Wonjei Hwang

A Management Grad Brewing Success in the Coffee Industry

How ICE alum Wonjei Hwang used his management education to revive one coffee business and start another.

When Wonjei Hwang (Management, ‘16) came to the United States from Seoul, South Korea in 2002, he had no entrepreneurial or hospitality aspirations. Nearly two decades and a diploma later he owns a cafe and an award-winning roastery.

Wonjei first moved to the U.S. to earn his undergraduate degree in computer science from Indiana State University. While completing his studies, he worked a part-time job as a barista to make extra money. “Every college kid did their homework at the coffee shop, so it was kind of fun,” he remembers.

When Wonjei began to tire of his post-grad role as a computer engineer, he recalled those fond memories and started to toy with the idea of opening a coffee shop of his own. He relocated to New York in 2010 and took classes in real estate and insurance before he finally chose to go for it.

“When I got to Flushing, Queens, the coffee scene was kind of behind,” he recollects. “I thought there was an opportunity to bring better coffee to the area.” To fill that empty space, Wonjei debuted Cafe De Cupping in 2012, offering Intelligentsia Coffee to the local caffeine-hungry community.

Immediately, operating a small business was a challenge and specialty coffee was a relatively new trend. “At first, I was having a hard time because I was serving better quality coffee and charging more than other nearby shops,” he explains. “Some customers were welcoming, but other customers were pretty upset about the prices.”

Eventually, Wonjei developed a loyal base of customers willing to pay for the delicious drinks. Still, he found himself struggling to make business decisions managing a coffee shop and lacking the necessary hospitality knowledge. “My gut was telling me to go a certain way, and I decided to go to ICE.”

In the Restaurant & Culinary Management program, Wonjei learned how to project numbers, target certain types of customers, and choose the specific coffee market he wanted to pursue. He gained the background he needed to fully understand the scope of the industry and how to succeed in it.

After graduating in 2016, Wonjei attended a specialty coffee show to taste a variety of brews and learn more. When he visited the Peru booth, the government ended up inviting him to travel to the country to sample and grade coffee. During his trip, Wonjei met roasters from around the world who were impressed by his palate and encouraged him to roast his own coffee. He was also introduced to Peruvian coffee bean farmers who needed to sell their beans to survive. The combination of these exchanges inspired Wonjei to become more serious about coffee and open his own roastery.

In 2017, Wonjei found a Brooklyn warehouse and established Spare Moment Coffee Roasters. This time, he had the appropriate skills to plan and launch a company. “ICE taught me all the standards I needed to know to make decisions,” he says. “I still remember everything.”

In terms of learning to roast coffee beans, though, Wonjei taught himself. He watched countless YouTube videos and read a handful of books on the subject. With his seasoned palate, he was able to train himself to craft complex flavors.

Once he had mastered roasting coffee, which he serves at Cafe De Cupping and sells to wholesale clients, Wonjei turned his focus to cold brew. “Before, I didn’t like cold brew, but I decided I should try to make a cold brew that I would like,” he reasons.

Wonjei created a cold brew that satisfied him and his customers, so he entered the America’s Best Cold Brew Competition at the 2019 Coffee Fest New York to gauge where his blend stood against others and see how much he needed to improve. To his surprise, he won the contest. “When they called my company as first place, I was really shocked because I didn’t enter to win, I entered to learn,” he says.

In 2020, Wonjei qualified for the U.S. Cold Brew Championships, but the competition was canceled due to COVID-19. The pandemic restrictions have caused Wonjei to lose significant business at both the cafe and roastery, but the future is looking brighter. He’s already seen an uptick since the early lockdowns and has signed on new wholesale accounts. With management training, his business model is sustainable.

Develop your business plan while studying fundamentals with experts in Restaurant & Culinary Management at ICE.

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