“Good Coffee Shouldn’t Be A Secret To Hide Away, It Should Be Something To Share”
For the past year, a very different kind of coffee joint has been brewing in Hong Kong, and it goes by the name of Rabbithole Coffee and Roaster, founded by highly caffeinated pioneer Mike Fung. After catching the coffee bug and leaving his job in media advertising, Fung ventured to Australia, working in cafés, only to return to Hong Kong to open his very own single-sourced, freshly roasted and slow-brewed coffee company. Along with Patrick Tam and Frances Lam’s Knockbox Coffee Company, Espresso Alchemy, and Barista Jam, Rabbithole is one of a new breed of serious coffee spots that have cropped up in Hong Kong over the last five years. Serving an exacting and often well-traveled clientele, these roasters and baristas are a driving force in the city’s move away from instant coffee and towards specialty brews — using high-quality, fresh beans of approved provenance, prepared and served to precise standards.
Hoping to dig deeper into Mike Fung’s coffee obsession, Jing Daily recently spoke with the Rabbithole founder about his company, the challenges of introducing a traditionally tea-drinking city to good coffee, and the burgeoning food and beverage revolution that he and others are starting in Hong Kong.
Jing Daily (JD): Rabbithole offers a very different kind of coffee than what is commonly consumed in Hong Kong. How has the response been to your venture and your coffee?
Mike Fung (M): At the beginning, we were taking a risk offering something completely different from the rest of Hong Kong. We had a lot of people asking a lot of questions, let me put it that way. But now, people are starting to like it quite a lot — no more syrup, no more loading it up with sugar, actually tasting the coffee. Also, it’s not just Hong Kong [locals], we have many expats — a lot of Europeans, a lot of Australians and Kiwis — giving us a lot of support. We’re located on the upper level, not on the ground floor, so people actually have to come up and find us. We thought that we weren’t going to get that many people coming by, but we’re actually packed on the weekends and pretty much all the time.
So I think people like this new style of coffee. What we offer is not just an espresso, but more of a whole coffee experience. What we showcase is third-wave coffee — hand-brewing, slow-brewing, drip coffee, and so on. We try to offer as much coffee variety as we can. Our shop is not exactly a café, we’re a coffee roasting company, so we’ve gone from attracting people who come here to try the coffee, look at the machines, learn about the product, and receive some training to — because of the coffee and word of mouth — people actively spreading the word. With a bit of media power as well, a lot of people are coming in. So it’s a surprise for us, the number of people coming to try new things.
JD: What role do you see Rabbithole playing in terms of changing consumer tastes and coffee appreciation?
M: We’re a place for people to share coffee. We roast it fresh in Hong Kong. We want to promote the idea that coffee shouldn’t be old, it should be really fresh when you consume it. A lot of times when people go to a café, they just order it and sit at the table. We don’t do that. When people come in, we try to explain what they are drinking, what are the components, what beans they’re choosing, and how it tastes. We explain a lot so they have an idea of all these things. In Hong Kong, maybe not so much in the US, but Hong Kong is still stuck in the past — in most people’s minds, coffee is just coffee. But no one ever explained to them what coffee should taste like. So we try to educate them using this platform to show them what it should taste like, and really open their minds about coffee.
JD: In your opinion, why do you think slow-brewed, artisanal coffee isn’t as popular as instant coffee in Hong Kong? Is it just about convenience? Do you see it growing in popularity in the near future?
M: Instant coffee basically means they want it fast. They want the caffeine to chuck in their mouth. That’s what they ultimately want. Slow-brewed coffee means, in other words, we take it slow. We actually want to get the flavor out of the beans, not just the caffeine. It takes a little bit of skill, but a lot of people can have easy access to the right equipment. Yet a lot of them — because they’re not using fresh coffee and don’t know how to do it — often say, “How come I slow-brew coffee and it still sucks?” It’s just because they haven’t been properly shown how to do it.
What Rabbithole does is share the experience with them. We don’t mind telling them the recipe, because they can definitely do it at home. We’re not saying it’s rocket science. It takes some practice, but you can definitely do it at home as long as you have delicious coffee. We’re talking about very precise things, like coffee grind size, how to brew the coffee, what temperature water to use to make a better cup of coffee. We’re no longer talking about instant coffee.
