Growing Deep With Jiyoon Han of Bean & Bean

  
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In these interviews, I connect with people in different ways. Sometimes it’s immediate, sometimes it’s helped by a previous encounter or even a longtime friendship, and sometimes it never comes. I had never met Jiyoon Han before I asked her to be on the show, but her clarity and deep intentionality clicked for me instantly.

Jiyoon is the co-owner of Bean & Bean Coffee in New York City. Her parents opened Bean & Bean’s first location in 2008, a few years after immigrating to the United States from South Korea, amidst the year’s financial crisis. Since then, Jiyoon’s life has been wrapped up in coffee—it comes naturally to her, it’s embedded in her senses.

Jiyoon has a background in UX, or user experience, design, and uses that knowledge to help run aspects of Bean & Bean alongside her mother. On their website, Bean & Bean has a detailed and clear commitment laid out to promote gender equity—almost all the coffees they buy are from women-led farms and cooperatives, and they aim to have all their coffees powered by women by 2022. Their stores are reflective of their communities, including a flagship in the Little Neck neighborhood of Queens where Jiyoon grew up.

In this conversation, Jiyoon articulates so much of the potential in coffee—what responsibly run shops can look like, what being value-driven means, and how to actually grow. Growth for Jiyoon isn’t about expansion, but about depth and learning: honing your craft and getting better at what you do.

I can’t recommend this interview enough. Here’s Jiyoon.


Ashley: So to start this conversation, I was hoping you could introduce yourself.

Jiyoon: Sure. My name is Jiyoon Han. I'm based in New York City currently. I source, cup, roast, and curate coffees for Bean & Bean Coffee. My mother and I are the coffee team at Bean & Bean Coffee. So there you go.

Ashley: You’ve got this. I think it's always a funny question to ask people to introduce themselves because they're like, “What do I include?” It’s like if you get in an elevator and you're like, “What's my elevator pitch as I'm going up these flights?”

Let's talk about your history and coffee, because like I was saying earlier, I usually start all these conversations with what is your coffee story, or when did coffee first get introduced in your life, but you've really grown up in coffee.

Jiyoon: Yeah. So I was a high school senior when my parents opened their first coffee shop in downtown Manhattan. That was in 2008, actually on the brink of the financial crisis. I have memories of working behind the bar sometimes before school and sometimes after school and the PM.

I remember my dad and my mom talking to me about what the double A in Kenya AA means; why peaberry coffee is special and different; us having all these ventilation problems with the roaster set up on site—Manhattan is a crazy place to be roasting coffee. Especially given that our first location is nestled inside a landmark building that was built in the late 1800s. All these regulations around roasting ventilation.

I remember all of that and representing my parents—sort of being their ambassador and lawyer, sometimes negotiating with landlords. So for me, coffee has always been part of my upbringing.

Ashley: Yeah. It seems like the minute your parents opened this business, you were right in the thick of it. What inspired your parents to want to open a coffee shop?

Jiyoon: My parents, before immigrating to the U.S., were always in food and beverage. They were one of the early franchisees of Wendy’s hamburgers at the time in the ’90s when fast food wasn't a thing yet in South Korea. So through operating their Wendy's location, they sort of learned the ropes of how to operate a food establishment. And I think that's when my mom and dad started to be interested in coffee.

So when they moved here and were looking for ways to build a new life in the U.S. they decided to focus in on coffee as a singular concept. I know it may sound crazy because if there's anything that Manhattan doesn't need any more of, it's probably coffee shops, because there's a Starbucks on every corner in the city.

But I think what we believed strongly was in freshly roasted coffee. And at the time in ’08 we were serving exclusively organic, Fair Trade coffee. So those were the two value propositions that other coffee shops were not delivering. So even though the first location was only two blocks away from a big Starbucks we were able to survive, and that location actually still stands.

Ashley: I was about to say, it's no small feat to have a coffee shop that you built in 2008 still standing now.

Jiyoon: Oh my god. Yeah, that didn't come easy. We've had so many ups and downs, obviously the year that we opened was on the brink of the financial crisis. So the first couple of years were very difficult. And we just recently renewed the lease at that location. It's a long history, 12—now, 13 years. And I think you really have to believe in your business and the community that you're serving and the network that you're a part of to want to keep doing it. And it means a lot to us to still have that first location standing.

