In Amsterdam, The Latest From Friedhats Coffee Is A Big FUKU
It’s true that 2018 WBC second runner-up Lex Wenneker and his business partner Dylan Sedgwick named their new cafe—FUKU—after the Japanese term for “good fortune.” If you speak with them, Wenneker, a three-time Dutch barista champion, will tell you how as a visitor to Japan he was impressed by all the small spaces where each day a single individual “puts the same attention in every cup.” In the same breath Sedgwick, a New Zealander with much international coffee experience, might cite Japanese craft precision as “inspiration for our workflow.” But if you’re like me, you might have doubts. The explanation’s a touch too cute for these two.
These are, after all, the guys behind Friedhats Coffee Roasters, a name they gleefully admit has led confused consumers to believe the company deals in French fries and attracted email spam targeted at milliners. What’s more, Friedhats’ aesthetic—most obvious in its packaging but now also at FUKU—might be summarized as ska-meets-psychedelica in a Roy Lichtenstein palette. Any way you cut it, their goofiness and subversion are colorful, contradicting any “expectations that we were gonna do something super chic and Berlin-style,” as Sedgwick puts it.
So while the cafe FUKU is pronounced to rhyme with “cuckoo,” it seems its nomenclature arose from the same place it does when the four-letter word is carved into an elementary school bathroom stall: frustration.
“There was a point that I was pissed off at the whole [coffee] thing… I was gonna quit,” Wenneker tells me. “I just got back from the WBC in Dublin and everything was normal again, and I just couldn’t hear one more complaint about the light-roasted coffee. People didn’t get it. I just couldn’t do it anymore, and that’s when I wanted to stop.”
He continues: “Then we decided to look for a cafe again, as a solution—to have something new to do. And as a joke, I wanted to call it ‘the Friedhats’ Fuck You Cafe.’”
His defiance was likely sparked earlier, by the shuttering of Headfirst, a micro-roastery Wenneker co-ran and where he and Sedgwick started working together. Its closure came suddenly after Amsterdam authorities accused the venue of violating rules about what it could sell as a designated retail spot rather than a food and drink vendor. That was in late 2015, when Headfirst, at just two years old, was quite popular among locals and coffee tourists.
In fact, the name Friedhats is no enigma—it is an anagram. Scrambling the letters of “headfirst” has provided at least a linguistically sentimental reincarnation of the old business. As for FUKU’s present-day semantic scrambling—the idea came from much closer than Japan.
“He was in Paris and he saw this place called ‘Fuku,’” recalls Wenneker about Sedgwick. “It kinda says ‘fuck you’ but not really.”
“A sushi place,” his partner specifies.
All that said, guests at FUKU, which opened in September, get no sense of being rebuffed or shooed. Before even going inside the cafe, a sight of delight appears on an entranceway door: a vintage column of feeder trays from legendary Dutch automat chain FEBO. Today, instead of hamburgers or krokets, they dispense coffee beans in Friedhats’ signature plastic jar packaging (nominated for a 2018 Sprudgie Award).
Wenneker and Sedgwick built the bar themselves, leaving a large façade for their illustrator (and part-time barista) Ivo Janss. The most prominent equipment is a rare Kees van der Westen three-group Mistral. There are three grinders: a Mahlkönig EK43, an Anfim Super Caimano Barista, and an ever-so R2D2-esque Lyn Weber EG1. Around the bend is a moss green Slayer Single Group, which patrons can get a courtside view of when seated in the front window.
Asked if his past titles up the pressure to perform in everyday work, Wenneker is candid, mentioning some particularly painful early feedback.
“There was this guy who came in. He was like, ‘Ah, I expected a bit more because he’s the almost-World Barista Champion, and it was just like a nice coffee that I got.’ It hit me quite hard,” he admits, with a good-natured laugh.
“Don’t come with too-high expectations,” Sedgwick half-jokes.
“Nah, that’s not true,” says Wenneker. “We’re doing something new now, I think, in the cafe with the long list of coffees that are available for espresso and filter. I don’t think any cafe in Amsterdam has that.”
Most remarkable is the menu’s “Super Specials” subsection, described by Wenneker as “coffees you just don’t find anywhere because they’re very expensive” and “usually rare or hard to obtain.” Often competition coffees, they are standardly prepared by V60 and cost 7.50 euros. On a recent visit, that list included Brazil Daterra Laurina, Colombia Gesha X.O., Colombia Sudan Rume, and Ethiopia Gesha Village.
Because they have all the necessary licenses, FUKU can serve alcohol—the wines lean towards natural and French—and food; the venue has begun with short hours and easy-to-eat carbohydrates, but eventually plans to stay open well past sunset. The back patio, with an overhang, is ready for warm even if wet days.
Wenneker and Sedgwick have two part-time staff, and Wenneker’s brother is their accounts manager. Still, the pair works six days a week, splitting their time between cafe and roastery. The latter, which they moved into in September, occupies a section of shared space in a hangar-like unit. Compared to the former roastery, it is the boondocks, though has no shortage of storage or parking for the new company car, a secondhand Volvo wagon used for local coffee deliveries. Most international orders are sent within Europe, though the US and Canada are catching on, they report.
Meanwhile, Wenneker maintains he is done competing. Earned in June 2018 at the WBC held only six kilometers south of FUKU, his latest, second place, ranking satisfies in far more ways than I expected to hear.
He explains: “If you get first place, you have all these obligations, you have to go everywhere, people expect you to show up for stuff. We were already talking about the cafe, so we knew we couldn’t really do that. So before the whole competition started I was like, ‘Yeah, second. I’ll go for second.’”
“I was really happy,” says Wenneker of the outcome. “Second place is kind of what I really aimed for.”
The response is quintessentially Dutch: modest, pragmatic, evenhanded. It is also an elegant way of celebrating one’s good fortune while still issuing, to the powers that be, a big FU.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.