It’s an early drizzly morning as I walk into Café on the Ave in Seattle’s University District. The place is bustling with students – too many for my eyes to focus on that they all instantly become a blur in the background.
I’m here to meet Yoonki Kim, a veteran barista, who I’ve met and befriended over the course of a year. I find him sitting quietly, having his mid-morning lunch – which is something you do when you start your day at 5 am.
A tall, slender Korean young man with soft eyes, Yoonki has the presence of a wise philosopher nearly three times his age. Though I have always found him to be quiet, he is receptive and his words are thoughtful, all traits that may have equipped him while fielding the pressures of making national news headlines back in his native Korea only weeks ago.
I circle around a group of students and pull up a chair. Despite the clatter of dishes, an unyielding coffee grinder, and a concert of voices in the background, we sit next to each other offering our quiet salutations.
Though he hasn’t been to any of the barista competitions, Yoonki or “Yoon” as some of friends call him, may be one of the best baristas in Seattle. Not only is his coffee beautiful, but so is his notion of customer service.
“What’s the most challenging thing about being a barista?” I ask him.
“The hardest thing…” he says as he takes a moment to gather his thoughts. “The challenge is employees have a tendency not to look at the things from the owner’s perspective. I try to put myself in the owner’s shoes. That’s the most challenging.”
His boss, an agreeable café owner whose name is Song, calls Yoon an excellent barista with a great story. The last few years, Yoon has delivered handsome, consistently made coffee in my hands – a skill he picked up at his first job in downtown Seattle.
“Yoon is like a happy virus,” Song says. “That effects other employees.”
Yoon has been a Seattle-based Barista since 2007, where he started serving coffee at Espresso Caffé Dior at the Washington State Convention Center. There, he says, he learned how make coffee with love.
“With what?” I ask, tilting my ear towards him against a noisy background. He smiles and repeat, “With love.”
He tells me that his first boss impressed upon him that each cup of coffee needed to be special – made with love – and he continues doing that everyday.
“The owner of Caffé Dior didn’t want to hire me at first,” Yoon recalls fondly. The reason: He had no experience and was just out of high school. But with a little persistence on Yoon’s part, he eventually did hire him and took Yoon under his wing.
“There I learned each drink you make has to be the best espresso in the world. I want to be consistent and show the customers I care. I make each drink like it was for my beloveds, my parents,” he tells me earnestly and starts to put his lunch away.
It had been a long time since I heard someone refer to their parents as beloveds. It makes me sit back in my chair, smile, and think about the quality person I'm in front of.
Yoon is a quite young man, slightly reserved, but has a natural presence about him that makes him instantly likeable. Even during the course of interviewing, he seems to actually spend more time listening, than talking.
“I take this job seriously. Every day I make my heart soft for the customer. Before I begin each day I take time to meditate, to pray that I will be a good worker… and that affects how I work,” he adds.
While working at Espresso Caffé Dior, he began moonlighting at Café on the Ave in 2008 – which had an unruly reputation in the 1990s – but has since become a coffee hub in the U-district, serving locally based Caffe Vita Beans.
Yoon would work two barista jobs simultaneously to pay for college expenses. It would eventually pay off as he graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 2011, with degree in Christian Education. Yoon is also a dedicated youth pastor in a Seattle-area church.
I want to jump in and ask about his recent and personal life-changing experience – one that he has waited for his entire life and that would now define how he proceeds forward.
Instead, I stick with the topic of coffee. And so, I ask him, “Do you remember your first cup of coffee?”
“Yes. It was mixed coffee…instant. It cost the equivalent of 30 cents in Korea,” he says.
Coming to the United States
“Yoon” grew up with his paternal grandmother, who always made him iced-coffee with lots of sugar. “I have a sweet tooth,” he says quietly as a smile grows across his face.
Yoon left South Korea at the age of ten, where he and his father and grandmother came to Seattle. He left behind a life in poverty and more importantly for Yoon, his biological mother. Yoon’s parents were separated when he was two years old – an age that made it difficult to hold on to any memories of her face, her voice, or her touch.
Korea was a difficult place to grow up, he says. He recalls being very poor, living in a one bedroom apartment where his family was sustaining itself on only a couple dollars a day.
When Yoon’s family came to the United States the challenges were just beginning. Trying to learn English, assimilate into American culture, earning a living, making new friends, and starting a new life in the U.S. was no doubt difficult.
Like many before him, the transition to the United States was filled with challenges: Not knowing English was just the start of his life-long immersion. “Adjusting to the cultural differences and moving around helped me adapt,” he says of his early days in the United States.
Yet, as the years passed, not only did Yoon develop his English skills, make friends, and graduate from college, he also developed a strong faith in God.
Still, despite his successes, one thing had always left him feeling incomplete – he didn’t know who is mother was. And the time had come to change that.
“I didn’t have any memories of my mother… I missed her,” he said.
So, after completing high school, graduating from college, and coming to understand what his calling in life would be, he wanted to set out and find his mother. After some prayer and deep thought, he quietly got an airplane and flew to Korea without a real plan and without any expectations.
Taking a Leap of Faith
The day before he left, he had finally told a couple of his friends what he was about to do. They were emotionally moved by his impending journey and tried thinking about ways to help. While his plane was in the air, they posted a video on YouTube about his story – and it instantly went viral in Korea. Within hours the video has over 50,000 hits. The Korean media picked up on the story and helped him find his mother.
Within days of his arrival to Korea, after 21 years of separation, Yoon and his mother would finally embrace.
“What was going through your mind… what was the first thing you thought about when you saw your mother for the first time?” I asked.
“I thought she was beautiful…she was beautiful… I was just so happy and thanked God. I missed her for so long. I didn’t expect anything when I arrived, but I got to spend a week with her. It was the best week of my life.The more I talked to her, the more I learned about myself,” he said.
The days quickly passed in Korea and Yoon had to return back to the United States in February. Since his return, Yoon and his mother Skype and text every day and are slowly growing their budding relationship.
Back Home in America
Yoon is back at Cafe on the Ave making great coffee Monday through Friday.
“You taste and serve some of the best coffee in the world, did you share a cup of coffee with your mom?” I asked him.
“Yes, we shared a cup of instant coffee,” he said. “And it was the best coffee of my life. It was heaven on earth.”
Yoon is hopeful, not bitter, about his years apart from his mother. He tells me that all of these challenges – learning a new language, learning a new culture, and being apart from his mother for so long – have made him a stronger, wiser person.
“This all makes me a better barista, after I came back from Korea, my heart has been joyful, and that translates to how I make my coffee, how I talk and interact with customers.”
Cafe on the Ave
4201 University Way NE Seattle, WA 98105