Jeff Flink, proprietor of the cozy neighborhood coffee hangout Toki, is quietly brimming with relaxed, positive, can-do vibes. Careful with his words and considered with his choices, Jeff embodies the very motto that gives Toki its tranquil charm: "Go slow."
It's clear than another key element in Jeff's formula is happiness. His motivation behind opening Toki and thereby taking a dramatic 90 degree turn in his life was not only the pursuit of his own happiness but the creation of a space that would allow others to find theirs as well.
With a friendly face and a wave for everyone in the neighborhood we think if Jeff could add anything else to Toki's clear and concise instruction-cum-motto, it would be: "And do it with a smile while you're at it."
Cropbox: What's the five minute version of your life story?
Jeff Flink: Hmmm what about the 30 second version? (laughing) Well I'm Jeff. I'm originally from Hilversum which we call Hillywood. It's a small town about half an hour from here. I moved to Amsterdam to study when I was 18.... that's almost 17 years ago so I guess I'm getting old.
When I finished my economics and business studies with a masters in Marketing, I wasn't sure what to do yet. So I went for a trip for a half year with one of my best friends, just to explore the world. We went through all of Asia and New Zealand and when I came back I felt reborn.
CB: Sounds like an amazing thing to do at that age.
JF: It was good. When I got back I got in contact with eBay through friends who were working there. They needed some help with a new platform they were building so I jumped in and started working with them. I was working with really smart people and it was really fun. I was 25 or 26 at the time so I just wanted to jump in, have fun and learn a lot.
I pretty much learned that it was not my kind of work, it wasn't my place. I liked the fast pace of the decision making and the new business development kind of thinking but I wanted more creativity around me.
So I ended up at an advertising agency and I was young and at a learning stage and I met a lot of new people. I wasn't working exactly on the type of clients I wanted to - I sold my soul cigarettes - but it was a big learning curve and so I was fine with it.
My boss eventually left to start his own thing and I had a good connection with him so after a year, I joined his team. It was called Animal Farm and it was quite fun, a small team of 6-8 people, different clientele - more cultural but also some corporate stuff. A nice level of strategic and creative work. I was feeling at home which was really important to me.
But always - all through college and everything - I had coffee place lifestyle vibe in mind. So I was always hanging out in these types of places and it's part of who I am actually. I thought to myself that I might just want to do it one day. But it was always a dream.
CB: So what made it a reality for you?
JF: I think four or five years ago some friends of mine started their own bar/lunchroom kind of thing and it kicked off really well. Then they opened a new bar and that kicked off really well too. So I was like "F*ck, this looks good." It's hard work but also a lot of flexibility and you can just do what you want.
In the agency life you do a lot for others and it's not always team play. We'd pretend it was for the client but it's not always like that, you know. I think three or four years ago the agency landscape started to change. A lot of agencies are still trying to find a way to service their clients who are getting smarter and smarter by the day. So it was either stay in that field that was changing and could be really interesting or do something else.
So I talked to my boss and said I wanted to work a day less. Every Friday I went around scouting locations for a coffee spot. It took about a year to really cut the cord but I finally quit my job at the end of 2014 so I could really just go for it. I gave myself all of 2015 to find a place, talk to suppliers, really work on my plan and what I wanted to do. I'd already been collecting stuff and ideas, what I liked and what I didn't like. So I put it all together.
In May of 2015 I bumped into this place and within a week I had it. I just had a pitch to the owner and then I had it. I wanted to do it all myself, to really enjoy it and feel it. I wanted to open in July but I think it ended up being the end of August that I opened up and then... well you have shaky hands and you realize "Okay, now we're here."
CB: It seems like it's doing well.
JF: It's really steady and really good. I wanted to build it really slow from the start so I was here by myself, seven days a week. I was just enjoying it. You know people would drip in, people in the neighborhood discovering it who'd seen me building it out before. And so I'd just talk to people and have fun and try to put the best quality out there.
In the beginning sometimes there'd be hours when there was nobody. But I'd just be working, looking at new ideas, and it was no stress because the only cost I had was of course the rent, and the stuff I bought and myself. But I didn't need a lot at that time so it was fine. That gave me a lot of peace of mind so I could grow into to it and build it slow.
CB: How did you get the inspiration for what you wanted Toki to look like and feel like?
