Key business takeaways
- Start with “hello.” Good customer service involves paying attention and greeting everyone with kindness, whether they’re a customer or not.
- Consider launching your business with pop-ups. Pop-ups are a great way to test yourself. There’s no overhead, so you have more freedom to experiment and build a customer base without the start-up costs.
- Ask established business owners for help. Whether it’s kitchen space, tips on navigating health inspection, or a future collaboration, it never hurts to ask—your local business community is small but mighty.
The founders of Persimmon Coffee believe coffee can bring people together—after all, they met in a coffee shop. Having experienced the joys of organic connection, Kai Talim, Chaereen Pak, and Sawyer Beckley founded Persimmon Coffee to recreate that magic for others.
“It’s really a story about connection,” Kai said. “Personal connections, for us, are everything, whether it’s a person coming in to buy coffee or business relations. It’s all about how we treat people with empathy and respect.”
Their story is proof of how connections and community can form the foundation of your business. The trio turned their first point of contact—the cafe where they met—into an expansive network of small business owners, regulars, and subscribers to their Friday Coffee Club. Even the lease for Persimmon Coffee’s brick-and-mortar materialized out of the friendships they made in Philadelphia.
The three founders built this network by leading with empathy, sharing knowledge with other business owners, and welcoming everyone who walks in their doors. “The three of us got into this [business] because we care about people,” Kai said. “We care about our customers, but even if you’re not our customer, we get so much out of it personally by treating somebody with respect and kindness and asking about their day.”
Part 1: Kai meets Chaereen and Sawyer
The first crucial connection in Persimmon Coffee’s journey happened—where else?—in a coffee shop. Kai, a concert pianist who’d never had a drop of caffeine in his life, took a job as a barista at Function Coffee Labs in Philadelphia. For the first time, he found himself steeped in the soothing rituals of coffee: steaming milk, pouring espresso shots, and most importantly, greeting guests.
“It was really the act of serving, the hospitality, that stuck with me,” Kai said. “I come from a culture in Japan [that values] hospitality and omotenashi, which is basically the customer service there. The idea is you, as the employee or the server, have to predict what the customer is going to want before they ask for it.”
Warmed by the familiar practice and the positive feedback he received, Kai began to incorporate omotenashi into his work every day. “Customers would come back day after day, and I would know their name, I would know their drink, I would know basically what was happening in their lives,” he said. “And so I started building this connection to these people and the community in Philly.”
That connection was strongest with two people in particular: Chaereen, a designer and coworker at Function, and Sawyer, a seasoned coffee roaster. Daily greetings turned into extended conversations, and the trio bonded over coffee, movies, and a love of community spaces. When the pandemic hit and Function closed in March 2020, their friendship expanded outside the cafe walls.
“I don’t think any of us were thinking of starting a business in the pandemic,” Kai said. “We were just focused on surviving, but then we started seeing little acts of kindness—neighbors getting groceries for each other, us cooking for our friends who are on the medical front lines and dropping off food for them at their doorstep with masks on—there was a sense of connectedness that we really found meaning in.”
Inspired by the resilience around them, Sawyer, Kai, and Chaereen began to imagine a home for their new community. It would be a community space—one that ignites connections and friendships, like the cafe that brought them together. That’s when they started thinking: “What if we open a coffee business of our own?”
Part 2: The founders meet the small business community
Between Sawyer’s roasting skills, Kai’s customer service background, and Chaereen’s artistic vision, Persimmon Coffee blossomed from a pandemic project to a thriving coffee business. They launched in late 2020 with a simple but unique concept: They’d roast one batch of specialty coffee a month and mail it to subscribers on Friday—an offering they called the Friday Coffee Club. This way, subscribers get to enjoy something new every month without having to sift through dozens of options.
Even while selling coffee online, the team preserved that feeling of omotenashi—personalized customer service—in their branding and storytelling. The brand’s color palette and packaging are inspired by Korean and Japanese minimalism, while Persimmon’s social media presence seeks to connect others and tell the story of their Korean and Japanese cultures.
At the center of their story is the business’s namesake, the persimmon, a sweet autumn fruit that speaks to the founders’ background. “The persimmon (柿, 감) is a delightfully sweet fruit with deep Asian roots. However, it’s a fruit that’s often overlooked in North America and sometimes mistaken for others that look similar,” Chaereen wrote on Instagram. “Persimmons embody who we are and the story we want to tell: We are not only a brand, but also a community and space that welcomes you just as you are.”
Turning that mission into a full-blown business was a complicated process, but Kai, Sawyer, and Chaereen didn’t have to do it alone. Early on, they tapped into their personal and professional networks for help. Established leaders in the small business community encouraged them to expand the business to in-person service, offering mentorship, advice, and even physical space: The sidewalk in front of This Corner—where all three founders go for haircuts—became the site of Persimmon Coffee’s first-ever pop-up.