Ashley: Was it always a given that you were going to work in the family business?

Jiyoon: Ah, that's a hard question to answer. I want to say yes and no. I mean, a lot of people [would] ask me, “Are you going to be in coffee?” or, “Is coffee going to be part of your career?” And for me, it's almost an impossible question to answer because I can't really separate family from coffee from career.

It's just always something that has been part of my life—tasting and cupping coffees. And I'm always thinking about coffee. Just yesterday, actually, I was doing a meditation exercise where they guided us to think of the green light inside our body and trying to hone in on that green light. And the exercise was to get us to activate our senses. What are we smelling? What do we see with this green light activating inside of us? And it's so crazy. I started smelling coffee, so I know what that says about me.

Ashley: That's so wild and cool because I think it articulates exactly what you just said—that coffee's so fundamentally a part of who you are.

Jiyoon: Yeah. Yeah.

Ashley: So I want to talk a little bit about the way that you're incorporated into the business, because if you go to Bean & Bean’s website or your Instagram account, the branding talks about being a mother-daughter business. And that's why I was curious about if your role in Bean & Bean was always part of your plan or part of something that you always wanted to do, because it seems like it's probably evolved over time, I imagine.

Jiyoon: Definitely. I think 10 years ago, I remember myself strongly believing that people didn't change. And that there was this one version of the self that stuck with us for life, because how do you change who you are?

But I think with time, I've come to realize that if I frame it differently, people evolve and so do businesses and families and their stories, right? I think the way we present ourselves and the way relate to the customers and our barista team and the rest of the world is evolving through time, and always will be.

I think that the mother/daughter coffee team identity has always been there, but I think more recently I've been spending a lot of time trying to come up with ways to tell our story, to tell the family story. Of course my parents are immigrants from Korea and there's a limit to how much they can tell their own story. I almost take it upon myself to be that voice.

Ashley: I love that you talked about the idea of evolution as something that happens to everybody and everything. It's not just people changing, it's not just ideas changing, but it's whole identities. It's whole businesses, it's whole modes of expression, because I think you're absolutely right. It's easy to think that there are fundamental things about people, right? There are fundamental ways that we operate and some things are kind of immovable, but I think the biggest moments of excitement that I find in Boss Barista and in the way that I write and communicate about coffee is moments of evolution and change—where I see things from a completely different perspective. So I love that you mentioned that.

Jiyoon: Yeah. And it's, I think—it's not always apparent or detectable at the time as you are in, this inflection point when you're about to change or when you have just gone through that change or transformation. A lot of the realization of these moments of change and transformation comes through time and reflection, I think.

And going back to your question around the mother/daughter identity, that's so core to Bean & Bean—to me it's only natural and organic to talk about the team that is behind sourcing and cupping and curating all the coffees that get put out. And there is a mother behind the mother/daughter coffee team, and a daughter too.

Ashley: How do you and your mom work together? What is that relationship like, if you don't mind me asking? I know that I mentioned this to you when we were emailing, but I'm fascinated by partnerships and how people work together. So I was wondering if you'd talk a little bit about how you and your mom work together.

Jiyoon: Oh god, well, I'm lucky to have such a wonderful mom. I don't know. I can depend on her for everything. So as it relates specifically to coffee it's almost like my experience of a coffee is not complete without having my mom taste it too. And after we talk about it together only then will my experience be complete.

That is not to say that we have exactly the same preferences when it comes to coffee. We actually don't, but I just can't not have my mom taste the same cup of coffee and talk about it. Because I have to know what her experience was like in order to feel complete, as it relates to that specific coffee.

Ashley: That's such a lovely sentiment. I had a conversation with somebody about the idea of dependency, or the idea that we have relationships with people that feel just naturally part of who we are as people, and how sometimes that's seen as a negative, right? It's seen as like, “You should be able to do this thing on your own,” or “You should be able to form an objective opinion without the influence of others.”

And you're a Q grader. So I'm sure that you've been told the protocols for cupping and it's supposed to be totally objective and it's supposed to be without any biases, but I love that you seem to know that that's not always possible—that part of your experience having a coffee very much depends on this relationship that you have with your mom.

Jiyoon: Yeah, absolutely. To me, coffee is, beyond just the literal association of the motherhood behind the mother/daughter coffee team. Coffee to me encompasses everything about motherhood in that beyond just my own mother, if you think about everything that it takes to drink a cup of coffee, there is a lot of, so much care and patience, love, nourishment, and nurturing that goes into bringing that cup of coffee to people.

