Kimhak Em and fiancée Eugenia Tai opened Pair Cupworks inside of Cider Corps in Downtown Mesa in February 2020 – weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Instead of blaming the pandemic, we just tried to find other ways to sell our products,” said Em, 36, who placed second in the U.S. CoffeeChamps qualifying competition in 2018.
From February to July, Em hand-delivered specialty coffees, vegan pastries and freshly roasted coffee beans to anyone within 20 miles of the cafe, while using online marketing to bolster sales to balance the financial blow taken while the coffee bar closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Those efforts did not go unnoticed by Mesa residents.
“I do know that we gained a lot of trust in a small community here that was willing to have me go and drop off coffee in front of their doorstep,” Em said.
With the coffee bar now fully open, the menu is divided into four sections: seasonal drinks, espresso, pour-over coffee, cold brew and loose-leaf tea.
Em works 12- to 15-hour days managing the front end of the coffee bar, roasting beans and educating customers on exotic, light roast specialty coffee while Tai, 35, a structural engineer by day and graphic designer by night, handles product branding and bookkeeping behind the scenes.
“Our brand is really about trying to create happiness through coffee and tea,” Tai said. “And I tried to communicate that to our branding.”
Both are from California’s Bay Area and moved here together in 2015 to embed themselves in Arizona’s growing specialty coffee scene.
Specialty coffee shops, or “third-wave” coffee served at cafes such as Pair Cupworks, focuses on every step of the coffee chain — from farm to cup, Em said.
Pair Cupworks sources elusive beans from small-scale farmers in regions such as Guatemala, Ethiopia and Myanmar, Em said.
It’s a new coffee experience offered in Downtown Mesa, one that evolves with each shot of espresso and changes depending on the origin of beans, the roast, ground and pour.
And for patrons to whom light roast, specialty coffee is a foreign concept,
Em will walk them through every step of the process.
“That’s one great thing about being an owner, barista, roaster all in one,” Tai said. “(Em’s) right there, he’s ready to answer any questions people may have.”
Em’s parents moved to the U.S. from Cambodia in the 80s to escape the civil war and genocidal regime led by Khmer Rouge, which killed an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people.
Once in California, Em remembers spending countless hours in the doughnut shop his parents owned where his love affair with food and coffee took root.
When Em and Tai moved to Arizona, they opened a cafe and bakery in Tempe with investors and other relatives.
Their first swing at owning an Arizona-based cafe failed, with communication issues at the center of internal business conflict, and the concept closed shortly after opening.
“I learned that I don’t want to work with investors,” Em said. “It prompted me to do what I’m doing now; slow grind, no investors, no outside capital and just build as you grow.”
After closing the cafe, Em started brewing at Peixoto in Downtown Chandler as one of its first baristas, learning how to roast coffee beans and building friendships that have lasted to today.
“I grew a lot with them, learned a lot from them, and we pretty much taught each other how to become a specialty shop,” Em said. “And we just feed off of each other’s energy.”
With Pair Cupworks, Em and Tia are following their unobstructed business vision, growing organically and focusing on the coffee and tea they love and want to share with the community.
“We’re just trying to make our customers happy and create a great product for them,” Tai said. “They can treat us as a resource, especially if they want to learn more about coffee and tea at a specialty level.”