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Hello, and welcome to The Thoughtful Realtor podcast. I'm Connie Chung.
I am Cliff Tsang.
And I am Kenny Gong, and we are the founders and partners of Willowmar Real Estate.
This is a real estate podcast where we get real personal.
Every episode, we sit down for insights, stories, and conversations about all things real estate, running a real estate team here in California, and how we find our way as leaders and business partners.
And today we're talking about something that we have been brainstorming and dreaming up of for some time, which is to open up a cafe.
So exciting. This is a fun one, as our listeners will get to hear our insights and get into our thought processes as business owners, creatives, and entrepreneurs.
Let's dive in. So, let's start with the first question I'm sure on everyone's mind: why a cafe?
Why a cafe … Connie, do you want to start?
So many questions. One—aside from just personally loving cafes—a big …
Do you need more reasons?
Yeah. What else? You know, we're fueled by coffee. I think a huge reason is so much of what we do, and is rooted in our work, is making things accessible. And what I love about cafes and coffee is that it's the smallest price point for a luxury item, which makes it so accessible, and it allows people to really engage in something indulgent. At least, that's how I see buying a cup of coffee. It's not cheap, that's for sure these days, but it is a really nice indulgence that I like to treat myself to, you know, once a week because that definitely can add up.
But even more than that is I have my go-to neighborhood coffee shop, and there's something so special about seeing some of the same people who work there, some of the same people who frequent the coffee shop, and it's just kind of the foundation to a neighborhood. And as realtors, as business owners, our role is really building communities and serving as stewards to our neighbors, to folks within the community.
Yeah, you know, and also, I feel like we should have said this in the beginning, but this is very much in the beginning stages. I think we need to just preface this, which we didn't, which we did in the intro. But …
There's no lease signed.
There's no lease signed. This is truly us as founders and partners, dreaming and envisioning and brainstorming. I think that's important to say because we wanted to let folks in on something that we're just in the beginning processes of. I, and I think that that's an exciting place to be, an exciting venture to bring people into.
And to just put it out there.
To put it out there.
Then we got to really commit.
We've got to commit. And yeah, I think that there's so much power in putting things out into the universe and seeing how things unfold. And this is something we're just bringing people in on.
So Kenny, why a cafe for you?
So for me, I think that cafes are some of my favorite places in the world. Whenever I go to a new country, whenever I go to a new city when I'm traveling, it is oftentimes the very first place that I will seek out. And the reason why I seek it out: one, is because it speaks to place. It speaks to people. It speaks to a neighborhood. It says so much about a community.
And it says so much about who is in the community. It says so much about what the community values in many ways. And that there's so much of a spectrum of, you know, the cafe culture. It can look so different depending on the place and the people. And that's what I love.
You know, Connie had referenced this before. It is a place to gather, right? And it is a place where people gather, and I love the idea of being able to provide that for the places, for the communities and the neighborhoods that we serve as real estate professionals. To be able to create a place where people can gather: where the community can gather, where clients can gather. It's a way for us to show up. It's a way for us to invest in the communities that we serve. And to not just be real estate agents practicing in a market, but to be builders of neighborhoods. And to create a place where people can gather is us directly expressing the value that we bring as real estate professionals, which is building neighborhoods and serving communities.
I love that. Yeah, I think for me, I'm not as into cafe culture, but I'm learning a lot about it because Mee-Sun really, really loves cafe culture. But what you said there resonates with me, Kenny, because I think, a cafe—I think oftentimes people find it almost like their home away from home.
It's their place for—they can rest and recharge. Even on Mee-Sun’s days off, she might go to a cafe, or it's also the same place when she has to do work, she'll go to as well. So, I think it can be a very universal experience for people. And I think, yeah, why do we need to define Willowmar in this box of buying and selling real estate only?
It's another way of—through real estate—building our communities and empowering people and all of that stuff that really is so true to our company's ethos and culture—through another avenue. Yeah, I think it'll be a really, really fun journey.
I think it's a service more than handing someone a warm cup of coffee and seeing a smile on their face.
You know what I just thought about? It is oftentimes the very first place that people go in their day because it gives them energy. It gives them community. It sets the tone.
It sets the tone! I just thought of that.
It's a foundational piece of your day.
Yeah. And to be able to provide that in a way that also is an extension of how we as Willowmar Real Estate think about service. That is really exciting, you know? What do you think of that? Does that resonate?
That is great. Yeah, I didn't think about that, yeah.
So what could a Willowmar cafe look like on opening day? Dreaming big and knowing this is very much a brainstorm and with nothing set in stone.
Connie, start us off.
Gosh. Well, as Kenny shared, I—at least Kenny and I are—really big … and Mee-Sun, Cliff's wife, we're big on cafe culture. So, I have so many favorite cafes, and have in this process have certainly been pulling favorite kind of features of each cafe that I love in particular. But in thinking through what would Willowmar’s cafe look like … Because I have so many favorites: styles that I like, and aesthetics and feelings, but overall, I would love it to feel spacious and welcoming in a very refined, luxurious way. In the sense that people will want to gravitate towards it but very accessible where they'll feel comfortable in the space and like they belong, because I think …
What are some cafes around the world that come to mind?
