Houjicha Lattes and Mango Matcha: Kaizen and Coffee Brings Specialty Coffee to San Mateo | Peninsula Foodist | The peninsula foodist


Shane Balasbas, Jason Naraja and their son Kaizen stand outside their new cafe, Kaizen and Coffee, in San Mateo. Courtesy of Jason Naraja.

By Kate Bradshaw

Five years ago, married couple Jason Naraja and Shane Balasbas weren’t coffee lovers.

Then their son Kaizen was born.

Partly driven by the sleep deprivation that comes with becoming parents, they threw themselves into the coffee world full force, training at Texas Coffee School and Barista Hustle, and asking regional cafe chefs to do tastings. Later, when the pandemic hit, they joined the many who took up studying the science of coffee as serious home baristas.

Nearly four years into their journey, they opened the doors to Kaizen and Coffee, a new specialty coffee shop in San Mateo, on March 31. The name is a double reference both to their son and to the Japanese concept of continuous improvement.

“We felt that San Mateo is a pretty underserved market for specialty coffee,” Naraja said. There are Blue Bottle and Philz, but few family-friendly cafes in town, he said.

The menu features traditional coffee drinks, like espresso drinks and jugs, as well as tea drinks like a matcha latte, mango matcha, and houjicha latte. Specialty coffee drinks are made with homemade syrups and include flavors like Ube, Tahitian Vanilla Bean, Honey Lavender, and Black Sesame with oat milk. They also offer an item called “Mission Mocha”, which is made with dandelion chocolate, Vietnamese cinnamon, Gochugaru red pepper and heavy cream.

The store sells baked goods from East Bay-based Firebrand Artisan Breads, and they are working to develop other dining options. “We want to be the bridge for people discovering specialty coffee,” Naraja said.

From the moment the couple first discovered the cafe to the day it opened, the family cafe went through a series of tribulations.

The location they were renting was previously a music studio offering piano lessons, so they had to outfit the location to meet their plumbing and electrical needs to make it a cafe. A series of delays left the couple wondering if they were making the right decision, he said. But they were finally able to open their doors and the reception so far has been positive.

“It’s really a proud moment. People are coming and bringing their friends,” he said. “That’s a great sign.”

The coffee beans come primarily from Black and White Roasters in North Carolina, but they also use beans from Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas and Friedhats in Amsterdam.

The biggest surprise about running a cafe? “It’s such a commotion,” Naraja said.

There are a lot of small details that need to be taken into account, he said. Sometimes the café will only operate with a small crew, with two people covering stations that could easily occupy three or four people. When it’s busy, maintaining quality while reducing wait times, not to mention managing tasks like working with vendors, maintaining equipment and preparing sauces, can add up.

“It’s harder than I thought. But we’re getting used to it,” he added.

Kaizen & Coffee, ??2337 S El Camino Real, San Mateo, Instagram: @kaizenandcoffee.

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