Pushing aside half-deflated balloons and empty sake bottles, Timothy “TK” Yamada clears his workspace to pour himself a coffee.
Last night was the 10-year-anniversary celebration of BoxJelly – an artist-friendly coworking space that aims to cultivate a “community of creative minds and supportive people.” The event drew large crowds hungry to party post-pandemic and had Yamada upside down in his coffee shop doing keg stands.
Although BoxJelly has been around for a decade, its new location in the rapidly expanding neighborhood of Ward Village is less than a year old. When it opened in January 2021 Rechung Fujihira, owner of BoxJelly, chose Yamada to open The Coffee Shop at BoxJelly as a focal point in the space. Two weeks later, Yamada, who is born and raised on O’ahu, jokingly came up with the name TRY Coffee, combining Hawaiian Pidgin with Yamada’s silly sense of humor. The name stuck and is now synonymous with playful discovery.
Yamada began his career as a busser at Honolulu Coffee when he was 17-years-old. In 2008 he assisted his mentor Raymond Suiter in building Kona Coffee Purveyors. It was here that Yamada learned how to roast and grade coffee and helped some of the most prominent coffee shops in Honolulu create their espresso programs.
“Some of the things that we’ve been able to accomplish, there’s no way I think either one of us would be capable of without each other,” Yamada said.
After 10 rigorous years with Suiter, Yamada moved on to work as a barista for Brue Bar and helped Raymond Suiter’s brother, Sam Suiter, develop the roasting program at Kai Coffee for its new flagship shop inside the ‘Alohilani Waikīkī Beach Resort.
Helping people find success in the coffee industry is important to Yamada. When Fujihira began looking for someone to run the coffee shop in his new Ward Village location, Yamada stepped in to help him find the perfect partner, which he did, but in a twist of events – namely one big one called COVID-19 – Fujihiraʻs prospect pulled out last minute and Yamada, who would have happily stayed on with Kai Coffee, stepped in to fill the role himself.
If customers are looking for a quick cup of coffee-to-go, this is not the place. TRY Coffee is a place to pause, learn and laugh. Yamada, a quiet introvert outside of work, comes alive when he is behind the counter, unable to restrain his quick-witted sense of humor or vast knowledge of coffee with anyone showing interest.
“I end up talking to customers, more than serving customers,” Yamada admits. “Luckily I have a lot of great customers, so the whole experience is a lot less of a rush and more of like, “oh yeah, we’re here to have coffee here, not take it to-go.“
Yamada encourages everyone to slow down and embrace the idea of a true coffee break. He creates little activities for BoxJelly members to engage in, such as putting up a “doodle board,” or a “wish tree” or offering riddles for them to ponder. Anything to encourage them to take a moment to unplug. The week before the anniversary party he asked everyone to think about what they have done in the past 10 years and what they will do in the next 10 years.
“It’s hard having coffee at your workplace,” Yamada said. “You don’t have that kind of escape from work where you walk away, run away.”
In addition to serving a good time, Yamada slides in little touches here and there that elevate his offerings from some other coffee shops, such as serving shots of sparkling water alongside his perfectly dialed shots of espresso.
For someone who says he is trying to create the least serious coffee shop, Yamada is serious about coffee. He uses six different brewing methods depending on the type of coffee and how it is roasted. For a light roast Ecuadorian blend, he may use an Aeropress or Chemex. Whereas for a semi-washed Ethiopian blend he will choose a pour-over method with an Origami Dripper.
Yamada prefers to carry beans from smaller roasters, so he is not serving what other people on the island already have. Whatever looks fun or unique to try is what he carries, which currently means beans from Counter Culture Coffee and Looking Homeward Coffee – not local to Hawai’i, but still single-origin and responsibly produced.
“There are some flavor characteristics that you have to get from other parts of the world,” he explained.
He stays loyal to Hawai’i too, knowing that they offer their own special flavor profiles.
“Big Island coffees have, like, this unique silky smoothness to them, especially at really nice farms,” he said. “And they are experimenting with a lot more processes, so we are getting some really fun coffees out of the farms here.”
Beyond specialty beans and brewing methods, one of the most interesting drinks to try is the Baristaʻs Choice. A gamble that may introduce you to something as simple as a cup of black coffee or as odd as an espresso spiked, iced matcha, blended with local spirulina that Yamada calls the “Fern Gully.”
Experimenting is part of the fun. Yamada is constantly tinkering with ingredients he finds interesting or that customers bring in, such as adding activated charcoal, naturally flavored local syrups, medicinal blends of spices and dried mushrooms or superfood coconut creamers to lattes, or combining Mexican chamoy with POG – a drink created in Hawaiʻi made of passion fruit, orange and guava. Heʻs working on a drink right now he calls “Mikeʻs Soft Lemonade” – a combination of cold brew coffee and lemonade, recommended by his friend Mike.
From the start, Yamada’s dreams of building a community have aligned with Fujihira’s mission.
“Coffee is a communal drink,” Yamada said. “Great on your own, but a lot more fun hanging out with someone.”
Together they have created an environment comfortable for everyone. Remote workers and coffee patrons are drawn to the lanai (patio) brimming with monsteras, palms and ferns, offering a view of the urban city landscape with a connection to nature.
“You have some people that like having a meal … out in nature and some people that, you know, like something a little more polished and cleaner,” he said. “I think we’re getting pretty close to finding that balance.”
Guests of TRY Coffee should be mindful that although they are free to enjoy the lanai, they are still in a coworking space where people pay to use the same tables. Come have a coffee and hang out, but if you want to work for the day there is a day pass you can purchase for that.
When asked about future goals, Yamada shared his plan to build a roasting room this summer. By sourcing green beans and roasting his own blends he will have more control over his flavor profiles, which he believes will further differentiate TRY Coffee from other local shops similarly steeped in coffee culture. For someone who has learned just about everything in the coffee supply chain from planting trees and harvesting beans to shipping, delivering and brewing, roasting remains his true passion.
“It’s fun, I miss it,” he said. “I miss the loud noise, I miss the smell, the green buying, trying coffees from 40 different farms just to find that one flavor profile you want.”
Will you find something special at Yamada’s coffee shop on O’ahu? It is definitely worth a try.
TRY Coffee 6:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 1200 Ala Moana Blvd. Honolulu, Hawaiʻi 96814, trycoffeehi.square.site