Oh, well, The Mill in San Francisco is one of my favorites. It's bright, airy—the smell of bread, coffee, and all the pastries. And it's rooted in the NOPA neighborhood of San Francisco where it's on Divisadero. There's sometimes a line at the door and you see familiar faces and that's one of my favorite cafes. I love Two Kids Coffee in south Pasadena because the staff—they are probably what brings me back. They are so friendly with service, and it's minimal in the sense that they're not trying to show off anything but provide a really beautiful luxury good, being coffee.
And the craft of, you know, it takes fifteen minutes to get your cup of coffee there.
Is it individual portion and pour over?
Yeah, it's an interesting thing because the first time I went, I was like, why am I waiting fifteen minutes for a cup of coffee? But I also, first and foremost, didn't mind waiting because the service was already some of the best that I've ever experienced at a cafe upon arrival. I felt that service, and so I was already kind of primed to be okay waiting. But then, when I received that cup of coffee, it truly felt like the best crafted coffee, right? There was such a dedication to the craft of making this, you know, to what Connie just mentioned, the most accessible point of entry into luxury, right? I actually felt it really, really in that experience at Two Kids.
Yeah, and I love Two Kids, but I don't even think their coffee is all that great. But the craft of how they deliver it is just …
Oh my gosh.
I feel so well taken care of.
They make eye contact with you, and they're using their two hands to pass off the coffee with the lid on its napkin. It's the experience.
That folded napkin! They fold the napkin in front of you.
Are these the owners serving you? Or is it employees?
No, it's staff.
I've seen one of the owners there, but yeah, they have staff who are all so great. It's so consistent. And talk about service; they really nailed down the service and the experience of what I aspire our Willowmar cafe to be like.
You know, what I just thought about too, is: because it's also tied to what you had mentioned, which is an accessible luxury, right? Like coffee being, you know, you have to pay a lot for something, but relatively, it's not too expensive. For many people, it is the most consistent luxury service experience. Right? I experience it a few times a week and that's probably not as much as many other people, but I think that is also part of this: delivering that service.
Yeah, I always aspired to be a regular at a coffee shop where they know my name and order.
For someone who's learning more about cafe culture—and I'm sure it’s varied opinions—but I'm curious what your thoughts are on the quality of coffee. In your experience, how important is that usually? Obviously, it needs to be a pretty good cup, but it's gotta be the top, top for you to have a good experience there, or is it more the vibe, the energy there that's more important to you? How would you think about that?
The drinks can all vary and sometimes, yeah, some drinks will be better than others at a cafe. But for me, it really is the vibe and the experience that keeps me returning because I do love trying new coffee shops and cafes and experiencing that and ordering something new. But what gets me going back is definitely the vibe.
Yeah. The experience. Yeah, because I actually don't know enough about coffee to have a discerning palate, but I can certainly have a discerning palate when it comes to experience. And actually, yeah, there's places that I will go to just because of the ambiance, and at least have the experience.
Do you have some favorites you'd like to share?
My gosh, so many. Well, my go-to is in Berkeley. Shout out to Cafe Réveille, bright space, huge windows, food, not just drink—really good food—and that's an inspiration that I have for what Willowmar could look like. Just this beautiful space that people feel inspired by.
I'm inspired to go there just because I want to be in a place that gives my head enough freedom and space, right? If you are in a space that is bright and open, it allows your mind to also be bright and open. So, that's what I aspire for Willowmar.
That's such a great way to put it, too. Because yes, so many people go to cafes to work and to create. And to think of a space that you get to be that place for all sorts of creation to come out of or conversations or relationships. It's a really cool real estate to hold in that way.
So, Cliff though: now that you're hearing some of these things, what comes to mind when you think about what could the opening day of the Willowmare Cafe look like?
Ooh. The thoughts that come to mind for me, we've talked about location, it being in San Marino, and I grew up in that area, so I kind of know it well enough. But off of Huntington or one of those areas, I think we've talked a little bit. It's not going to necessarily have to be a really big spot in terms of square footage, I think it's just more of the vibe that we're going for. And I just see it, yeah, very light, bright. Lots of natural light coming through. Something also too about the—I’m imagining the smell.
On that block there's no other cafe, so the door is open and coffee smell is permeating. And it's drawing some people in.
Are there places that you and Mee-Sun have gone to, and maybe also not just in the US, but in other countries that have …
Actually, yeah, when we traveled in Japan, I feel like coffee culture is really, really fun in Japan, and that the craft of coffee really comes out there. Just how focused they are when they make your cup of coffee. And then, in Berkeley, we like Hidden Cafe.
As you two were describing your cafe experiences that resonate, I was like, Hidden Cafe is very interesting because there's just one table there in the middle, and it's crammed. There's like eight seats and people are just smooshed in there, but they will stay there for a long time, and they have a good strawberry milk on the menu. So that's what I always get.
