Aromas, with its Picasso-like red-and-gold logo, at first appears to be another in a long line of hip, new coffee bars from America, poised to take its place among other heavyweight “contenders” in the ongoing race to unseat Starbucks.
That would be partially true, except in this case, there are no corporations, franchises or big bucks to help stare down the competition. Everything, including the Soho loftlike ceilings and the menu’s retro graphics came from one young man with some hot ideas — and a great sense of smell.
Mitsuteru Kubokawa, 29, is a quiet type who doesn’t come across as someone who’s planning to build an empire. Then again, the young Bill Gates didn’t look like much of a threat, either.
After we settle in over some iced lattes and homemade brownies, it quickly becomes clear that Kubokawa is a man with a very grand plan. Kubokawa, who recently became a father for the first time, explains that a stint as a manager at an Italian eatery convinced him to open up his own restaurant.
However, the bewildering regulations of obtaining a liquor license dulled his enthusiasm.
But not for long. After visiting a friend in Hawaii who owned a coffee shop the beans started jumping. Instead of returning to Japan, Kubokawa worked at his friend’s shop, staying long enough to learn all he needed to know to come back and start pouring his own skillful roast.
In Tokyo, a real estate agent recommended a vacant two-story building on Shinjuku-dori, just a one-minute walk from Shinjuku Gyoenmae Station. With the sort of visibility and foot traffic this busy boulevard provided, the location was ideal and Kubokawa decided to take the plunge.
Following his own blueprints, he and a carpenter friend transformed the former tachigui soba stand into two distinct spaces. The “American-style” first floor, which opens onto the street, boasts a sleek, dark counter with an equally long bulletin board so one can nurse a Java and check out the daily specials and current events around town.
The more subdued “European-style” second floor has eggshell-white walls adorned with interesting photographs, including a giant poster no kissaten should be without. Titled “Roast Art,” the poster depicts wavy lines of coffee beans, resembling a Zen sand garden, each line delineated for the layperson as follows: light, cinnamon, medium, high, city, full city and French. (Anyone who can successfully explain the difference between “city” and “full city” wins a hot Java and a Danish, courtesy of yours truly.)
Kubokawa, who opened Aromas in 1998, envisioned a low-maintenance, self-service hangout with great coffee (which Aromas has in abundance) — including espresso con panna and its own special roast, Caffe Aromas. Like many kissaten owners, Kubokawa uses Kona beans, but, he says with a wink, “It’s a special blend from a secret connection!”
Also, as any successful salesman will tell you, “Ya gotta have a gimmick.” In Kubokawa’s case, his “variation coffees” are the magic elixirs that draw in the crowds (which run the gamut from daytime OLs to nighttime “Ni-chome” habitues). Instead of just the flavored coffees served by those “other” shops, the genki staff at Aromas will, for an extra 50 yen, enhance your Java with liqueur shots ranging from Cointreau to Grand Marnier. Aromas also offers frozen vanilla, strawberry and banana coffees, as well as a selection of teas and soft drinks.
Of course, a truly modern coffee shop cannot rely on beans alone. Hence, you will find plenty of homemade pastries, the now de rigueur bagels, and a rare find in Tokyo: pastrami sandwiches, made fresh on the premises.
For a man with only one shop Kubokawa is not wasting any time. He is already selling Aromas cups, Aromas T-shirts and Aromas house-blend coffee.
And why not? He says, confidently, “I’m planning to open 40 to 50 more Aromas in the Tokyo area in the near future.”
It’s hard to argue with that kind of enthusiasm. As I leave, loaded down with cups, brownies and a bag of Aromas original iced-coffee blend, all I need is a sandwich board to notify passersby that good times can be had by all at Aromas — coming to a neighborhood near you any time soon!