So it's of course me and my mom, but before it ever arrives at our roasting plant, think of all the mothers along that entire process, right? And all of the relationships that are formed. And as you say, the partnerships that are supported by motherhood—that’s what's so beautiful to me about coffee, and it takes time. I think a lot of motherhood has to do with patience and time.

Ashley: Yeah. It seems like you've gleaned a lot of lessons from this partnership that you've built with your mother. Obviously you have a relationship with your mother outside of the business, but it seems like you've probably learned a lot working with your mother side by side within the business.

I love that you mentioned this idea that the relationships of motherhood translate throughout the coffee supply stream, because I think that speaks really beautifully to your commitment to gender equity. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that—explain your commitment to gender equity for our listeners.

Jiyoon: Sure. So our commitment to gender equity—we were talking about evolution and the evolution of identities through time—I think that for me, running a business is about being true to your core values and being able to realize and materialize those values in a tangible way, because you have this amazing opportunity to do something about the stuff that you believe in, right?

So as a small business, we can't do everything, but we can do something and even doing something is a start. So as we think about the core values that we believe in: coffee as a vehicle for change. I think it was a process for us to exactly articulate all of the many problems that exist in the world, and of all of the things that need to be improved in the coffee world, in the world of coffee, gender equity is one that we are strongly committed to.

Of course the coffee being powered by me and my mother, we are change agents in a direct way. Women are underrepresented and marginalized in the coffee industry, but going back earlier along the value stream, my mom and I have been fortunate, super fortunate, to be able to actually meet with mother/daughter coffee farmer/producer teams, and their stories resonate with us so much.

Women contribute more than half—60 to 70%—of the coffees that get produced in the world, but they don't have an equal share of the pie. Especially when it comes to international market opportunities, they don't have that same access. So what can we do as a small business that is in the business of roasting coffee and serving delicious coffee to people in New York and beyond—what can we do?

I think it comes down to being conscious and making intentional purchase decisions, and choosing with intention the partners at origin that we want to support. So we have amazing partners. We buy direct from some women-led coffee farms, and in countries where we cannot, we partner with intermediaries who are able to help us stay true to our commitment.

Ashley: I like that you gave a really holistic answer to that question, because I think it's easy to say, “I believe in a thing,” and not really know what to do next with it, right? It's easy to be like, “Of course I believe in gender equity, but what can my business do?”

To hear you talk about, “Well, this—this is where we're at, right? We are a roasting operation. We sell coffee to people. This is the actionable step that we can take.” And you really lined it up with your values as well. You were like, “We are a mother/daughter team. This is what we can do. And this makes sense for who we are. And this is a way that we can actualize some of our beliefs.”

That was probably one of the most well-articulated statements about values and actionable steps that you can take that I've ever heard anybody say.

But I imagine that comes with work, right? You folks have had to sit down and say, “What are our values? What do we believe in and how do we consciously execute on that?”

Jiyoon: Absolutely. It takes so much work. I think business values are a reflection of the people that run the business. So to me, and to us, it's not just about coming up with values for the business, but being able to articulate who we are as people and transcribing that into a business context. So this is why I can't really draw the line between myself and coffee and career. I can't really separate them, which I think a lot of people [may] think I'm crazy, but to me it's so natural.

Ashley: Does it feel … I guess you just answered that question, but it feels natural. Like it feels just part of you, right?

Jiyoon: Yeah, it does.

Ashley: I feel like having such strong values has probably been the vehicle that's kept you afloat since 2008. Like you mentioned, you opened in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis. I graduated college the year after that, and it was really grim trying to get a job. So I can completely understand just how scary it must have been to have a business at that time.

And it seems like this strong tie to what you're about and your values has really been the vehicle that's kept you not just afloat, but pushing forward—because you folks have expanded since that one location in downtown Manhattan. How have you been able to push forward? What does that look like for you folks?

Jiyoon: That's something I think about all the time: What does growth look like? And how can we grow?

Again, tying this back to how I think about growth on a personal level—a very close friend of mine told me a couple of years ago, “Why are you so fixated on growth? Like not everything is about progress. And sometimes things are fine the way they are.”

