The Appeal of Café Culture

The Louisa chain of coffee shops has become one of the most popular brands. Photo: Katia Chen

Entrepreneurs in Taiwan are redefining the term ‘café’ in the era of social media.

With the proliferation of cafés in Taiwan in recent years, proprietors have been looking for ways to make their shops stand out from the rest.

Besides offering single-origin coffee, more and more cafés are dedicating space to displaying premium, handcrafted goods for sale. Many are going beyond the cutesy style of animal-themed cafés that might be deemed the “made for Instagram” business model, and instead are offering a tasteful environment that is also uniquely Taiwanese.

One of the many Taipei neighborhoods to find such trendy shops is the area around the Liuzhangli MRT Station. Customers appreciate the minimally stylish furnishings and cutlery used at the Taimo Café, as well as the fashionable stationery and patterned hats sold at the Beatnik Café.

Down the street from the Beatnik is a café whose name (有意樹杆咖啡) is a clever homonym for “artistic feel” in Chinese. Thanks to her father’s investment, 23-year-old Yang Xin-hua owns and manages ArTree Café with a staff of five employees. While previously working at a restaurant, Yang decided she wanted to open her own café, and proceeded to spend a year as a Starbucks barista to gain the experience she needed to make it on her own.

Yang’s entrepreneurial pursuit follows the findings of a 2018 survey by the online 1111 Job Bank. The results showed that more than 76% of job seekers in Taiwan under 40 years old are either interested in running their own businesses or are already doing so, with nearly 91% of them interested in the food industry.

Ho Chi-sheng, vice president of 1111 Job Bank, said in the press release that the fear of failure and debt motivate most first-time entrepreneurs to choose pursuits with a low threshold, high success rate, and simple operations management.

Still, 66.7% of those surveyed who are already in business (just 4.46%) said the most challenging aspect included attracting enough customers, perhaps pointing to an oversaturated market for food and beverage.

Since opening her café in September 2015, Yang makes her own cakes, quiches, and other foods. Customers – most of whom come to read or work in the quiet, modest space – can enjoy them with one of the many coffee, milk, and tea options on the menu.

A musician who graduated from the renowned Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University, Yang plans to use the café basement as a venue for small concerts in the near future. She disagrees with the trend of “doing it for the ’gram,” a slang phrase commonly used for those who take photos for the purpose of sharing them on Instagram, the photo app bought by Facebook in 2012 for US$1 billion that is now worth an estimated US$100 billion.

The Instagram-oriented model depends on customers posting enticing photos of the dining selections, other merchandise for sale at the shop, and the ambience. The menus immediately give it away – invariably a choice of various versions of Taiwanese-style pasta, risotto, and pizza.

With 60% of the entrepreneurs surveyed by 1111 Job Bank reporting that they are failing to turn a profit, one can hardly blame the copy-cats for seeking to bank on what seems to be a successful formula.

Kathy Cheng, a Taipei-based writer and design consultant, says Taiwanese likely are comfortable with risotto and pasta, as they are “essentially rice and noodles” and fit local preferences for “cooked, savory food over things [such as] salads or other raw dishes.”

“The prevalence of this type of menu reflects the culture in Taiwan where businesses copy a successful pioneer quite closely, assuming that’s what diners are expecting,” says Cheng, who writes the culture-and-design blog Tricky Taipei and works as a communications consultant with Taiwanese companies looking to reach global audiences.

In the end, these formulaic menus are likely to fail to satisfy the Western-food cravings among both locals and visitors. “The hype inevitably dies down once the lines outside disappear, and the café tribe has already checked in and taken their selfies,” Cheng said by email. “Can the business survive on its own without the help of social media influencers? Do diners come back to actually eat the food and not just take photos of it?”

In a market that seems desperately saturated with oft-disappointing, cookie-cutter coffee shops and cafés, hope may come from risotto-less cafés such as Habu Juice on AnHe Road. With its striking white walls and minimalistic modern design, at first glance Habu Juice looks like a place designed for social media. But that impression is soon dispelled when the food and drinks arrive.

On my first visit, I had a most satisfying smoked salmon with cream cheese baguette sandwich, which I paired with a fresh avocado, banana, and bok choy smoothie. The baguette sandwiches, cold-pressed juices, and smoothies contributed to a relieved sense of having found the “genuine” Western food I love. Still, the higher prices and special menu ultimately create a barrier for those used to seeing pasta and risotto.

Owners Chen Yu-he and He Yu-qi note by email that while the size of the clientele is inevitably “limited by the acceptance of this style of food, as time goes on we see more regular customers.”

Taiwan is hardly the only place where “foreign food” commonly undergoes serious local tweaks, as local cuisine naturally tends to be the most reliable in terms of quality and acceptance. While people may not come to Taiwan for Western food, more and more locals choose to splurge at these establishments with their families and coworkers.

Frequently they are coming for the atmosphere rather than the food, Cheng says.  “If you think about Chinese restaurants, they have round tables, they’re noisy, the decor typically isn’t very inviting, [and] the lighting is too bright,” she says. “It might be that a generation of young diners equates Western-style dining with socializing, and Chinese-style dining with family gatherings or celebrations.”

That may be why many cafés stress the photogenic factor over the consistency and quality of the food.

“Something as simple as interesting wallpaper can bring in new customers and a wave of social media attention,” Cheng says. “But as soon as the next hot place opens up, the attention moves on. I imagine it’s hard to keep up when businesses rely on the coolness factor to bring in diners.”

Ministry of Finance data shows that 15,882 restaurants and hotels opened in 2016, but 10,657 also closed in the same year.

The social media-oriented model is a “smart way” to attract an initial customer base, says 26-year-old Leslie Liu, a so-called Instagram influencer whose @taipeifoodie account boasts more than 105,000 followers. Since creating the account in 2014, Liu now receives an average of five sponsorship invitations per week, with one food-related photo potentially earning anywhere between NT$1,000 and NT$7,000. Fashion influencers, she says, may earn much more.

In recent years, more and more brands across industries recognize the value of social media influencers like Liu – also known as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) in China – to help build their audiences.

Taipei-born entrepreneur Charles Hu has taken to social media to show off aesthetically pleasing cafés and dishes, but soon plans to create his own chain of fast-casual cafés, akin to Taiwan’s Louisa Coffee and Cama Café. He does not regard cafés designed for Instagram as sustainable business models.

Having grown up in Vancouver and studied graphic and web design, Hu says he would rather invest in developing a strong global brand that customers, no matter where in the world they find themselves, can recognize and feel comfortable frequenting.