Who Am I? Who Is Ai and Where Is CAFE IF?

Last month, I made a new friend Alison in our coffee shop. Alison was born in Taiwan and speaks Mandarin, and she wondered if I was Chinese. It is not too hard to make anybody have the same question Alison had because of the Chinese characters on our store signage:


What does that mean?

“Hello, my name is Ai. And I am the founder and CEO of CAFE IF 如果咖啡店.”

If I were to talk in a Silicon Valley startup roadshow, I probably would say the above line. But in the hospitality world that means I am the owner this coffee shop, who is also the general manager, the graphic and interior designer, the social media marketing person, the photographer and the plumber, the bookkeeper and the barista.

Making coffee was never my dream job because I did not raised even drinking coffee. But having a coffee shop, where is surrounded by delicious coffee smells, gathers interesting minds and souls, was always in my day and night dreams.

Prior to my coffee journey, I was a menswear designer working in New York City. I’ve designed for some of the well-known brands in the fashion world, made coffee runs and served desserts to my favorite fashion designers, and sketched and sewed tailored suits and dresses on big white cutting tables in Parsons the School of Design at 2am in the morning. I lived in New York for 5 years, and I loved how easy and quick to connect with other people in the city. When I moved to Los Angeles, that seemed like a puzzle to solve to me. For which it has finally pushed me to start building a space, a platform to simply connect with others.

If you had been reading carefully enough, you probably have found quite a few grammar or vocabulary errors in my writing. Please tell me about it, I am not so embarrassed. In fact, my boyfriend Tony has made fun of my pronunciation of the word “soon” for the entire past two days, and that has brought so much joy to our weekend time. Indeed, I was born and raised in China. I immigrated to Canada when I was 18 with my family, and graduated with a bachelor of Economics (like many of your Asian friends in college) then realized Economics was never a passion to me nor a choice of my career. I was good at math and doing research on Economic history, but I’ve always enjoyed doing more in the creative field. I love writings, paintings, taking random photos of tree leaves in Central Park and strangers on Broadway, and drawing beautiful high heels or picking up gingham shirts for my geeky EEE friends who would like to impress their girlfriends.

I spent a lot of time writing though. Not only I love writing blogs and short stories, but I also love reading stories from my friends who live in other countries. Remember I’ve spent my first 18 years in China, then 4 years in Vancouver BC, then 1 year in Birmingham UK, then 5 years in NYC - I have many friends who share the same living-abroad backgrounds, who have a lot to say about what they have experienced. So I started a blog named CAFE IF 如果咖啡店 for all these friends to write(or bitch about) their lives.

I called it “CAFE” because in my mind, a cafe, or a coffee shop is where you meet people and chat with those who share the same interests and become friends. And I called it “IF” because I love the fact that as human beings, we can imagine without a limit. There are so many things can happen in life if you really think about it.

After a while, when CAFE IF 如果咖啡店 blog had grown to a good size of writers and readers(this was way before today’s crazy social media era), people started to ask me “where is your coffee shop” and I had to repeat many times a day that “I DO NOT have a coffee shop in reality - this is only a blog”.

“Oh.. I see! It would be great if you opened one in the future!” someone commented.

“Yea, I guess so. It would be really fun. But probably only if I retired, or if I moved to Venus and knew nobody. ” I replied.

And that was true. It had been easy for me to meet interesting people and make new friends in New York, and I had not yet have complaints on lacking parties to attend. But life is full of unexpected events. I didn’t know Los Angeles was too big that the only way I could “sort of” making friends was to meet people on Tinder and Bumble and to be frank about “I am new to LA, want to make friends only.” And I didn’t know eventually I swiped over all the potential candidates in my area and finally had to admit that asking to only make friends on dating apps would just make me look dishonest or naive.

But I do need new friends to explore the beaches, to eat tacos and quesadillas, and to vent about traffics. Finding a sense of belonging and solving the “how to make friends” puzzle had became a priority in my life. I was thinking to myself many days and nights, If I had made friends through CAFE IF 如果咖啡店 before over the internet, why couldn’t I make more friends through CAFE IF 如果咖啡店 in reality? Everybody needs a sense of belonging, and everybody can tolerate a new friend in his/her neighbourhood.

If what you want doesn’t exist, create it.

I flew back and forth between the US, Canada and China to get to know how to start a business in America and how to make coffee. By the end of the summer, I have made my decision to pause my fashion career and join the magical world of food and beverage. And by the end of the following spring, I started a coffee shop in the city of West Hollywood named CAFE IF 如果咖啡店.

And you know the rest of this story, or at least you know the taste of our coffee.