Magazine YOOHEE No.20 "Earth Us"
Earth Us asks customers to bring their own reusable containers and cups for takeaway.
Although the store policy has become a part of fun element for customers that they are posting pictures of their own containers, the café faced numerous challenges in keeping up with it. The owner Gil Hyeonhee talks about the on-going journey to sustainability, which has seen its start from the café that serves delicious menu in its cozy atmosphere.
Chapter 1. Love Earth, Love Us
Please tell us about Earth Us, and the store policy called, “Troublesome Takeaway”
Earth Us is a strange café where wrapping is not available for takeout menus. I admit that for most of cafés that keep stocks of packages for food wrapping to ensure convenience for customers, it could sound like a nonsense to make packaging “fussy.” But we have casually come up with the idea of “fussy to-go packaging” to communicate with our customers about our store policy with humor.
The name, Earth Us seems to have messages in it.
The name is from phrases, “for earth, for us” and “love earth, love us.” We have sought to deliver a message for our planet and ourselves. When I was studying advertisement at school, I had a chance to take a special class in branding and copy writing. I can recall how much I was impressed by one of the lecturers – it was namist, the originator of “The Kimchi” founded by a model-turned-broadcaster, Hong Jinkyeong. Dreaming of building my own brand someday, I followed what I learned in the classroom – I first wrote down as many words as I can, and then shortlisted my favorites. And with these, I tried to make a few combinations before I finally found the name, Earth Us.
Were you thinking about running Earth Us at the school already?
I never imagined running a café back then. I was aspiring to develop my career path in public advertisements or working social entrepreneurs. Because I studied advertisements, I wanted to deliver messages that could make good influence to the society. And most of all, environment issues and coffee had been my interests for many years. So, I started a feed titled, “Earth Us” to share stories and messages on coffee and environment, pairing with photo images.
What are the key policy and ethos of Earth Us?
About the policy, as many of the customers are familiar with already, we don’t use disposables. And in parallel, we seek to serve our customers with delicious coffee and desserts.
You asked one of the customers without reusable containers to leave the café the other day, and the news led to heated debate on Instagram later. Could you elaborate more on the incident?
I believe that customers keep coming back to us not only because they like our eco-conscious ideas, but also because they like our coffee and cakes. If we stressed our messages on environment, we would see more customers following us on social media and visit our store. But we tried to target broader range of customers. So, when we first opened the café, we wanted to make it attractive enough for our customers to come back. And instead of putting up neon signs that we were trying to be eco-friendly, we wanted our customers like our coffee and cakes first and then learn later about what we were after. You can tell that there is nothing in front of the store to promote our policy. The approach helped us attract a diverse range of customers, just as we had intended at first. But we had to admit that not all the customers new about the store policy – we had to refuse to wrap cakes for customers who brought disposable packages or saw a few customers who bought new containers just to buy our cakes. We learned later that all of these led to heated debate on whether our policy was environment-friendly in substance and further, whether we should have been flexible for our customers. We didn’t expect these kinds of reactions, to be honest. And it was difficult for us to communicate with our customers on our policy. At first, we served all our customers regardless of what they brought with them – some even brought disposable containers that were reused. Seeing our customers bringing almost all kinds of containers, we started asking ourselves what can be tolerated in our store, because there were so many disposable items out there and once we allow a few things for exception, we sensed that things would spin out of control. And the incident took place after going through numerous trials and errors and streamlining our policy that we don’t consider taking any exception to the rules. It may take more time for us to figure out what to do with our store policy.
As a business owner, it may have been a difficult decision to say “no” to your customers. But when customers start buying reusable containers just to buy cakes from Earth Us, wouldn’t the store policy, paradoxically, push these customers into buying what they don’t need, conflicting with the policy?
Most of the customers bring what they have at home, but I admit that some come to us with what they just bought new from nearby shops. Some even asked us to wash new containers before they took their cakes home. But again, I’d keep telling our customers not to buy new containers just to buy our cakes. We’d inform customers that if they don’t have reusable containers with them, we don’t sell our cakes. But we never tell our customers that they can find some at nearby shops. But it has also occurred to me that should any of our customers happen to get new ones and decide to keep them to buy our cakes, that could also be tolerable to spread our messages on going green.
