Berkeley’s espresso repair shop is causing a stir on YouTube

Cafe Kanen
2319 Fourth Street (between Bancroft and Channing Ways), Berkeley

At first glance, Berkeley’s Kanen Cafe YouTube page seems like the most boring account in the world. There are thousands of videos, most two minutes or less in length, of a hand pulling espresso tests on recently repaired machines. The page’s description is just as simple as the videos themselves: “Videos of espresso machines that Kanen Coffee, LLC has repaired.”

But watching the videos, one after the other – the warm brown liquid slowly dripping into a glass, a test of the steamer, a mumbled “if you want to see more videos like this, subscribe to our channel” – is soothing, almost meditative. And every once in a while, the video feed is interrupted by a real meditation, from store owner Sam Kanenwisher.

Kanenwisher knows a thing or two about mindfulness, spirituality, and the meditative nature of working with his hands. The former Minnesotan came to Berkeley with a plan to spread his Lutheran faith — but instead, he’s spreading a somewhat different ideology, through his boutique’s dozens of customers and his channel’s millions of viewers.

A winding road to Kanen cafe

He served four years on a coast guard at sea as an electronics technician, fixing everything aboard the ship – radios, radars, air traffic control systems – before seeking a degree in social work and a master’s degree in theology.

His plan was to become a pastor, but after a disheartening review by a graduate committee that said he didn’t have “a strong enough sense of Lutheran identity,” Kanenwisher realized he perhaps better to work with his hands than with people.

He was a relative which led him into repairing espresso machines.

“He asked me if I wanted to fix his La Pavoni espresso machine,” Kanenwisher said. “And I said, sure, I’ll try.”

Kanenwisher, who was a stay-at-home dad at the time, used all the skills he learned as an electronics technician in the Coast Guard, did a lot of research, and made many calls to different companies asking advice, to finally find out how to repair the machine. When he mentioned what he had done to others, interest began to flow.

“Oh yeah. ‘You know, I fixed that espresso machine,’ and then people started saying to me, ‘Oh, well, I have an espresso machine. Can you fix it?’ And I was like, ‘well, sure. I’ll fix it.'”

Of Fargo in the Caribbean

Kanenwisher’s ability to repair machines was no surprise.

“I grew up learning to work with my hands. My grandparents were farmers in North Dakota and my dad is a custom cabinetmaker and my mom is a nurse. And I had grown up surrounded by a lot of people who used their hands to make a living.

Kanenwisher grew up in the eerie liminal space on the North Dakota-Minnesota border that locals call “FM.” Fargo on the North Dakota side and Moorhead in Minnesota.

Kanenwisher, who grew up in the Minnesota Division, said “It’s like Siberia with cafes,” borrowing a phrase from the Coen brothers, who also grew up in the area and did, and the accent of the region, famous with their film, Fargo.

Like many young people stuck in such a wintry wasteland, Kanenwisher wanted to see the world. And he also wanted to make a difference in the world. Joining the armed forces seemed like the best bet, and after weighing his options, he opted for the Coast Guard. He was the most desirable of the armed forces for two reasons: he wouldn’t have to be in combat, and there was no way he was stationed in Minnesota. In fact, where he spent most of his time was about as far away from Minnesota and its harsh Caribbean winters as you could get.

“But being in the Caribbean when you’re on a Coast Guard boat,” he said, “you’re just floating there and there’s not much to do.”

Discover meditation

After four years in the Coast Guard, he returned to Minnesota, where he earned a degree in social work at the University of Augsburg in Minneapolis. He then moved to Berkeley, where he attended the Graduate Theological Union and studied to become a Lutheran minister. The inspiration for this career decision came from the Coast Guard itself.

“I wanted to learn how to help people with their emotional and spiritual struggles,” he said. “I felt like I was doing that in the Coast Guard to some extent. Everyone was going through a lot in the Coast Guard and there wasn’t a lot of support on the ship,” he said.

“People were alone. People are away from their families. People worked very long hours. And so we were talking. There was plenty of time to talk with other people.

In graduate school, Kanenwisher had what he described as a “major life crisis” that led him to seek help from a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist prescribed him medication, which quickly helped him get back on track, but also meditation, which Kanenwisher says had a longer and deeper effect on him and his health. He dove deep into mindfulness, started going to the Berkeley Zen Center, and searched for teachers online.

Kanenwisher himself quickly jumps into meditation teaching mode, hence his guided meditations on Kanen Coffee’s YouTube page. At one point, he gives me a quick lesson on the connection between mindfulness and coffee drinking.

“It can be as simple as looking at the packet of espresso or coffee. He’ll often say, ‘oh, you know, you’re going to have hints of chocolate or maybe a cherry flavor or something.’

“So you can take the time to say, ‘oh, do I taste this chocolate? Do I taste cherry? Do I taste nuts? You know, maybe I taste some nuts or almonds or something like that and you know, then you can just give yourself time to enjoy it. Allow yourself to feel the pleasure of making coffee and espresso. It’s like a little meditation , right? Making your coffee can really be that moment of peace.

Her mindfulness practice helps her deal with the biggest stress of her job: customer service. Indeed, dealing with customers nearly got him out of the business, but in time he got the hang of it.

For example, he learned the best way to determine the type of machine an individual should buy. “There are two types of people in the espresso machine world,” he said. “There are people who just want to press a button and the whole process is automated. And then there’s someone who has a more manual machine where you have to grind the coffee, then you tamp it and then you do it manually that way.

Sometimes people come to my store and they have these $2,000 espresso machines and they don’t even know how to properly set the grinder or how to clean it.

Sam Kanewisher

According to Kanenwisher, “People who like to do the most manual things are the kind of people who like to cook. If people don’t know what kind of espresso machine they want to buy, I’ll often say, “well, do you like to cook in the kitchen?” And if the answer is no, I usually don’t try to sell them a manual machine. »

Customer service is also where the YouTube channel comes in. Espresso machines are expensive to repair, and new customers can be leery when picking up their newly repaired machines, fearing that they might actually work. A Kanenwisher employee came up with the idea for YouTube, as a way to prove the devices were back in business. Customers loved it and were excited to see their working machines on the line.

But even with the channel and its success (over 3.7 million views to date), customer service still weighs heavily on Kanenwisher.

“A lot of times people have a machine and they want me to take full responsibility for every problem they have,” he said. “Sometimes people come to my store and they have these $2,000 espresso machines and they don’t even know how to set the grinder properly or how to clean it.”

Backwashing – the process of cleaning the brewing components of a machine – is particularly important to Kanenwisher: he is convinced of the process and how it improves the taste of coffee. When his customers start performing regular backwashes, Kanenwisher said they, too, become converted to the practice. But others return to the store, repentant.

“I have a lot of regular customers and they come back to me and they’re like, ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t backflush it. I didn’t clean it. I’m like, ‘He doesn’t there’s no shame’, you know. It’s like going to the dentist. Right? Maybe you don’t floss, but you know, I’m always here for you.


Featured Image: Sam Kanenwisher at his espresso machine repair business, Kanen Coffee. Still from a video by Nathan Dalton for East Bay Nosh

Daniel C. Williams