Kai said: “What we started doing is saying ‘hi’ to every single person that walked by. It didn’t matter whether they said hello back. It didn’t matter whether they kept walking or ignored us. We just wanted them to know that we saw them—that they were being seen.”
With the Persimmon touch, any street corner could transform into a bustling hub for community and connection. “We started gaining regulars, even though we didn’t have a space to call our own,” Kai said. “Every time we would do these pop-ups, the same people would show up, and we would catch up and talk about their lives, our lives, how it was going. And that just started gaining more and more traction.”
Their fans weren’t just coffee lovers, however—they were also fellow entrepreneurs. As more small business owners started reaching out to Persimmon to collaborate, the team started thinking strategically about partnerships. Soon, they were serving coffee outside a large roster of local businesses, including the plant shop Stump, ice cream shops Lil’ Pop Shop and Weckerly’s Ice Cream, and Thai restaurant Kalaya, owned by James Beard Award-winning chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon. Check out Persimmon’s full list of collaborators in their Yelp Collection.
By starting with pop-ups, the trio was able to hone their menu, expand their reach, and build a community before they ever opened a brick-and-mortar. Better yet, Kai said the collaboration was mutually beneficial: “It was a way for us to extend our reach and meet and create more and more regulars, but it was also a way for the businesses that we were partnering with to experiment in ways that they might not have been able to by themselves because they don’t have an espresso machine or the coffee knowledge.”
Andrew Satinsky, owner of Weckerly’s Ice Cream, loved partnering with Persimmon so much he encouraged them to become neighbors. When the space next door to his ice cream shop became available, Andrew recommended the trio to his landlord. One look at the natural light pouring through the windows, and the team was sold: Persimmon Coffee had found its home.
Part 3: Philadelphia meets Persimmon Coffee
Connections brought Persimmon Coffee to life. The next step was building a space that could create those connections for others. As the team’s creative director, Chaereen modeled Persimmon after coffee stands in Tokyo and Seoul, which utilize natural light to create beautiful atmospheres within tight spaces. It’s the kind of place you could stop by for a quick drink or linger chatting with the barista for hours.
Like so much of Persimmon’s story, the renovation process was a community effort: John Geating and Gina Kim, the owners of Leeward Furniture, pitched in to create Persimmon’s coffee bar and bench seating, while a team of contractors gutted the place and installed new flooring, plumbing, electrical, and lighting. “They were super patient with the three of us who, you know, we’re all in our twenties and we’ve never built anything physical—not even a wooden table,” Kai said.
Meanwhile, Kai sought the help of his mentors in the Philadelphia business community to navigate another learning curve: the health inspection process. The owners of Jiggy Coffee, Forin Cafe, and Thank You Thank You compared notes and answered all his questions, providing invaluable advice.
“They were really open about what they did to fulfill the city’s needs—in many ways, because when they were doing it, they didn’t have those kinds of resources that they could tap into,” Kai said. As advice to other young entrepreneurs, he added: “There’s no guide on how to do these things, so you have to build those relationships with the people in your industry.”
In just four months, with a budget of $25,000, the team transformed the space into the airy, welcoming cafe of Chaereen’s dreams. When Persimmon opened its doors in March 2022—nearly two years after planting the seed in Function Coffee Labs—the trio welcomed many of their original supporters and mentors to their launch party. “Thank you for graciously allowing us to take up space inside and in front of your own shops over the past year. Because you believed in us, we were able to make our own footprint in beloved Philly,” they wrote on Instagram.
Now that Persimmon is established, Kai hopes to pay that kindness forward by mentoring other entrepreneurs and uplifting LBGTQ people and people of color in Philadelphia. The Persimmon team nurtures that sense of community both in person and online—whether they’re celebrating Japanese and Korean flavors on the menu, posting Korean film recommendations on social media, or sharing insights from their own lives.
“[Chaereen and I] think a lot about how our Asian American identity is unique, in that the idea of belonging to a place is difficult to understand for ourselves and to convey in words,” Kai said. “We’ve always been perceived as the other. And so that’s why inclusivity is so important to us, because that is a point of connection for our customers.”
Last fall, the team debuted a new drink called The Foolish Tiger, inspired by a Korean folktale, in which a tiger mistakes a tiny, dried persimmon for a fearsome opponent. While the founders of Persimmon Coffee haven’t fought off a tiger, they have proven that the humble fruit is more powerful—and sweeter—than anyone might imagine. This particular victory tastes like espresso with persimmon and ginger syrup.
Photos from Persimmon Coffee
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