I visited your store to buy a Christmas cake last year. And I can recall that you mentioned about rechargeable electronic lighter. Are there any other measures that you’re taking for eco-friendliness?
First of all, we are using soap bars and natural sponges. Honestly speaking, it takes enormous amount of disposables to bake delicious cakes, but after numerous experiments in avoiding use of disposables, we came up with an idea of no-bake cakes. And other than these, we are taking so many things into actions that it is hard to tell them all. We are carrying on with all of these, because we believe we have to. For now, these are what I can think of. And I just remembered that we are using food wraps made with silicone (laugh).
It could be challenging yet important to make small actions become part of everyday life. Could you tell us about your favorite customers?
We like all of our repeaters that we remember every one of them. We look forward to seeing them again and again. Every time they come back, we are happy to see them. And those who bring unique containers often leave special memories to us. They post pictures on their social media. All of us were fascinated by these customers and we appreciate them for their interest and support.
Could you tell us about some unique containers that customers brought with them?
The first aid box. I remember one of the customers asking us to pack the cake in it. And I also remember a customer who came all the way from a diner in Yeonnam-dong. The customer brought a dish from the place to buy our cakes for dessert after the meal (laugh). I can also remember customers who brought their steamers or rice cookers.
Could you recall any demanding customers?
Well, I can recall one of the customers. We keep telling our customers that they need to bring reusable containers. But we need to admit that sometimes, we are too busy with our work that we forget to communicate with our customers. And we also admit that we don’t share everything about the store policy, and but we find that we can’t get some of our messages across. I remember that one of the customers agreed to bring some containers, but happened to buy disposable packages from the neighboring store. We felt cornered, whereas the customer felt awkward back then. Nevertheless, we sticked to our own store policy. But I can relate myself to how the customer would have felt - if we were the customer, we could have felt unpleasant. I felt uncomfortable but was pleased to see the customers come back to us much later and enjoyed the coffee and cake. I certainly said, “thank you” for coming back and the customer became a regular since then. You wouldn’t feel any happier to welcome your customer again after saying “no,” because of your own policy and pursuit.
Chapter 2. Essence of a Café – Delicious Menus, Cozy Atmosphere
Why do you think Earth Us keeps attracting its customers?
I need to be cautious with the words I choose, but I guess customers keep coming back to us because they like our menus. They wouldn’t pay for anything they don’t like. But find a few of our customers not finishing their cakes. A lot of our cakes are fudgy and gooey that while some like them, some others don’t. And thankfully, these customers like us because of our policy surrounding the environment.
But that sounds a bit surprising. I’m a fan of the cake from Earth Us, but I thought customers comes to you because of the store policy.
To keep your café business afloat, you need to make sure your customers keep coming back. But for one, those who come to the café for environmental causes tend to be one-off. This may be because we are not selling goods or souvenirs. And most of all, a lot of these so-called eco-conscious customers are likely to choose not to use disposables in other café places. So, I’d like to conclude that most of the repeaters come to us because they like our coffee and cakes. I believe that our eco-consciousness is making up a small part of Earth Us as a café.
Could you share your stories about how you came up with your idea for the menus? Have you taken some baking classes?
I had been a coffee lover that I got a barista certificate on the first year of my university and spent seven years working in cafés since then. The experience has helped me building up my own ideas on recipe and menu. But a challenge I faced was that I didn’t like sweets. This was most likely because I couldn’t find a place that served good ones. But when I began running my own café, I knew I had to serve some sweets to pair with coffee. So, the original idea was to source from a place that I had been looking into. But I faced another issue that I had to buy sweets in batches. I didn’t feel comfortable that they had to be delivered in boxes. And moreover, needed at larger-sized refrigerator to keep fresh and edible. So, I decided to roll up my sleeves and make ten pieces of cake a day to sell. I watched a few video clips on YouTube, grabbed a few things and liked the outcomes. The first experiment turned out to be a success that I only went through a few adjustments on the amount of sugar and then have been sticking through with the recipe since the first day of the opening in 2017. I never imagined how popular the sweets could be.
