Shawn Chun worked at a coffee shop for minimum wage, then worked for an independent cart operator and then had the opportunity to buy the business. He borrowed money from his parents and had it all paid back after a year.


Brewing small successes in a
corporate coffeehouse world

Despite a java giant's tentacle-like reach into the suburbs, there are small, independent operators who flourish.

Shawn Chun, 29, owns and operates the Gotta Java Espresso, Bubble Bubble & Juice Boost kiosk at Market City Shopping Center. Now the president of Shawn Gotta Java Inc., there was a day not long ago when he just worked there.

Two years ago, Chun was one of three employees working for the three partners who owned the coffee cart, known then as R.G. Biv's Espresso. The other two employees work for him now.

Chun was a full-time Kapiolani Community College student considering a major in English literature, but when the partners decided to disband, they offered to sell it to the part-time barrista.

Why him?

"I guess they saw my interaction with the customers and saw how I enjoyed my work," he said.

Being a full-time student and working part-time for minimum wage generally doesn't load a body up with venture capital.

In comes dad, Lorin Chun, a financial planner with E A Buck Co. Inc.

"They originally wanted $18,000 for the thing," he said. "It's a used cart with used equipment. All he would be paying for is the space and the name." He sent his son back for more negotiating, which brought down the price to below $15,000.

Lorin fronted his son the money with a stern admonishment that he'd have to pay him back.

"He paid it back in a year. It was completely amazing. I didn't really expect to see that money back again," Lorin laughed. "I thought he forgot all about it, but being Chinese you never forget about money, yeah?"

It was dedication, drive and hard work that paid off, literally, Shawn said.

"When I first took over I worked 14-hour shifts for like a year, nonstop in order to recoup that money. I owed him that," he said.

Shawn would wake up at 5 a.m., open up the shop and turn on the espresso machine that required an hour to warm up. At 7:30 p.m., Chun would head to Costco to pick up supplies for the next day, then go home and sleep until it was time to repeat the cycle. The kiosk's hours are from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Shawn added to his offerings, including bubble teas and blended juices and doubled sales from the $150 per-day take that came in when he started.

The cart was challenging to set up and close up, a task too difficult for some part-timers. With books borrowed from the state library, Dad pitched in again, consulting on turning the cart into an easier to operate kiosk.

The reconfiguration means he no longer has to be there at oh-dark-thirty for opening, or after dinner for closing.

"I think I've earned that," he said.

Ubiquitous Starbucks Coffee shops are full of customers who once swore they'd never set foot inside the corporate coffee houses that replaced their favorite neighborhood haunts.

"They're about volume," he said, not wanting to say anything negative about the behemoth of black brew.

Chun's focus is different, as are his prices.

The most expensive item is a Choco-Freeze, a 16-ounce coffee and chocolate frozen drink for $3.50. It is his biggest seller, while Thai coffee with condensed milk is the hottest hot drink.

He knows each customer by name, and when he sees them away from the kiosk he can greet them by what they order, "Hey, triple ice mocha, no whip!"

So how does it feel to be the small-business backbone of Hawaii's economy?

"I'm very proud that I can operate a small business in Hawaii," Shawn said.

"I'm grateful that I'm able to survive so far," he said, but realize that "I can only make so much money at a location. Even if I opened four or five I still have to manage them, hire staff and pay rent on locations."

That inspired him to find another revenue-generator. "I really want to introduce a product that is a direct reflection of me."

It's in development and is his focus right now. As for 10 years down the line, "I want to be happy," Shawn said.

Returning to college is also part of the plan. "There's always more to learn. You can never learn enough."

Music to his dad's ears.

When Shawn had the opportunity to buy the business, Lorin realized, "maybe college is not for everybody. You've got to let your kids go," he said.

"That's all you can do, yeah? Encourage them and support them."

And be proud of them.


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