I don't know, it's something I'm grappling with, right? Because if you're not growing, then what are you doing if you're not growing? To me, a lot of that growth is so tied to learning. And that's what's so beautiful about coffee because I'm learning every single day, even if I'm tasting and cupping the same coffee three days in a row, it's going to be different—my experience is going to be different, and I'm going to pick up on different things.

Going back to your question about expansion, I think it's been difficult, right? Because you have to think about how you want to be growing because unbridled, just crazy growth measured in terms of, do you have three locations or do you have 10 locations? Do you have 10 baristas working with you or a 300-person barista team working with you?

So the way I try to gain clarity on this topic for me personally is to go back to purpose—why am I doing anything that I'm doing? And how can I get closer to delivering that purpose? At this moment in time I would say that my purpose, my commitment is to keep finding and serving good coffee and to make specialty coffee approachable and easy for everyone and using coffee as a vehicle to do good in the world.

We don't want to be a super exclusive coffee roaster serving only super exclusive coffees. There's so much more we can do as a business that serves a staple good that people have every single day—it's millions of different touch points that we can create and shape in a positive way through coffee as your neighborhood roaster. It's hard to … yeah, so I don't know. I'm still trying to understand what growth means to me and what expansion means to us as a business, as a small business.

Ashley: Well, it seems like you touched on two different ideas of growth a little bit—the idea of growth as a mindset, as a way of thinking about how to do things differently and better, and then growth as tangible expansion. We are growing to two stores, and three stores, then four stores.

That's a balance that I imagine that you have to grapple with a lot, right? Do we improve a system internally because you always [want to be] growing, you always [want to do] better, you're always learning. Or does growth look like we need to open up another shop?

It seems like you really sit with that question, very concretely, right? You really sit with it and say, “Are we growing just to grow or are we growing to actually serve a purpose—to go back to our values?”

Jiyoon: Yeah. Definitely. I think growth can be difficult too, in the sense that if you grow too quickly, you lose control, and you're unable to do things the way you want to be doing them in that exact way. So I think organic growth and growing with intentionality and a purpose is very important.

Ashley: Something that I really liked about that last answer that you talked about was the idea of not necessarily always being the place with like, the fanciest coffees, but really being a neighborhood roastery, being a place that serves the community.

I think that people are starting to parse those things out. The idea that the pursuit of quality is not always the end-all be-all—not to say that you're not producing quality coffees, but you don't have to have a super fancy gesha coffee to be the best. Perhaps being the best is assessing where you are in your community, and being able to serve that community where they're at. I was wondering how you think about translating your message to your community.

Jiyoon: Sure. I think a lot of that has been done through our choice of where to open our locations, following the first one.

So our other locations currently are in Chelsea right next to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). This is where a lot of the creatives and students come. And then our roastery is in Little Neck, which is very close to where I grew up and where my family first moved to. So it's kind of like our way of going back to where we came from and serving that immediate community. That location has a lot of families. And there’s an elementary school on the block next to us. So lots of teachers coming and moms and families on the weekends for snacks and quick grabs—just to hang out.

And so pre-COVID, I think a lot of that connectivity and that service as a neighborhood coffee roaster and coffee shop was facilitated through our offline touch points with customers. And that's being challenged because of COVID, right? You don't have ownership over that, over the entire customer experience, from having them enter, interact with baristas, being part of their decision-making process and serving them that coffee and having them enjoy your space and spend time in your space, right? And giving back to the community and that way, by providing this experience that goes beyond just the coffee, but it's so tied to the spatial and time element.

My mom designed all of the locations. So the core thing that she kept in mind when designing the stores was comfort.

So how can we deliver comfort to people? We want everyone and anyone to be welcomed to our locations and just be able to relax over a cup of coffee. So this is something that I'm thinking about a lot. How do we translate those experiences in an online-first world, through COVID and beyond? That touches on a lot of my priorities at the moment. How do small businesses make effective and smart pivots to be online first? And this goes for not just our business, but for all coffee businesses and all small businesses that are going through a similar transformation.

Ashley: Yeah. I went to your website and I saw that you have so many options to engage online. You can take a cupping class, you can take a cold brew class—you have them set up via Zoom. That's a platform that so many people know. So what has that looked like for you? What has post-COVID life looked like for Bean & Bean?

Jiyoon: I think there are two main considerations.

