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The dream of a coffee house - Story of Chinese Gunther

Central Perk a way of life, not a way of making money

Gunther did not want to talk much about the trouble he went through to open his two coffee houses. But if we were to piece together all the details that can be found on his Weibo and blog, that would be enough material for another long article. To sum up in Gunther’s own words, "Every step of the process was difficult because you are doing something from the scratch all by yourself."

The Central Perk in Beijing took him five months to build. On March 28, 2010, "very shyly," he unveiled his first "baby" to the world. For an entire month, there were very few customers. Looking back, he wrote in his blog, "It was just me and my coffee master, staring into each other's eyes. They will come, I kept telling myself."

Photo: Ding Yi/ sino-us.com

And yes, he built it, and they did come. The May Day holiday that year became a watershed for Beijing’s Central Perk. With the customers pouring in, the journalists came too, both domestic and foreign. Gunther has lost count of how many articles have been written about his Central Perk, or how many videos it has appeared in.

However, the reality is sometimes harsh. Central Perk is not always packed with people, like the afternoon when I visited for the interview. Gunther seemed rather relaxed about it, “If it is just a business, it is OK not to hold on to it if it’s bad. But this is my dream, so I’ll keep it alive no matter what.”

Many people have pointed out to him that the location was not good for a coffee house. Tucked deep into Chaowai SOHO which easily gets lost among the many high-rises in Beijing’s posh Central Business District, the little coffee house is not the easiest to find. But Gunther was determined to stay put, because “If I move, the girl upstairs will have no place to take a nap, and the Mocha Laowai will not be able to see the words ‘I love Friends’ that I write on his coffee.”

This stubbornness to the point of stupidity makes Gunther an atypical Chinese businessman. He refuses to exploit the brand of Friends and sell souvenirs in his Central Perk, like some other coffee houses do. “That violates their portrait rights,” he said. Instead, he designed his own mugs and postcards using the Friends element and sold them to make donations.

Charity is a big part of Gunther's Central Perk. When the Ya'an earthquake struck, he posted on his Weibo that he will donate 3 yuan for every cup of coffee sold in his Central Perks in two days. In total, he sold 151 cups. A person left a comment on his Weibo, "Only this much? How do you make any money?" Another person retorted on behalf of Gunther, "The owner is a Friends fan. Perhaps he's not looking to make big money."

Gunther at work in front of the blackboard at his Central Perk. Photo: Ding Yi/ sino-us.com

If we take a brief look at how Gunther runs his Central Perk, it becomes quite clear whether or not he's in for the money. In 2012, when Starbucks decided to raise its price in China, Gunther wrote on his Weibo: “Don't understand why. And I won't follow suit.” Later in the summer that year on a day of heavy downpour in Beijing, he posted, "If you are stuck in the rain near Chaowai SOHO, don't wait out outside. Come to our coffee house and enjoy a nice cup of coffee or hot chocolate for free."

As a book lover, he loves to organize reading clubs for which he not only gives out free books, but also sends out SMS every week to check on the progress. When he invites his readers back for a chat, he also provides free coffee. If someone decides to celebrate their birthday at Central Perk, he offers free cakes plus a 20% discount on drinks. On the Valentine’s Day and the Chinese Bachelor's Day (November 11), he offers roses and chocolates, plus discounts to his guests who are single. Every Thanksgiving, he makes a Rachel's Trifle just as the one Rachel did in Friends, free for all customers who are brave enough to give it a try.

There is a selection of books for customers to read at Central Perk, Beijing. Photo: Ding Yi/sino-us.com

With so much "giving away" going on, even his friends wonder how such a "dreamer" manages to keep his coffee houses alive. But Gunther said these personal touches are the soul of a coffee house. "I don't care if you think I am doing it just for show. I'll carry on no matter what."

When asked what compromises he made to pursue his coffee house dream, he said, "Oh, my Central Perk in Shanghai is my biggest compromise." He had originally sworn to run only one Central Perk so that it could be unique. But eventually he gave in to the overwhelming requests from his customers from Shanghai. "My second baby was not a planned child," he joked.

"To the people who think I am doing it for money, I have only one question to ask, why can't you have some faith that beautiful things still exist in this world? Even if you have changed, why do you have to assume that everybody else has too?" he continued, "I admire people who choose to run individualist coffee houses, because we all choose a simple way of life rather than a more complicated way of making money."


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