JF: I wanted it to not look like the average coffee place that already existed all over the world basically. Even my branding, I didn't want it to look like your average coffee place. It had to feel different and also extendable. I had been collecting stuff, like the marble - I had seen it in Berlin almost two years before I opened. I saved up stuff that I liked, I had a Pinterest board and everything.
I liked the idea of wood because it's earthy and gives a warm feeling. The rest I wanted to be really clean so there needed to be some warmth in the place. It was really about the vibe that I wanted to move in and live in because it will be my home basically, for many years and I will be here every day. So I wanted to feel comfortable and hopefully other people will feel comfortable as well.
I wanted to do it all myself you know, because like I said working at an agency you do everything for others and now I could do something that I loved. Why would I let somebody else walk away with that? I feel good about it and that's part of the fun.
CB: What does the name mean and how did you come up with the brand?
JF: Toki means time. People go to cafes, bars or restaurants just to spend some quality time, their own time. Whether it's work or reading a book or escaping something hectic... whatever it is, it's your time. You fill in your own time, I fill in my own time.
So for me, something about time felt good. I like Japanese wording because it's always short, graphically you can do something cool with it and it often has some more extensive meaning to it. So I went to the library and saw "toki." And actually depending on the way you pronounce it, it means time and it also means bird.
Through my neighbor I got in contact with an agency in London who wanted to put their foot on the ground in Amsterdam and agreed to help me out with some of the branding work. They gave me some really nice stuff, I just looked at it and thought "Yes." The font is clean and the logo is just happiness.
I like a good vibe, for me it's all about vibe building. So the whole smiley thing that they came up with and all the extensions of that, it felt good. It also fits my clean look and my urge to have things in order. It's playful and that's what I like.
CB: So were you able to go to Japan during your travels?
JF: No I've never been to Japan. I went to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand. I wanted to go to Japan with my girlfriend but then the whole tsunami and nuclear spill thing happened so after that we never got the chance. But it's definitely on the list.
At Toki it's more like a blend of the clean perfectionism of how I think Japanese people like things mixed with a little bit of street, urban, and maybe some Scandinavian vibes. It's just blend of cultures.
CB: You obviously have a clear vision when it comes to your personal style and the style you want for Toki. What would you say your food style is?
JF: I'm a big fan of Asian food for sure, Indonesian food especially. It's funny because my girlfriend is Indonesian but she likes Dutch food better and I like Indonesian food better. We go back every year to Indonesia and it's really fun exploring and trying crazy things. I think for Asian food in general, if you eat from these small little places like a wagon that's tucked away, and a little old grandma just cooks and you eat from a leaf - it's so much more tasty and special. Those experiences I always really love and aim for whenever I'm in Indonesia or wherever I am actually. I love trying the local food.
CB: So when you have just a normal cup of coffee are you always kind of evaluating it now?
JF: Well I'm here every day so most of the time I have coffee here. But I like to escape as well, just live my own philosophy a little bit. I love going slow. I worked pretty hard the first year here, I worked my ass off and my health is shit because of that. So I have to tell myself, "You're telling people to go slow by being here and taking their time, but you have to do it yourself as well." So I need to let go a little bit and luckily I can because it's running and it's steady. So I can detach a little bit and live slower.
CB: What are your other favorite coffee places around town?
JF: I like going to the other side of town. I like Scandinavian Embassy. I like White Label as well. These guys are fun. But sometimes I don't even want to talk to anyone and we all know each other... so there's this brown bar in the Jordaan, there's no music, you can have a nice croissant and a nice cup of tea - I'd never drink coffee there - but you can just go and chill. And I like when it's calm because I'm non-stop in a social context and sometimes I just need to get out of it.
CB: What advice would you have for someone wanting to open their own cafe, restaurant or coffee shop?
JF: It's about how much love you put in and being able to stick to what you think is good and not being directed too much by others. A lot of people tried to direct me here in the beginning but I stuck to my ground. It's part of the whole process for me.
Just stick to it. Have fun most of the time. And don't feel hurried by others. A lot of people think that they know but they're not the ones actually doing it. Just stick to your idea and if you have the opportunity, build it slow. Start with the right perspective and you can build it slow. It takes a longer breath but hopefully it's all worth it.
CB: So what do you want to eat right now?
JF: Right now, I want some fries.
In the box today:
Cinnamon roasted butternut smiles
Salted cabbage parcels filled with aromatic basmati, Bengali capsicum curry and lime pickle and carrot sambal
Overnight roasted tomatoes
Chargrilled petite beans
Pea shoots, radish and chervil sprouts