One is how do we make that online pivot for the offline brick-and-mortar business?

The second is how do we open up new opportunities for us online in a domain that did not exist before?

Speaking to the first, I think I have more faith now in delivery platforms. I might change my mind in a couple of weeks, but I think there is opportunity for traditional brick-and-mortar businesses to really get that right, get the ops down, and try to work with delivery platforms as a way to withstand the craziness of COVID in the months to come. And also anything that makes that customer journey and that customer experience as COVID-proof as possible is helpful.

Then speaking to scoping out new opportunities—I think we have to think about as small business owners, we have to think about how are people interacting and in this increasingly digital-first world. What do people crave and how can we deliver our services? Not exactly in the way we were delivering our services pre-COVID, but how can we adapt? For us, it's delivering joy through cups of coffee, so how can we create similar experiences online? The classes, the Zoom tastings and classes that you are referring to are a way of doing that.

Ashley: I've really enjoyed this conversation in a way that I didn't expect. And part of that is because this is the first time you and I are talking to each other, but it seems like in general, you're just an incredibly thoughtful person. I was wondering if that tracks—like how would people describe you?

Jiyoon: This is a hard question.

I would say the first word that people use to describe me is curious. Maybe thoughtful is a close second.

Ashley: Probably the biggest joy that I get in conversations like this is, obviously talking about the practical ways in which you do business [is important], because I think that's incredibly illuminating and it's powerful to have these things on record—it's almost like a living record of where the coffee industry is at in this moment. But I think more so than that is really figuring out the way that people think and the way that people attack problems and the way that they look at their businesses, or they look at their careers, or they look at just the way that they live their lives.

And they're like, “Oh, I do these things this way. And I think about these problems this way.” And I know that's super nebulous. That's not a very concrete mindset, but to me, that's what's most compelling about these conversations. And I feel like instead of maybe digging wide, we really dug deep on a couple of small points that are actually incredibly large. I think it's because you have such an introspective and inquisitive way of looking at the world.

Jiyoon: Oh, thank you. So I'm taking time off grad school right now, but right before I started grad school, I was living and working in Korea for a couple of years before returning to the U.S., and my last job was in user experience, UX design. I worked for a search engine company and did UX design for their maps service, sort of like Google Maps, but the Google Maps of Korea.

What I enjoyed so much about doing UX is that essentially what you're doing is you're trying to understand why people do what they do and why people consume what they consume and respond the way they do. It's really getting to the core of understanding human behavior. I think UX, user experience, goes beyond technology, like the material app or platform.

I think coffee is all about user experience because you set up an offline shop. You design the bar to be a specific way, you place the espresso machine at a specific location on the bar, you have your pastry shelf exactly where you want it to be and place tables and chairs in those exact locations with intention, right? Because you want to create this amazing experience for customers when they come in. And also on the backend, you're designing the best espresso bar and the whole ops layout to be as convenient and easy for the baristas too. You're designing the space and the experience for both the team internally and for the customers that you're serving. So I feel like I'm still doing UX type work right now.

Ashley: That totally makes sense. And I think that knowing that background about you really informs the way that you approach how you view your business and how you think about growth and all the things that we've talked about in this episode.

Before we sign off, is there anything that you'd want people to know about you or to know about Bean & Bean that are listening to this?

Jiyoon: Sure. I think something you said earlier about pursuing quality for the sake of quality—so one of my more recent realizations has been that quality is heavily relative and contextual. There is no absolute definition of high quality versus low quality. And I'm so happy that I know this now because when I have all of my coffee equipment and that setup is perfect at my home, I'm able to make coffee in a very specific way using all the equipment that is available to me versus when I am at a friend's house who has zero equipment, versus when I am hiking or on a backpacking trip—I don't have access to the same things under the same tools, right?

So just thinking about it in my own context, quality is intensely relative. And I think this applies across all people too. One way of making specialty coffee and the mission behind specialty coffee as accessible as possible to people, to me, entails understanding exactly this—that quality is contextual and relative. So I'm coming up with new ways to do that. It's so exciting, designing experiences and coming up with new, innovative ways to have people interact with coffee and everything that is behind that coffee.

Ashley: Jiyoon, thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. This has been a really lovely conversation, and I appreciate your time.

Jiyoon: Thank you so much, Ashley. This was so fun. I loved your thoughtful questions.

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