Seoul, Korea's Habana Indie Club brings Cuban culture and a love story to the other side of the world.
cuban cafe seoul korea
Hyemi Kim prepares tres leche at the Habana Indie Club in Seoul, Korea. Photo: Habana Indie Club

I love how Cuban coffee transcends borders. A Cuban cafe in Miami will be similar to a Cuban cafe in Reykjavik (there is was one, I checked). The authenticity of each location may leave room for interpretation but the general spirit is always there.

So, when we caught wind of a Cuban cafe in Seoul, Korea, I was hooked. And, as it turns out, the story of Seoul’s Habana Indie Club is a lot more than a just that of a cafe. Sure, it’s a story about how the crack-like strength of a cafecito is received in Seoul (no offense to fans of crack). But, it’s also a love story, a story of entrepreneurship and a story of introducing Cuban culture to a country 12,595 km (7,826 miles) away from Havana. In other words, the story of Hyemi and Pedro in Seoul, Korea is f#$&!@g amazing.

hyemi pedro cuban cafe seoul korea
Hyemi and Pedro met in Havana, got married and now live in Seoul, Korea. Photo: Habana Indie Club

I had a chance to chat with the husband and wife co-founders. Their story is perhaps one of the most inspiring Cupid tales out there. Long story short (you’ll want the long story); Hyemi met Pedro in Havana but there wasn’t any romance. After returning to Seoul, she couldn’t stop thinking about him. So she flew back to Cuba, they got married and… the Habana Indie Cafe was born in Seoul.

Here’s my interview (edited for clarification only):

habana indie club seoul korea
Habana Indie Club in Seoul, Korea. Photo: Habana Indie Club

Startup Cuba’s Conversation With Hyemi and Pedro

Startup Cuba: Where are you from? What is your background?

Hyemi: I’m from South Korea born in Seoul. I’m a songwriter, guitarist and I work at Habana Indie Club.

Pedro: I am from Habana Vieja in Cuba. I was raised in a world surrounded by art thanks to my father and friends. In Havana, I worked as a bartender and waiter in restaurants and nightclubs and in my free time, I would practice skating with my friends, most of them tattoo artists and DJs.

cuban coffee and cafecito in seoul korea
Cafecito. Photo: Habana Indie Club

Startup Cuba: What made you want to start it a Cuban cafe in Seoul?

Hyemi: Pedro and I met in Havana. We got married there (a very long story haha). We then thought about whether to spend our future in Cuba or Korea.  We chose Korea. Of course, we both missed Cuba right away…. especially Pedro missed Cuba a lot!  One day we were making a Cuban coffee we brought from Cuba at home. Pedro suddenly said, “What do you think about sharing our Cuban coffee with people in Seoul?” When I heard that I was just excited to imagine drinking Cuban coffee every day.

Recipe: Cafe Cubano Helado From Scratch

Pedro: When I arrived in Korea I had no idea where I was going to work. As time passed I noticed that there were many cafés. They inspired me to give a Cuban Cafe a run; something no one had ever tried in Korea.

Habana Indie Club books in korea
Books at the Habana Indie Club in Seoul, Korea. Photo: Habana Indie Club

Startup Cuba: How long have you been open?

Hyemi & Pedro: We opened Habana Indie Club in the spring of April 2019. It’s already been two years!

Startup Cuba: Why a Cuban coffee shop instead of a traditional coffee shop?

Hyemi: Koreans are crazy about coffee, but I wasn’t. I only started drinking coffee while traveling around the world a few years ago. The most memorable coffee on the trip was Cuban coffee. I remember the cafecito that a person at a tattoo shop gave me – instead of greeting me like a stranger. The taste was soooo amazing: strong and sweet, served in an espresso cup. It was really delicious. Since then, every morning I started to drink Cuban coffee. The Cuban coffee culture is special and warm. We wanted to share these memories, and the feeling of the Cuban coffee culture in Korea.

