An interview with Ya Wei and Jerome Lin of Innocent Coffee

The innocent lamb of Innocent Coffee on 4th Avenue

Back in June we sat down with George Giannakos of Revolver Coffee in Gastown to discuss the Vancouver coffee scene. In the course of our conversation, we asked where he likes to go for coffee in Vancouver apart from Revolver. He pointed us in the direction of Innocent Coffee. Neither of us had ever heard of it but intrigued by such a great recommendation, we tracked it down (it isn’t that hard to be honest) and fell in love. Innocent Coffee is a hyper-designed cube of coffee-worship. It is perhaps one of the most carefully planned cafes, or restaurants or bars for that matter, in Vancouver and we were immediately curious about it. To slake our thirst and curiosity we returned this week to talk to the owners: the sister and brother team Ya Wei and Jerome Lin who have been running Innocent for almost two years since opening in November 2010.

The Facing Page: What was your inspiration to open a coffee shop in Vancouver?

Ya Wei Lin: I think a lot of coffee shop owners start out with a dream of owning a coffee shop. It wasn’t really that way for me. I started working in coffee houses because I was an art student and just needed a job. So I started from there. I also find coffee houses are an interesting place; they reflect a city’s culture. And the people who you meet are really interesting. Then gradually I discovered the specialty coffee scene which is fascinating. It’s similar to art: you take coffee as your medium and go from there. That’s how I was introduced to coffee, I wanted to have a place to do it myself. It’s not so much a business for us though, it’s more like a studio. We don’t have any staff, it’s just my brother [Jerome] and I. We just treat it as a studio where we can practice our art [the Facing Page notes that this means not only the art of coffee but also actual art; the upstairs portion of the shop is a studio/gallery]. I think this sets us apart from a lot of other coffee shops.

TFP: So what do you think it is about coffee which inspires that kind of obsessivness in people?

YWL: It’s similar to something like wine or craft beer or even sandwiches now. Places that are sourcing great ingredients and taking care in the preparation. It’s pretty simple I guess; you just focus on one thing like coffee rather than having everything in your shop. I think coffee is interesting in that it becomes such a story. You can really go back to the origins of it – where it’s farmed, how it’s roasted, how it’s processed. Coffee isn’t local at all, it’s very global, you have to source it out.

Jerome and Ya Wei at the bar

TFP: Speaking of sourcing – how have you gone about doing the bean sourcing for Innocent?

YWL: Right now we use coffees roasted by Origins Organic Coffee on Granville Island. The owner John Sanders has been roasting for a long time. Not just roasting but working with farmers, taking it every step of the way.

TFP: So despite coffee being so global, you’ve ended up staying very local?

YWL: Yeah – exactly. There’s a lot more local roasters in Vancouver now too – there is Origins, 49th Parallel, jj Bean and Matchstick. And a few more in Victoria. Bows and Arrows and 2% Jazz has been doing it’s own thing for a while in Fernwood. You need to have a real relationship with roasters – you need to get to know how they work, what they’re like. Then you can translate that into your own shop, your own style.

TFP: So for you it’s preferable to stick with the one roaster and change the beans from time to time rather than experiment with different roasters?

YWL: For now yeah. Our goal as a coffee shop isn’t volume so it’s tricky to bring in a lot of different roasters; we wouldn’t use the beans fast enough. And we’re very happy working with John [at Orgins]. It’s nice as a barista and shop owner because you have the liberty to use what you want but we really leave it just to him. That comes from working with him for so long, we understand each other and I trust his decisions. If he gives us something we don’t really like, there’s an open communication so we can talk things out. It’s consistent. You kinda have to stick with one for at least a period of time to figure things out. So right now we’re happy with that.

TFP: Speaking of being close to Granville Island, this is an interesting location for a shop: near Granville Island, on 4th Avenue but it’s still a little off the beaten track. So was it a conscious choice to open here, or was it more a great space that just happened to be here?

YWL: When I was looking for a space, one of the important things was working near the roaster. So that narrowed things down to the Kitsilano area and then I was looking for something small. I passed by this place so many times walking to school on at Emily Carr on Granville Island and so I’d seen it a lot. It had been empty for a long time but it’s an interesting building. It’s detached, which you don’t often find very often in the city. I guess it just slowly came together. I could see a coffee shop here, it’s not a high traffic area but it can work.