That's also really interesting. When I think about what are the things that a Willowmar cafe could offer drink-wise and food-wise that is different because I don’t know any other place that has a strawberry milk, except maybe some boba shops. But a cafe that has strawberry milk, that’s pretty rare.
Ooh, that's a good signature drink. Oh yeah. Signature drink, menu items.
I think it'd be cool for us to just kind of dream a little bit too. We've kind of laid the foundation of what it would look like at launch, but what are your thoughts in terms of what this cafe could look like in ten years?
What does this look like? And this is just us dreaming, putting it out there.
Yeah, following into the lines of it being a foundation for the community, a gathering place, I could foresee it, especially if it's this big, bright, airy space; really being an event space where we host community events, guest speakers, even client dinners, or different types of Willowmar events where we do food tasting, wine tasting, all sorts of things that just bring people in and create that sense of community that is so craved today.
Mm, I love that.
That's cool. A vision of a different space came into mind because at first—
I know, totally. I mean—
A small cafe in mind. No, no. This is so good because that's maybe the original location, right? And if you have other spots, it was like a bigger … I mean, I keep thinking about The Mill, but it's a much bigger spot.
We could acquire the neighboring spot, we could upgrade to a bigger location. So much can happen in ten years. There could be a few outposts. Who knows?
Cliff, what else comes to mind?
Oh, yeah, yeah, I was thinking that there'd be a few. In my head, the vision was pretty much any place that we have will transact real estate. We'd also have some sort of Willowmar cafe as a hub, not only for the community, but also for all the stuff that you spoke about: community, to bring our folks together too and have work space for all that. I think it's just fascinating.
You shared the idea before that I love where our clients get to come in and get a free cup of coffee. I think that is so nothing like, “Oh, I'm part of the Willmore family. I'm here to redeem my free cup of coffee.”
One free cup per week.
I have always loved having a space big enough to host client events. I think it'd be amazing to be able to say, as a closing gift: instead of hosting your housewarming party in your new home where it might not be furnished and you might be a little bit—you might not want all of your friends to come in, come have it at the Willowmar cafe.
We’ll cater it and and bring your friends together to celebrate this amazing, wonderful milestone for you. I think that could be really, really cool. Yeah.
Definitely, and you know, part of that client experience too, and also how a lot of coffee shops have their store or their swag because we gift our clients so many different types of home good products that we love and have vetted—even to have our cafe include our Willowmar store that not just our clients get these goods, but our daily coffee customers or cafe customers actually get to partake and purchase some of these items that we love and—
That's really cool.
Are big advocates of, especially because so many of the goods that we source for our clients are made from local folks and mom and pop shops and local makers; that to continue furthering other businesses is so core to how we run our business.
I can see an-award winning coffee company,
Roasting our own beans. You know, I've really been interested in the development of Chamberlain coffee. Do you all know …?
No, is that a brand?
It is. So Emma Chamberlain is a YouTuber—incredibly popular YouTuber. She's probably in her early 20s and now has her own coffee company called Chamberlain Coffee. It's at Target. It's at Walmart. I think so. It's pretty big brands. But I think that what's been exciting to see is how people have turned their passions into being able to create these consumer product brands that have a really big impact. And I love that. I mean, that could be really cool to just say, like, this is an extension of what we do, right?
We have cafes. Of course, you need coffee for your cafes, or maybe it's a tea company. Maybe it's a tea company. I don't know. I think that there's just really cool things that could spin off from having a cafe.
Oh, totally, and you said roast our own beans, I already had the names and flavors.
Ohh, what came to mind?
I don't know. Something about like a hazy, foggy morning.
Foggy morning. Foggy morning blend.
I had assumed that the coffee roasting was already part of this, but that's for a new—
Café person. I didn't realize. That makes sense. Newer cafe: I don't think you roast your beans yet, but further down the road, you have that option too.
It depends on … I feel like there's a spectrum of what people do, but that would be really cool.
Yeah, in ten years, I just love the idea of having a stake hold in these communities where our cafes are located and really knowing the people in the community; being that destination point for someone to start their day at; or even end their day where they get together with people, new friends, old friends.
Wine bar. Oh yeah.
Wine bar or something that provides that ambience, but at night time.
Are there places like that?
Not locally that we know of. Not yet, but certainly around the world.
Ohh, interesting. Yeah.
Taking inspiration from around the world.
That makes a lot of sense. It's not used at night.
It's not used at night. Exactly.
That's so fun to brainstorm. We got some new ideas out of this episode and so we're curious to hear from you. What do you love about cafes, to our listeners? And if you have a favorite one.
And do you have any tips or want to be part of the Willowmar cafe? Let us know. You can find us at Willowmar.com or Instagram at @willomar__, and reach out to us directly.
Yes. And if you haven't already, please hit that subscribe button and leave us a review. We read each one of your reviews and always, always, always appreciate when you share the love. And so until next time …
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