Interview: Hapa Coffee
Hawaii to Manhattan By Way of Ohio: Meet the Man Behind Hapa Coffee
By Melissa Slaughter
It’s amazing what you can find exploring the streets of New York City. For example: when I was walking through downtown with my fellow staff members, Alex and Matt. It was a particularly balmy October afternoon at the Lower East Side Pickle Fest when smack dab between a Pickle Dog and a Kimchi table was a discreet coffee pop-up: Hapa Coffee. Never did we think we’d stumble upon such a find! Though the pop-up is done (for now), we wanted to showcase this small Hapa business owner Kenji Hurlburt.
How did you get started in the coffee business?
Kenji Hurlburt: It was always my dream to have a “cafe on the seaside” since I was a little kid, but it wasn’t until a few years ago when I realized I had to make specific strides to get there. I was living in the quaint town of Kaimuki, working as a cook in downtown Honolulu at the time. The coffee shop I went to every morning before I went to work had an incredibly talented and knowledgeable team of baristas. They were so hospitable and just wonderful people in general, full of the “aloha spirit.” Their passion in their craft inspired me to take my next steps from the world of cooking into the world of coffee.
Why did you chose the name Hapa Coffee?
KH: I chose the name “Hapa Coffee” because I’m a Hapa! For a long time, I didn’t pay my heritage much mind, until one of my Hawaiian friends (who was also a Hapa) took such pride in being one. In the end, I noticed that my Japanese-American heritage makes up a lot of who I am, and that I too should be prideful of that fact. What better way to show it than on the sign of my coffee shop!
Which coffee’s roasters do you carry?
KH: I try to cycle through multiple roasters that are relatively unknown over here on the east coast to keep things interesting. I primarily used Olympia Coffee Roasters last time, but also had Big Island Coffee Roasters and Supercrown Coffee Roasters available. They were all fantastic.
You’ve got a distinctly Hawaiian aesthetique. What is your Hawaiian connection?
KH: I was not born or raised in Hawaii. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and then moved after high school to pursue the Culinary Arts. I have been living in New York City for 12 years. That being said, I lived in Hawaii for a few years here and there (on Oahu and Lana’i) and those were some of the most influential and transformative years of my life. It is a place that lives and breathes Aloha- a love for the land and for each other; a selflessness that transcends general hospitality and bleeds over into just doing good for one another. It has given so much to me- the least I can do is bring some of those good vibes here.
How did you decide what to serve, in terms of coffee roasters, and pastries?
KH: During my time in Hawaii, I was blown away by the delicious pastries and food over there and wondered why in NYC no one tried to make them? It was the same question I asked myself when tasting these incredible roasters on the west coast- I wanted to make them accessible to the people here, even if it was in the form of a tiny pop-up.
What are your favorite coffee drinks?
KH: The cappuccino. It has the perfect ratio of milk, microfoam, and espresso- and oftentimes, a good show of a barista’s skill.
When you had your pop-up, what were people's’ reactions to Hapa Coffee?
KH: One of my favorite reactions to my pop-up was, “Are you Hawaiian?” to which I'd laugh and explain my story. People from Hawaii tend to be very passionate in their love for the island, and even though I’m not from there, I still have a unique adoration for those islands that’s reflected in Hapa Coffee. I think that’s what people see and try to express when they come into my shop.
What do you hope to for the future of Hapa Coffee?
KH: Right now, I successfully completed the first pop-up for Hapa Coffee in the LES, and I’m looking for other potential spots both here and outside the City. I’m slowly checking off these boxes for achieving my dream- being a good cook, a good barista, a good business operator. I’m hoping the next iteration of Hapa Coffee will continue to push me to be better at all these things, while hopefully getting me a little closer to a seaside.
Melissa Slaughter has lived in all four time zones in the contiguous United States. A former actor in Seattle, WA, Melissa now resides in NYC as a content creator. She is the producer of the We're Not All Ninjas podcast, which she also hosts with fellow Hapa Mag writer, Alex Chester. Melissa also writes for online blogs Nerdophiles and On Stage Blog. Find her @NotAllNinjasPod.