Is the little lamb Paul or Silas?

TFP: Was it difficult at first to attract traffic here being such an unknown quantity?

YWL: Yeah, it was – we’re really unknown. This is our first business so no one knows us. It was tough to start, but I think every business finds it tough to start and you just have to stick with it. Also, it’s a trade-off. My friend owns a coffee shop, Dose, at Granville and Broadway, which is in a really high traffic area, but then the rent is much higher. So you’ll get more people but pay more rent. Everything balances out. You just keep your head level and don’t look always at just how busy things are, it works out – so far we’re doing fine. I found too that when it was slow to start with we had time to build the quality that we wanted. The gradually it spread through word of mouth. We didn’t do any advertising, so it was all about word of mouth, talking to customers and in a really busy setting it’s hard to do that.

TFP: The word of mouth seems to be working, that’s how we found you! With a background in art, was the design of the shop important?

YWL: The building was completely white to begin with. We put in the furniture, the floor and the appliances, but I wanted to keep it white. You can add to white and things look good on it. We wanted the furniture to be really minimal – that’s the main thing. Clean. We wanted something that anyone could feel comfortable in. It’s somehow turned into a home for us too, but that wasn’t intended. I was on a trip to London before we opened this, and I was amazed with the coffee shop design there because of space restrictions. They’re really smart with their space, very flexible, so we wanted something that was flexible too. Furniture that we could move around quickly and easily.

TFP: With such a flexible space, what else would you like to do with it?

YWL: We really like the fact that we have two stories: upstairs is more seating for customers but we’ve also been using it as a gallery, for photo-shoots, and we’ve even had a wedding there. If someone proposes an interesting idea for it, we’re always ready to take it on. Upstairs is also our own studio. We also did a pop-up shop for one of our friends there last month – it was a two day event and we had an amazing turnout.

Innocent Coffee makes the most of what little space they have with a minimalist design sense and flexible furniture.

TFP: With your art background the gallery must be an important focus, how do you go about choosing the artists you feature?

YWL: It’s mostly local. Our first exhibition last year was one of my teachers from school. I told him about the space and we agreed to put together this exhibition. The turnout was insane, there were so many great artists there. Then after that we’ve had some visits from the Culture Crawl so we had a few artists from that. Also friends of customers. Really, we would work with any artist who can fill the space, either professional or students, just as long as they have an idea of what they want to show.

TFP: Do you have a preferred medium?

YWL: Not really, we’ve featured drawing, painting, sculpture, photography. However the artist wants to use the space.

TFP: We asked Revolver this and it worked out really well because it led us to you, so if you’re out in Vancouver for a coffee, where would you go?

YWL: Kafka…[the owners of Kafka have just come into the shop] and I go to Elysian a lot for convenience. It depends on which area of the city I’m in I guess. One thing I like about independent coffee is how it’s so spread out. Kafka on the East-Side, Crema – they have really good food there as well. Momento on 4th Avenue. I also really like to try new shops but then I’m going somewhere just to try the place.

TFP: So at Innocent you make espresso and you use the Hario pourover, what’s your preferred method for brewing when you’re at home?

YWL: The French Press. Sometimes also the stovetop Moka Pot, but mostly the French Press. That’s actually another thing – I like to sometimes try other places based on the methods they use. Momento has a really great syphon.

TFP: Can you tell us a little bit about the pastry selection you’ve got?

YWL: That’s all my brother Jerome, we bake it in house every day.

The brother and sister team behind Innocent Coffee: Jerome and Ya Wei Lin.

TFP: So one last thing, how do you see Innocent moving forward in the next 5-10 years, is there anything specifically you want to do?

YWL: That’s tough – it’s so far off. We really like it here. I think we’d like to keep this. I guess keep trying to branch out into the online component. Some of the subscription bean service. I’d like to integrate blogging and the like into it. Also keep developing the space upstairs. Keep the events happening. Other than that, we just want to keep on doing what we’re doing. We really like it here. A lot of coffee shops are doing these sort of collaborations, Revolver had the book sale, Old Faithful does the Farmer’s Market, that’s something we’d like to get into. We’ll be having another pop-up in November, same sort of thing with the clothes. Maybe have another artist or designer in.

TFP: Looking forward to seeing how it goes, we’ll certainly be back. Thanks so much for having us!

– CK | AP

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