How do you prepare the sweets every day?
We all come at nine o’clock in the morning to get ready and open the store at noon until six o’clock in the afternoon. We make about thirty pieces and, a few more pieces of burnt Basque cheesecake. And we make sure to sell until before the end of the store hour. If you want to pick up certain cakes, you may let us know what you need until the day before your visit, because the cakes are normally sold out in the early afternoon. But you can just walk in for a takeaway.
How many people are you working with? How did you meet them? Do you see that you’re making a good teamwork with your staff?
We are a team of nine people, including myself. And except a friend of mine from the university, I met them all from online job sites. Some of them came to us after checking out the wanted ad, while some others came because they wanted to be part of the environmental causes. But I don’t post job listings on the social media accounts, because I have seen some of the fans being disappointed after working with us. We are here to work together, not to get together. But for those who are looking for friends with similar causes, they might feel uncomfortable with the way the team works in the café. I am looking for people who would work hard and serious about job seeking and find that some of applicants are fans of the café or have some knowledge about us. After reading all the applications, I shortlist these candidates for interview and try my best to figure out who they are from in-person interviews. I personally prefer a person with good manner and integrity, not being too sensitive.
You have opened a new one in Seochon after the first store in Yeonnam-dong. What brought you to Seochon?
I had kept looking into a few places to open a new one after the store in Yeonnam-dong. Then I received a phone call from Busan and had a wonderful opportunity to open our second store in the city. But spending half of my time in Busan and the rest in Seoul, I found myself missing Seoul – especially the scenes of Han River or the old palaces. The nostalgia took to numerous places in Jongno area in Seoul, and had a chance to visit a tearoom named, “Eeum” in Seochon area. I fell in love with the neighborhood, as well as the place that I decided to drop by one of the realtors. After telling the realtor what I looked for, it took me a few minutes to meet the landlord and toured around the building. I can tell you that it was love at the first sight with where we are now.
What was attractive about Seochon area?
The place was almost empty that it even felt dreary at first. The place was abandoned for quite a while that I could see moss growing all over its courtyard and its wooden soundproof wall – dividing from the neighboring building – was falling apart. But I loved the place anyway, because I felt so comfortable that I was having a retreat from the bustling city life. The only one thing the place was missing was the windows – they were too small to let sunlight in. But overall, I liked the place.
Chapter 3. Steps We Should All Take for Sustainability of Our Planet
Why do you think we should do something for sustainability of our planet?
When I was little, I would often draw and paint my own imagination about the future – I often imagined that we might have to live under or above the ground, or even migrate to the space because the earth turned unlivable. I am not knowledgeable about science, but it is occurring to me that the earth is becoming unsustainable much faster than how fast science and technology are developing. Every time I go to lectures on environment, I end up in tears, thinking that things are irreversible for the planet and we are all in big trouble - the glacier on both North and South Pole is disappearing, the sea level is rising, the number of refugees will grow and the income gap could widen. All of these are terrible to all of us. Have you seen “Space Sweepers” on Netflix? The story revolves around the environment issues, and I was frustrated watching it. Just like the drama series, the planet could morph into an unlivable place by 2092, but I’m scared that science and technology will be sufficient to resolve the issues. And the issue bears more gravity because it will leave impact on future generations, as well as ourselves. Today, for instance, we are buying bottled water for safety and health, but in decades, you never know that you might have to buy packaged oxygen in a few years. In short, all of these are may be for my own sake.
I agree with you that we should take actions for next generations, as well as ourselves. With awareness being raised for sustainability through campaigns such as zero-waste, what kind of changes do you anticipate in the future?
While there are things I am looking forward to, there are a few other things I am concerned about. If we don’t stop raising our voices for what we feel is right, it would someday be part of the norm. But we should also anticipate some backlashes, just like when smoking was first banned in indoor facilities. I often find comments that even if we do something, actions from China or the US would cancel out. But I hope the backlash doesn’t grow too big. And most of all, I hope the messages on the environment don’t end up being one-off slogans. I also wish that law and regulations change by changes of administrations. I understand that regulations on environment may not be welcomed by big businesses, but I hope these do not go through changes by interests of stakeholders.
