SoDoI Coffee. Photo: Kate Williams
SoDoI Coffee founders Jae Chung (third from left) and Robert Hensley (second from right) and employees. Photo: Kate Williams

“Serving great coffee is not enough,” Jae Chung told me throughout our preview tour of his new coffee “tasting house” in Berkeley’s Telegraph Channing Mall. “We also should use coffee as a communication tool to bring people together in a positive way.”

Such is Chung’s vision for his company, SoDoI, pronounced “So do I.” The name, and Chung’s journey into the coffee world, takes its inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr. As Chung says, King wanted to make the world a better place even if he “knew the world would end tomorrow.” Chung’s response to that sentiment? “So do I.”

SoDoI’s tasting house is a brighter, friendlier place than its windowless location in the center of the mall may indicate. Its reclaimed wood tables and coffee bar are lit up with repurposed theater lights, and the walls are decked out in paintings of inspirational figures to the company. King has a portrait, as does Nelson Mandela and Alfred Peet.

Peet, as it turns out, is more than just inspiration. SoDoI can trace its lineage directly from the Peet’s Coffee. Chung’s business partners, Robert Hensley and Bob Baldwin both got their start with the company.

SoDoI Coffee. Photo courtesy: Jae Chung
SoDoI’s inspirational mural greets guests upon entering. Photo: courtesy Jae Chung
SoDoI’s inspirational mural greets guests upon entering. Photo: courtesy Jae Chung

Hensley worked with Peet in the mid-1980s, receiving his early professional coffee training with the company before joining Probate USA to build equipment and train coffee clients. (He later founded the Coffee Training Institute and, in the 1990s, moved into the coffee import business.)

Baldwin built, refurbished and installed coffee production equipment for Peet’s for a decade before opening Main Street Coffee in Redwood City.

SoDoI is proud of its background. As the company writes on its website: “All of us at SoDoI are blessed to stand on the shoulders of giants in the industry who have come before and helped us discern between what adds value to our customer’s experience and what is merely the latest fad or simple shortcut and pretense to quality. … We give thanks to all the efforts of those who have blazed the trail before us.”

SoDoI Coffee. Photo courtesy: Jae Chung
A SoDoI barista practices his pourer technique. Photo: courtesy Jae Chung

Hensley and Baldwin met Chung two years ago through mutual friends. Chung had been working in tech for 18 years, but wanted to make a change and move into the coffee world. “I was thinking about my life. I really like coffee. I also really like helping people, and [through this company] I get to connect the two,” said Chung.

Chung told Hensley about his vision for a coffee shop that serves as an inspirational meeting place for dreamers as well as coffee drinkers. Hensley was immediately on board. “No one else had that vision for a coffee shop,” he said.

The three entrepreneurs teamed up. They started roasting coffee in Campbell, selling the beans online, and looking for a retail and tasting space. Chung provided the vision, and Hensley and Baldwin brought their coffee expertise.

Berkeley, Chung said, was the ideal city for their first location. “Berkeley is a melting pot of great movements that have moved America forward,” he said. “People here are thinking about what is right.”

Chung hopes that SoDoI operates as more than just a coffee shop. Calling the space a “tasting house” is part of that vision, encouraging customers to explore the nuances of their coffee rather than gulping it down on their way to class. Chung also wants to hold events and performances in the space.

SoDoI Coffee. Photo courtesy: Jae Chung
SoDoI Coffee’s “tasting house” features furniture built with reclaimed wood and an old row boat Chung found in the Bay. Photo: courtesy Jae Chung
SoDoI Coffee’s “tasting house” features furniture built with reclaimed wood and an old row boat Chung found in the Bay. Photo: courtesy Jae Chung

Each of SoDoI’s blends has an inspirational name. Its opening line-up includes “Memory of Arashiyama” (light roast), “Open Your Heart” (medium roast), “My Dream, My Coffee” (dark roast), and an espresso blend named for Hensley (“R.H. Espresso”). SoDoI also offers single-origin coffees, and it brings in beans from Guatemala, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Kenya and Indonesia.

Chung hopes that the Berkeley location will be the first of many. He has dreams of expanding SoDoI into Asia — he says he’ll start in Korea — but he wants to prove the concept here first. Still, he insists, “we’re not trying to make a fortune. We’re a purpose-driven company and want to bring something good to the community.”

SoDoI coffee is currently in its soft opening. It will hold its grand opening Feb. 12.

SoDoI is at 2438 Durant Ave. (between Dana Street and Telegraph Avenue), Berkeley. Connect with the coffee company on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...