could you elaborate on that a little? Do you see any parallels between the process of brewing a cup and designing a building?

Making coffee is a science and also requires a level of creativity to propose a hypothesis and then test it out. Design is similar in that you understand a certain amount of information –i.e. program, circulation, site constraints– and then you develop a process of abstraction to try to better understand the possibilities. I think an architect by nature is a hopeful and optimistic individual who sees the potential for change in any project that they work on. We have to accept that there is the possibility for the new and the possibility to invent. We accept that the world changes and that we have some means to influence.

This open-endedness is similar to how coffee is perceived. Espresso changes vastly based on time, temperature, pressure, volume of coffee, water, humidity and many other variables. If you want to complete a project successfully, you have to also consider many variables like site, place, weather, etc. There’s an endless exploration of coffee from the social, political, cultural and economic aspects of how coffee arrives to our cup. Specialty coffee today is greatly influenced by the coffee roaster. The ethical sourcing of coffee beans with the idea of Direct Trade has allowed coffee to be harvested and processed to the highest level of quality. Direct Trade in theory, allows the farmer to keep more of the earnings and should translate to a higher quality product and to higher returns. Higher quality coffee beans equals lighter roast which allows more of the inherent qualities of the bean, its so called terroir, varietal, etc… to be expressed.

There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about architects working in fields outside of architecture – both by choice or by necessity. But, and I’m speaking from experience here, I’ve always thought that architecture school doesn’t just teach design and construction, it teaches a way of thinking, a way of seeing the world. Do you think your education in architecture and your professional experience have contributed to the success of Cognoscenti?

Architecture education provides a strong work ethic and discipline. Because architecture requires great responsibility for life safety, shelter and its systems, we’re forced to understand all the implications of our design/actions. At the same time, the creative process forces us to forget, to be naive, to think irrationally so we can be better innovators. We also have to be sensitive to whom we serve, both our clients and the public.

Coffee has brought me down to the street level, dealing with customer service and its immediate relationships. Architecture can sometimes keep us thinking about the big picture and we sometimes are consumed by our ego and artistic vision at the expense of pragmatism. Coffee requires you to focus on the immediate for example, making sure you greet the customer while concentrating on milk steaming. It’s about coordination and multi-tasking on the front line where a distraction could result in a poorly crafted product and a bad customer experience. Architecture sometimes has the luxury of time, where time inherently produces a better product – i.e. review for mistakes prior to issue, more time may be spent on detailing.

Will a good architect make a good barista? What qualities do the two professions share?

I don’t think so for the reasons I explained above, dealing with time. I think a good barista naturally has a deep passion for coffee, but it also requires aptitude that is not shared by architects. In broad stroke, we both want to make things perfect, flawlessness through a sort of chaos and complexity.

Many thanks to Yeekai Lim for taking the time to talk with us.

This is the sixth and final installment in our series of posts on all things coffee. Previously, we looked at the new maker coffee culture, the waste and convenience of the coffee pod, the future of Vienna’s rich coffee house tradition, the birth of the espresso, and the multivalence of the shipping container

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