The concern for sustainability may have started from your own interest and actions.
I don’t quite remember since when, but I am confident to tell that I have tried to be eco-conscious for many years since I was little. My grandfather was a type of person who tried to reuse literally anthing in her life, and my parents stressed that we should save water. They did so, partly because they tried to save money. But my parents and grandmother gave me enormous influence. I remember that on the first school trip back in my elementary school years, I was shocked to see my friends pumping shampoo two or three times. When I started working at cafés, I took plastic cups to reuse at home, but the effort couldn’t keep up with the amount of the disposable cups thrown away everyday. From these experiences, I began thinking about running a café that wouldn’t serve customers with disposable packages. Then back in the university, I had a chance to take a special class run by the first generation of green designer in Korea, professor Yoon Hoseob. Learning that he didn’t have a refrigerator at home or have electricity supplied to his studio, I was motivated to start with small actions for environment and began carrying tumblers around. These actions were added together like dots connecting to make a line.
I agree with your idea of starting with small actions. What other measures are you taking to save the planet?
I avoid using disposables and try to replace them with washable and reusable items like handkerchief, solid soap bars, biodegradable dental floss, and tote bags. And I try my best not to order food delivery. I switched one by one. I asked my team the other day about what actions we were taking at the café, and they told me a few things, including efforts in refraining from use of disposable, except for silicone food wrap for baking. Honestly speaking, all of these actions have become part of my life already that every time I was asked this kind of question, it is somewhat challenging for me to list them all. These are nothing new to me.
Some may not agree with the message that we should be eco-conscious. What efforts can we all take to raise awareness for the issues?
Once you open your eyes to the issue, you are already taking a step forward. Because you are likely to start thinking about what you can do. You may find some new and unfamiliar at first, but once you start with a few achievable things, then you can keep up with your good work by adding a few more. But if you are against the idea, I won’t push you to follow suit. I can show a few easy thigs, but after all, it is up to you to decide. Even my closest friends would buy disposable items to me for present or order food delivery, even if they know what I’m up to for my business. But I don’t choose to tell them what to do, because I know that they won’t change their mind. I have seen so many people who agree that we are facing serious issues and need to take actions, but many others who insist that they’d do whatever they want. For the latter, I still need to see what to do.
Chapter 4 – For Gil Hyeonhee, Life is about Balancing between What She Loves and Life
How would you define yourself?
I may not be good at many things, but I do my best in whatever is in front of me.
What did you do for living before opening Earth Us?
I used to be a planner for an advertisement agency. But just as you can’t scratch your own back, it was not easy for me to promote my own. A lot of my friends asks me why I don’t put up any news coverage or sold-out notice on the social media. But it is a challenge to me to do some advertisement for my own business.
What do you normally do for your leisure time?
Honestly, I don’t get to have a day off. I know that I need a breather to take a look at a few things surrounding the café, but in reality, I’m pouring all my energy into the café. Quite unlike conventional wisdom, it takes enormous energy to run your own café – you never get to sit, you barely squeeze in a few minutes to eat and most of all, you need to spend extra hours before and after the store hours. But I am figuring out what to do so that I could spare time for myself.
You don’t seem to have time for any pastime activities. But if you do, what would you choose to do for your leisure time?
I was into pottery. I took lessons for half a year in Seoul and then spent another year, passionately taking lessons in Busan. I poured my energy into it because I thought that the outcomes could be useful for the café. And I had enjoyed it. I couldn’t find any minutes to start it again since I came back to Seoul. But I do want to go back to the pottery workshop. You will find some of those I made in the past, and some I found from the workshop that I took lessons from.
To you, the line between work and line seems to be blurred. This can tell much energy and resource you’re pouring into the café. What are the biggest challenges these days?
