Heart of the House: Hyunji Kim, Joe the Art of Coffee

Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures of the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In Heart of the House, Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.


[Photograph: Helen Zhang]

Right after reading Michael Neff's post on barbacks, I facepalmed myself for not yet interviewing a barback for this column. After all, I ended my bartending career not long ago, and know better than anyone that on a Friday night when three out of five kegs are kicked, a good barback is, as commenter Shayrose put it, "worth his weight in gold."

I found Hyunji Kim, a coffee shop barback who works equally as hard at a similar job: making sure dishes are clean, pushing out drinks during rushes, keeping milk stations looking beautiful, and giving invaluable support to her baristas. She left a corporate job at a Big Four accounting firm to follow her very specific dream of working at Joe, accepting not only a salary decrease, but the inevitability that she'd have to start at the bottom rung of the coffee shop ladder as a barback.

She must have been good at her job; at the time of this interview, she had already been promoted to a barista-in-training position. We talked to her about working in New York's coffee world over (what else?) a cup of joe.

What's your exact role right now at Joe? I'm what you would call a BIT, which stands for a barista-in-training. It's the period where you learn everything you need to know in order to be a barista, so you're interacting with customers at the register, getting drip and iced coffee for them, and taking a lot of classes. There are a lot of educational opportunities at Joe, and you're actually required to take one class per month. They take your education very seriously. Eventually it leads to learning how to properly pull espresso and steam milk.

What does your typical day look like? I typically open the store, so I'll be at the register the whole time in the morning, and it'll be busy from the second we open until the second I leave. I'll come in at 5:45 and set up the pastry case, get ice, make sure the register is counted and ready to go. And then I'll be ringing up transactions for the next however many hours.

What initially interested you in coffee, and how did you get started? When I was younger, I don't know where it came from, but I got the impression that I wanted to work in a coffee shop. I grew up in Texas, and they don't have mom and pop coffee shops in my hometown. So when I got to college I thought to myself, OK I'm gonna get a part time job while I'm in school. So I worked at Starbucks for 4 years and worked my way up to being a shift supervisor towards the end.

Thumbnail image for Joe the Art of Coffee

What happened after you finished school? I started working in the hotel industry as an Operations Administrator. I decided to move to New York because I interned here and really loved it. I took a couple of months off and actually got a job at a Big Four accounting firm doing Hoteling and Hospitality Services, which is not related to the hotel industry at all, by the way. I worked there for a year and I had that moment of "What am I doing?" I asked myself, "What is it that I really love, and want to do with my life?" and I just remembered being really happy in a coffee shop. When I was living and working here, I had gone to many places where they just served really good coffee, of which my favorite was Joe. So I just figured I would send my resume in and see what happened.

I guess things went well. Yeah, I got an e-mail from the manager at the Grand Central location asking if I wanted to be a barback. And initially, I was hesitant—I knew I came with a little more education and experience than most people in that position. But I thought, if I really want to do this and I'm passionate about it and I want to work for Joe and this my way in, then OK. I asked Amy, the manager, how long you're typically a barback before you're considered for the next step? And she said a couple of months. So sure enough, within a couple of months, she told me she'd like to start the next phase of training for me.

What is it about Joe that attracted you so much it made you quit your job to work there? At Joe, every drink is going to be good every time. Not to say that Starbucks does a bad job training, but Joe's main focus is really good coffee—otherwise what's the point? That's what I love about Joe; it aligns with my own values of high quality and excellence in everything. It's what I strive for. The first time I had a drink at Joe, I was like "Dang! This is so good!" And I would go back again and again and every time it was that good.


[Photograph: Joe the Art of Coffee]

What do you think it is about coffee and coffee culture that has New Yorkers hooked? Personally, I really love coffee shops because you're ordering a great beverage. Secondly, it's a great environment—it's a place you can go to meet with a friend and chat. It's a great first date kind of place, a very no-pressure kind of environment. And coffee shops wake people up in the morning. For me, it's just about interacting with the people.

What's your future in the coffee universe? Since I've been at Joe, I've learned that there's a greater coffee world out there than I thought. There's also an organization called World Coffee Events that holds coffee festivals every year, with latte art competitions and barista competitions. Until recently, I didn't know those events existed. I don't know what the future will hold, but I do know is that I'm really passionate about that little bean. I can't say that I regret leaving corporate America to pursue this. But more people should pursue what they're really passionate about, because their quality of life would just be so much better. I can't live spending the majority of the time of my life doing something that I don't enjoy.