When people first start drinking slow-brewed coffee, the first thing that often hits them is the character of the beans. A lot of African beans or South American beans taste very fruity or acidic. First, they need to break through that acidic taste. The first time, they don’t like it. Then, the second or third time, they say, “Oh, wow” — there’s a lot of things going on in the beans, and they slowly start to enjoy it. A lot of people, like myself, will start with a mocha because it has chocolate in it. Then, we’ll move to a latté, then to a lower quantity of milk, then move to espresso. But, then even after an espresso, we think it’s too bold. There’s just too much going on. So we make it even simpler. Then we’ll do a slow-brew. Simple, break it down. Then we’ll just enjoy it like you would wine or whiskey. I don’t expect people who love their lattés to start hating them and pick up slow-brew instantly. They can’t really do that. It takes time to change.
JD: Rabbithole seems very social and interactive with the community and other vendors. What kind of relationships is Rabbithole trying to build, and how are you building them?
M: Well, at the beginning, the idea for Rabbithole was to be a place where people can share. What we have is literally one communal table, surrounded by all the coffee machines and tools. So when we’re doing a slow brew, we’re doing it right in front of customers. We try to explain how it works, and they can ask questions like, “Why are you doing that? What temperature are you using? How come you do this?” We’re not saying that it’s the only way to do it — there are a thousand ways to do it. But at least we open up the conversation among the customers. Because of the small communal table, they start to talk to each other, and they start to talk about coffee. This is exactly what I want. They are educating and sharing with each other. Coffee should be something fun. A lot of coffee people or baristas are quite cocky. I don’t like that at all. Good coffee shouldn’t be a secret to hide away, it should be something to share.
JD: What role does social media play in your outreach?
M: Social media plays a huge part in our company. Since we’re small, we don’t have the money to go on TV or in magazines. And, seriously, those kinds of ads won’t work. Coffee is a lifestyle thing. Peer sharing or word-of-mouth is more powerful than paid advertising. That’s why we don’t do paid advertising at all.
At the beginning, we just want to do our coffee right, get our basics right. When people start enjoying it, they’ll start socializing and then we’ll use Twitter or Facebook to share what we know. We share how we make the coffee and news about coffee. We actually talk to people around the world — from London, from Australia, from the US. Of course, we’re still mostly based in Hong Kong, but that’s how the conversation starts. I don’t think we have done enough yet in social media, but it definitely has the potential to help us build our brand and our product. Although a lot of people live in Hong Kong, those who actually drink coffee are part of a pretty small crowd. We do want to share to everyone so they can pass it along to others on Facebook or Twitter — these are definitely key tools for us.
JD: How have outdoor events like Island East Markets helped your brand-building?
M: We haven’t participated in Island East Markets yet. Janice [Leung, Island East Markets co-organizer] did talk to me about it earlier, but we were a bit too late. But next time we’d love to join in. What Island East Markets is doing is brilliant because they bring the freshest produce and small businesses together in one place, under one roof. We’d love to be there because we’re doing the same thing with coffee. We think this is a good opportunity to get close to people who enjoy the same thing, who speak the same language, who appreciate food and coffee.
It’s fantastic because Hong Kong doesn’t have a Sunday market like New York or Australia. The local farmer community is behind, in terms of social media or communication. They do their own thing well, they do their farming well, but they don’t have a place to channel their efforts. They don’t know about Sunday markets. Of course, Hong Kong is a small place, so how can you get a Sunday market going? In New York, you can use a park, but in Hong Kong even if you use a park, the local government will ask you, “What the hell are you doing?” Which is why Janice is so important to this food revolution. She knows and understands social media and knows how to connect people and gather them under one roof. This is really important to the community, not only to the farmers, but to end users like me.
JD: How has your experience with opening Rabbithole changed your life?
M: It has changed my life completely. I used to be an office worker in media. I’d been doing media advertising for five or six years. Because of coffee, I quit my job, went back to Australia, and worked in a café. I came back and started something that I really like, not just another café, but something different. We’re focused on the coffee itself — from where it comes from, to how we roast it, to how we prepare it, and how we brew it. It’s exactly the way we want to share with people.
The best thing is, people actually like it a lot — it’s not just me. This is a time when I can get to know a lot of people like Janice. These are the people who are driving it. For Rabbithole, it really changed my life. Although I have to look at emails and paperwork, at the end of the day, this is something I really love.