Bringing a Sense of Community One Cup at a Time: An Interview with Cafe Owner Sonny Han

“A great job has to have a start and end,” says Sonny Han, thirty-eight year old co-owner of Espresso Joe’s café in Keyport, New Jersey, “and, at the end, you feel that you’ve accomplished something and made a difference.”

For Sonny, growing up in Brooklyn, New York was the perfect setting for getting a sense of true community and learning to appreciate its benefits—something essential for a small business owner in his field.

“It was fun because the neighborhood we lived in was somewhat diverse,” he recalls. “Everyone knew each other’s faces. We may not have known names, but knew where everyone lived.”

Though Sonny always enjoyed the effects of bringing people together and being part of a close-knit crowd, he found himself as a young man working in a very different field during and after his college education at Temple University—one that didn’t fulfill his need to unite people.

“My first professional job was in sales while attending college,” says Sonny. “After graduating I landed another sales position with a financial brokerage on Wall Street. For several years, I stayed in the financial sector… I found it quite stressful and very cutthroat.”

In similar fashion to Sonny’s experience, many recent college graduates find themselves uncertain about the path they’ve chosen. Sometimes formal education is unable to provide an accurate depiction of what life will be like outside of the classroom. Fortunately, many of these same people have found success and fulfillment by turning inward to discover what they truly want. In hindsight, Sonny has been able to put things into perspective and offer advice to other professionals who may be thinking about switching careers.

“Don’t be afraid to fail,” he says. “It’s okay to take risks in life. Take that chance, as long as it’s well thought out.”

Tuning out the external pressures many of us can fall prey to is one way to let organic ideas and new opportunities emerge naturally.

“After a year or so of trying to find myself,” remembers Sonny, “I talked with a childhood friend and we decided to open up a coffee shop…  Some said it was suicidal to compete with Starbucks, but in a world filled with a single nationally-known brand of coffee shop, there are always people looking for something different, something off the beaten path.”

To give their new business the respect it deserved, Sonny and his partner needed to find the right name—one that would be fitting with their vision.

“We came up with all sorts of names,” he remembers. “It must have taken us about a week to decide on a good one that my partner and I could both agree on.”

Finally, Espresso Joe’s was born. The catchy name was chosen partly for its fitting meaning; Sonny thought that their main selling point would be espresso drinks, like cappuccinos and lattes, and partly to honor its regular Joe customer. With a location at the center of Keyport and a sweeping view of the Raritan Bay, Sonny’s café has become a cozy hub for locals who like to spend time discussing the weather, news, politics, and other interesting topics in a welcoming setting. Others are able to satisfy their love of music by attending or performing in “The Keyport Twilight Concert Series” a recurring outdoor event sponsored by the cafe.

“The performers benefit because they enjoy listening to other acts in their genre,” says Sonny. “This has also encouraged a lot of networking among musicians followed by some great musical collaborations.”

In addition to giving back to the community, Sonny uses these opportunities to help his business gain recognition in other towns.

“In these tough economic times,” says Sonny, “business owners need to look at other avenues that can help their business. [It is important to] continue to think of ideas instead of going through the motions of daily business. Take out what isn’t working and think of something that might enhance and help grow your business.”

Fortunately, for Keyport residents and people who live on the Jersey shore, Espresso Joe’s truly is a business created by someone with more than money in mind.

“I want everyone who comes into my shop leaving with a smile and feeling the need to come back again,” says Sonny. “When that happens, I know I have done my job well… I don’t see myself as a franchisee or opening a chain of coffee shops, but rather enjoying what I have. My outlook continually transforms.”

For more posts and related articles by Sara Kosmyna.

What is your job, and what are some of the reasons you went into your line of work? 

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2 Comments

  1. Posted September 29, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I go to Espresso Joe’s a lot. I am a Vegan and he has both vegetarian and vegan food choices on his menu. Espresso Joe’s also has a wide variety of beverages to choose from. I also play guitar at the open mic nights in his cafe. The people who work and attend the musical events at Espresso Joe’s are the best people and friends I have met anywhere in my travels. I would recommend Espresso Joe’s to anyone looking for a local coffee shop or a place to express themselves musically. It’s a wonderful place to be.

  2. Monica
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    I’m a resident in Keyport and I love that we have such a nice coffee shop in town. They have great coffee and other food items on their menu. I also love the Twilight Concerts overlooking the beautiful waterfront. Hope that this coffee shop is here for many years and I look forward to more outdoor concerts in the future.

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