The biggest challenge for me these days comes from communicating with customers about the store policy. We are pushing ahead with our store policy, because we believe it is the best. But for some may still disagree with us. At first, this kind of disagreement was painful to me. Seeing comments being made for about two weeks after the incidents and harsh and lengthy messages, I was scared that I had a glimpse of what it could be like ending up with sociophobia. It was a dark and difficult time, indeed. Then one of I got a piece of useful advice from a founder of a brand that I had been a fan of – I was told that within the context of business, any good causes can face backlashes and that I would be more resilient after challenges and hardships. And wounds heal as time passes. I still go through numerous thoughts these days, but I am firm on my belief. For now, it is not the changes but consistency that I need for the store policy.
You deserve some respect for keeping calm and carrying on with good causes. Do you have anything to tell to your past self before opening the café?
I would tell myself to spend time for more experience in and outside of work. If you are working for someone else, you can have weekends off. But once you start your own business, you need to keep working, even on your days off. And I was young when I started my own business that I had more difficulties in speaking up about what I felt was wrong. If I had had more experience, it would have been much easier for me to solve problems. And I also wish I could have had more experience working at cafés and restaurants.
What do you think you’ve gained from running Earth Us?
I have gained so many from running Earth Us – most of all, the brand of my own. But I lost all the time I could have spent with my loved ones.
But if you could turn back time, would you run your own café?
If I knew what it takes to run one, I would ask myself over and over. If I opened one, I would do all my best, but I learned from my experience that it takes so many things to keep it afloat. And I am too busy that I can’t spend time with my family. I need to be honest that it is somewhat saddening to me to keep working like this. But I should also admit that I can’t stop because I am so proud of what I have achieved with my own brand. And I like watching my own brand growing. Whereas everything felt unstable before, I started convincing myself recently that I’m doing well enough, because customers are coming to the store. After all, consistency could be the best approach for your own business.
Earth Us has been influential in many respects. What kind of message do you want to deliver to people?
I wish people could say, “the café is a nice place.” I don’t necessarily seek to make influence. I keep off disposables, because I feel uncomfortable using them. If I wanted to bring about changes, I would have first told my family to follow me. But my family is still using disposables and buy takeaway food menus these days. And I can see that my friends try their best they can, but they still have rooms for improvement. Because I am fully aware that everybody else feels the same as I do. I concluded that I shouldn’t seek to make any influence.
Your comments seem to imply a few things. I agree with you that we should keep doing what we feel is right, rather than trying to change others. Do you have any advice for those who are preparing their own eco-friendly business?
It is a good idea to take a few measures to sell, but before you take them, you need to know how helpful it can be in protecting the environment. I have seen a few business owners tagging us in their social media accounts and mentioning that they were inspired by us, but in found out later that they replaced disposable packages with biodegradable substitutes. But if you make some research, you will know how harmful biodegradable substitutes can be. Not every biodegradable item is sustainable. Products can be marked “biodegradable,” even if they include biodegradable materials as little as 30%. And moreover, research is to be made to scientifically prove, for instance, whether biodegradable plastic bags are completely biodegraded in soil. With soil polluted with microplastic these days, you never know what side effects to anticipate. Besides, the guidelines on recycling is unclear. All kinds of plastics are disposed together because most people believe they are recyclable. But in fact, if any of these wastes include biodegradable plastic, none of the wastes can be recycled. So, I would like to call for practical actions that would help resolve environment issues.
Please leave any comments for our readers.
Being eco-friendly is nothing difficult. You can start with small things and choose to do a few things that you can in your everyday life.
As interviewers, we were anticipating that the interviewee either had some grandiose missions of changing the world or using the keyword “green” as a marketing ploy. But to our dismay, the response was far from the expectation. Rather, the owner of Earth Us was slowly yet steadily taking actions to suggest what should be right to tackle the crisis for the entire planet. Obviously, it does take some courage to face the reality and take relevant actions. In this regard, the path that this eco-conscious café is being an encouragement for many of us.
INTERVIEW DATE / FEB 24 2021
INTERVIEWEE / @earthus
INTERVIEWER / Hye, Wan