| South Korea

“We’ve long admired the South Korean market” – Intelligentsia CEO, James McLaughlin

After nearly 30 years in business, influential US specialty coffee roaster and café group Intelligentsia Coffee has opened its first international store in South Korea. CEO James McLaughlin speaks to World Coffee Portal about the appeal of Seoul’s historic Seochon district and why the time is right for the pioneering brand to go global

Intelligentsia Coffee’s Seochon coffee bar (left) and CEO James McLaughlin (right) | Photo credits: Intelligentsia Coffee

Intelligentsia has opened its first international store after nearly 30 years in business – why now?

We have been experimenting with innovative coffee preparation and hospitality in our US coffee bars, including expansive brew-to-order programmes and manual lever espresso service. We felt the time was right to take this elevated concept abroad and into markets that share our appreciation for the culinary potential in coffee and already have a strong passion for our brand.

Why did you choose South Korea for your overseas debut?

We believe the South Korean specialty coffee market is rapidly growing in all the right areas, with a strong focus on quality, consistency and inspired forms of hospitality. We are excited and encouraged to see the positive reception of our ready-to-drink (RTD) offerings and a ferocious appetite for our rarest coffees.

We’ve long admired the South Korean market and began selling Intelligentsia products there in earnest in 2016. Intelligentsia’s bagged coffee and bottled beverages have appeared in high-end cafés, tech offices, and most recently on the Kurly Marketplace. 

We’ve also been regular participants in the annual Korean specialty coffee show. Over this time, we’ve formed strong partnerships in Seoul and a growing fan base of Korean customers who value our commitment to transparent sourcing practices, a relentless commitment to quality, and our legacy in the specialty coffee industry.

This work paved the way for our Seochon coffee bar. Korea has a blossoming specialty coffee community with a strong appetite for the premium details in coffee that we obsess over each day. We are continually impressed by the passion for coffee presentation, expertise and packaging in hospitality. We feel that our brand and its values will feel right at home in Korea’s like-minded coffee-loving communities.

Natural wood and stone elements blend nature with modern design inside Intelligentsia’s Seochon coffee bar | Photo credit: Intelligentsia Coffee

What was your approach to launching in Seoul?

We have very strong long-term partners in Seoul. This made the process seamless and similar to how we’ve opened other coffee bars, such as our recent Illumination Bar in Pasadena, California, which serves as our testing ground for coffee and hospitality innovations. The most important part of opening Intelligentsia’s first coffee bar abroad was ensuring we could find a space that is unique, timeless and complements the local surroundings. Each coffee bar at Intelligentsia is designed to be different – no two are the same. We do not have a prescribed design template – instead, we are intentional about using design to celebrate the neighbourhood where the coffee bar is located.

This means a ground-up approach to interior design, menu offerings, merchandising and training. These steps in the process are opportunities to try new things and show up in unique ways while being true to what makes us Intelligentsia.

“Our brand and its values will feel right at home in Korea’s like-minded coffee loving communities”

Seochon is a historic neighbourhood and we were charmed by its character, distinctive architecture and authenticity. The space we selected is a traditional and historic building that we meticulously restored and renovated. Careful attention was paid to highlighting the natural elements of the building while modernising the interior to accommodate a bustling coffee bar crowd. A large glass roof hovers over the bar to highlight the coffee and the craft of the baristas, while natural wood and stone elements bring nature into the space. The space still feels like it has been there for a century but with all the modern touches of a state-of-the-art specialty coffee bar.

How has the Intelligentsia brand translated for its first internationally based audience?

At Intelligentsia, we believe coffee is a culinary experience. This perspective shapes everything we do, and in our coffee bars maintaining this integrity comes down to thoughtful training, knowledge sharing, understanding of local markets, and most importantly – a strong local team. We believe the coffee bar team in Korea thoroughly understands our brand, what makes Intelligentsia unique, and shares in our commitment to showcasing the culinary potential of coffee.

We are continuing to explore opportunities in Korea as we believe there are a lot of exciting possibilities for where we can showcase our coffees. 

This article was first published in Issue 19 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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