Pedro: We thought it would be the best way to to introduce Cuban culture in Korea and at the same time, a way for us to feel at home.

Related Post: Is This Bookshop the Coolest Spot in Havana?

Startup Cuba: How has it been received? What do people think of it?

Hyemi: It is very unfamiliar to Koreans. So, people visit our cafe with curiosity. They’re very confused when they see the Español ‘Cafecito’ and ‘Café Con Leche’ written on the menu.

Pedro: Our decor resembles a classic home (casa) in Havana so people are always a bit surprised when they enter the café. They’re typically used to more modern places here in Korea. Adding to the shock is when they taste our Cuban coffee; it is much stronger than the coffee normally served in Korea.

havana in seoul korea
Hyemi and Pedro wearing masks (and a Clandestina t-shirt). Photo: Habana Indie Club

Startup Cuba: Cuban coffee tends to be stronger than the coffee typically served here in the States? Does the same hold true of coffee in Korea? If so, do people like it?

What Do You Want to See in Our Cuban Food Film?

Hyemi: Yes, our coffee is very strong and sweet. We make everything using a cafetera, not an espresso machine.  It replicates the taste and mood of drinking a cafecito at a casa in Havana. We tasted a variety of Cuban coffees to pick one familiar to Koreans. In the end, we carefully considered Cuban coffee beans. People really love it!

Pedro: That was some thing that worried me a bit at first because the coffee here is not as strong. But, the opposite happened! The majority of our clients love how strong our coffee is. So my greatest fear in respect to Cuban coffee became the one thing my clients loved the most.

Related Post: El Café: Add This Havana Coffee Shop to Your List

Startup Cuba: What type of coffees do you serve?

Hyemi: We serve Cuban espresso (cafecito): I love to make a Espumita hahaha. Korean people usually drink Iced coffee called Iced Americano. So, we also serve Americanos, Lattes and Cappuccinos based on Cuban coffee bean. Typically all iced.

Pedro: In general we focus on the classic espresso with sugar in tiny espresso cups. But we also serve the most popular coffees like an Americano and lattes (aka cafe con leche).

Related Post: Do You Prefer Café Bustelo, La Llave or Pilon?

a cuban cafe seoul korea
The ventanita at Habana Indie Club in Seoul, Korea. Photo: Habana Indie Club

Startup Cuba: Is there a large Cuban population in Seoul?

Hyemi: Nope… Sometimes we met other Cuban at our cafe. but it’s very rare! 

Pedro: There are very few Cubans in Korea as far as I know. I’m familiar with seven or eight at the moment.

Startup Cuba: Who are your typical customers?

Hyemi: Out typical customers are young men and women curious about the exotic atmosphere and different taste of coffee. There are so many coffee shops in Korea that people share various cafes using the hashtag #cafetour.

Pedro: In general, Koreans that are interested in Latin culture and Latin Americans that live in Seoul.

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Ken Deckinger is the co-founder and CEO of Startup Cuba and the executive producer and host of its namesake docuseries. A native of South Florida, Ken has been an entrepreneur for his entire professional career. Previously he was co-founder and CEO of HurryDate, pioneering the global concept of speed dating to 45 cities throughout the US, UK and Canada. HurryDate eventually evolved into online dating and was acquired by Spark Networks, the parent company of ChristianMingle.com and JDate.com. Ken is a graduate of Boston College and the University of Florida, where he was honored with the University’s Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year Under 40 award and sits on the Board for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. He actively advises entrepreneurs and is a two-time protagonist of a Harvard Business School case study. Ken’s filmmaking and journalistic journey is inspired by a love of travel and authentic connections with other cultures. He believes that the more we know about each other, through stories, the closer we can become — thus the mission of Startup Cuba: to amplify the voices of the people sharing stories in the Latinx space. After living in New York City for 15 years, he encouraged his wife to move their family to Miami to get back to his South Florida roots. Needless to say, it was a short discussion and he and his family now call Boston, where his wife grew up, their home.

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