For this article, we sat down with Leo Huang, founder of the ON'AIR Coffee Shops in Shanghai, China. We wanted to hear more about his story and vision when creating what is two of the most beautiful Coffee Shops in the world.
Leo, could you tell us a bit about your background and how you ended up starting a Coffee Shop?
Thank you, Patrik, it’s really great and I am privileged to be here to introduce myself and some ideas behind our cafe.
I grew up in Taipei and London and now living in Shanghai. I am an architect by training, which I studied architecture in Bath, England many many years ago. I have been practicing in Shanghai since 2005 and it has been a very diverse and complex experience. Through the past 12 years of my design career, I was fortunate enough to meet projects that never repeated in either typology, size, and program. Ranging from a super strange office building to historical conservation, or even an elementary school. Each one of them really gave me the opportunity to learn and research into new things every time, it was some great fun.
But how I got into coffee? It was really never an intention to open a coffee shop, at least for me. I never had a dream of owning a coffee shop; however, I did start drinking coffee since I was sixteen. I virtually went through the whole contemporary coffee scene, from instant coffee, Starbucks (the second wave)，making coffee with a single boiler espresso maker at home to Nespresso capsules. Anything along the history, you name it and I’ve been there.
It was really till the end of 2013 that I started seriously researched into details about coffee. Since then it has been a very great journey. At the beginning of 2015, an architect friend of ours consulted me about coffee and wanted to see if there is any interest of starting a coffee shop and really by an accident, that’s how CafeONAIR was started.
Leo: This is by far my favorite photo of CafeONAIR. Our copywriter asked me to take a photo which can represent the contrast of inside and outside, light and dark, green and wood.
I waited the whole day before catching the right angle and for light to come in at the right moment. Funny thing was, it took a whole day to wait for this moment, which taking the photo only took under one minute.Also, I never got another chance to take the same photo again after we started the operation.
What is a good coffee shop for you?
I think a coffee shop wants to be clean, has clarity, transparent, approachable and comfortable in a way no only the furniture itself, but the environment really can give you a sense of community. Just like a cup of good coffee, it needs to communicate exactly the same way. And of course has good baristas to engage with, along with a nice clean cup of coffee. （Have great food would be even better!）
How did the process look like when creating the first shop?
I think I got quite anxious during the planning stage. In the beginning, fortunately, I had help from a good friend, who now owns 15+ coffee shops national wide in China, and he briefly went through the business model calculations and profit margins with me in a quick two hours, just to help me understand what the business is really about.
There was also design, construction, selections of equipment, coffee, type of cups we wanted to use..etc. Basically all the nitty-gritty details, which all coffee shop owners would have gone through in their very first coffee shop. And of course, agonizing over it.
I would say in the beginning I was very worried until the day we opened. But since then we never looked back, only look forward.
Creating CafeONAIR was a completely new journey for me as an architect and we had to be patient building up our team, up till today. We had the very first air-filtration system built-into our space to ensure our indoor air quality is always fresh, clean and healthy, hence the name “ONAIR”
We had an award from Time-out Shanghai for the Best Café in 2015 and we had no idea how we got this, but we were pretty happy about it.
Of course, on the shelf is one of my favorite coffee next to the coffee mugs designed by five architects.
What was the most important feature in your own shop?
The most important feature in our cafe, I would like to use a word called “dichotomy” What this means is the two things that are entirely different, which is the inside and outside of our environment. If you have the opportunity to visit CafeONAIR, the very first comment we would have from our customers is “You are so difficult to find!” and after this comment would be “Wow, this doesn’t feel like in a city center in Shanghai”
We were very lucky, took two years to find the current location we are in. Right in the center of Shanghai but very secluded and unobtrusive. Plus a good scenery that the rest of the coffee shops couldn’t have; therefore, I think we were very lucky.
To find CafeONAIR, you really have to walk into the old lanes in Shanghai, which you would never expect something hidden behind the brick walls. That’s the experiences which we had to create in order to make it special. However, these effects were there only because it’s logical and not trying to “over design” it.
Today there are two ON'AIR shops with a third on the way and we are curious to know more about how different (or similar) the process of creating more shops was from the first?
There are lots of ideas I have when it comes to coffee shop design. Over the years of visiting other shops around the world, that really builds up my database of seeing how a coffee shop works. I am constantly testing how we could increase the conversation between the customers and our baristas. How can we make our process more transparent and make people understand more?
I have a very clear intention that our baristas should not stand behind bars to serve our customers; however, they should stand on the same side with our customers. However, there are lots of details we have to be careful when it comes down to operation. Such as, can we maintain order while having a very busy peak hour? How can we reduce the waiting time? Can the customers have good privacy even in an open environment? Questions like these would allow me to think of scenarios and layouts that would lead to different outcomes.
I think the experience of creating a coffee shop is very similar; however, the outcome can be very different, just like all my design projects. They all have to go through the same process, but you want to make them all has a very distinctive character in the end.
I never wanted to make them the same, even with products. My intention really is wanting to have each coffee shops has their own unique identity and products, but still can have the same DNA that runs through each one of our cafes.
Our bar design can address the incoming customers right away, with a bar seating towards the café. I always say the seats in front of the filter station is the best in the house because when I’m brewing, you can always get some free extra coffee from the tastings we do throughout the day.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I find inspirations from people, places I travel and books I read. I often try to find inspiration from architecture and apply to coffee, and vice versa. I am always interested in new things, things that I am not familiar with. For example, recently I’m into skating and ice hockey because of my son, and this has been a very intriguing start of a journey. I get inspiration from skating in terms of flow and movement and then apply them into my design thoughts.
We wanted to create a uniform space with very simple interior décor. Nothing fancy but down to the earth with a touch of details. Just like in coffee, let the character of the space and surroundings speak for itself. The connection of the garden to the interior is by a slender hardwood counter, which makes the transition more smoothly. Wood furniture gives a bit more “Nordic” feeling to the space as well, as this gives more warmth and depth to the café.
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions and best of luck with your future projects.