Make Things Happen: How Coffee Shops Can Foster Creative and Collaborative Expression

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Pursuing a dream or following a creative pathway can sometimes be isolating. These coffee shops encourage collaboration and community creativity while supporting local entrepreneurship. 

Rie and Vaughan Allison didn’t open a cafe intending to create a meeting place for artists and creatives—that came about organically. The Allisons opened Mia Mia in Tokyo in May 2020 with the intention of building a fun place where they could both serve coffee and express their personal interests, including fashion, music, art, and architecture. It turns out that many in the neighborhood shared their interests and sought out a space to create and connect with others. 

Coffee shops have traditionally been hubs for creative expression, but sometimes, that creative energy exists individually—maybe someone tucked away in the corner of the cafe is working on the next great novel or putting the finishing touches on an illustration. But some coffee shop owners have cultivated spaces where creativity and community flourish together in a convivial environment, inviting neighbors and friends to engage with one another, foster connection, and sometimes serve as a launching pad for new creative endeavors.

Making Things Happen

Mia Mia sits on a corner near Higashi-Nagasaki station in Toshima City, in a residential neighborhood in Tokyo that’s home to a mix of traditional tile-roof Showa-era homes and modern townhouses. It’s also a hub of creative energy: the creators of the comic Doraemon, a famous Japanese manga character, worked in the area, and the Tokiwaso Manga Museum, a museum dedicated to manga art, is just a short walk away. 

With Vaughan’s knowledge of the Australian coffee scene and Rie’s architectural background, the couple have created a unique neighborhood spot that’s become a community hub. When you step inside, the first thing that jumps out is the large communal table where everything happens: coffee is being made, pastries are on display, and guests chat with the staff and each other. There’s no typical coffee bar to order at—walking in feels like being welcomed into someone’s home. Rie chose the cafe layout to encourage spontaneous conversations and give people the opportunity to say hello to one another. 

The cafe is full of fun and whimsical touches meant to spark conversation and create joy, like in the corner, where a custom gacha-gacha vending machine dispenses toys. The small details make Mia Mia a compelling space—the shop was recognized by the Good Design Awards in 2023, which called Mia Mia “a small place where people enjoy spending time together.” 

“We want coming to the coffee shop to be fun,” says Vaughan, who regularly stocks coffees from Fuglen in Norway, ​​local Japanese roaster Satei Hato, and guest roasters from Australia like Market Lane Coffee. “It’s got to be fun for the staff and the customers.” Vaughan hoped Mia Mia would be a space for people to create connections. “The word community is thrown around a lot, but it’s hard to do. It’s hard to create that.”

About a year after Mia Mia opened, the Allisons took over the storefront next door. Called I AM gallery, the space serves as a gallery on weekends, selling apparel and ceramics from Japanese artists like painter Mayumi Mayase, ceramicist Yoshinori Takemura, and many more. Rie also uses the space for her architecture business, and others in the community work out of the I AM gallery during the week. 

The coffee shop has helped spark other businesses in the area. One of Mia Mia’s customers recently opened an Italian restaurant, Cadota, one block away, and many of his staff were also Mia Mia customers.

Real-life connections are developing at Mia Mia, and Vaughan couldn’t be more pleased. “We need places where you can meet people in real life with everything virtual these days,” he says. “To have that positive energy and see people’s eyes sparkle.” 

Starting Something New

Side Practice Coffee opened in July 2020 in the Ravenswood neighborhood on Chicago’s north side, and its offerings extend beyond coffee. “We brew entrepreneurship, creativity, and collaboration. We are more than a coffee shop—[we’re] a place that showcases side projects from the community, a place to work on your side project—all while drinking a damn good cup of coffee,” says digital media director Maria Meade. 

Photo by @yueskeyluna

As an entrepreneur, graphic designer, dad, and community leader, side projects were a huge part of owner Francis Almeda’s life. “Why not showcase the people I already had in my network and give them a place to share their work?” he says. 

The motto at Side Practice (workers call it SPC) is “start something.” Shining a light on makers who are just embarking on their creative journey is a big part of the shop’s philosophy, says Meade. “Really, the ultimate goal is to have SPC be a launch point for folks to take their side practices to the next level, support those who are just getting started, and celebrate those who are absolutely thriving. And with that, we’re here to be a part of it any step of the way.”

We brew entrepreneurship, creativity, and collaboration. We are more than a coffee shop—[we’re] a place that showcases side projects from the community, a place to work on your side project—all while drinking a damn good cup of coffee. Maria Meade, Side Practice Coffee

The coffee program, curated by Ty Banks, includes a rotating selection of local roasters like Four Letter Word and New Math Coffee, along with guest roasters from around the Midwest and occasional spots from international roasters. Menu items at this Filipino-owned shop include signature drinks like Manila Matcha and the Purple Chai (both made with ube syrup and macadamia milk) and Pandan Paradise, a combo of matcha, pandan vanilla syrup, and macadamia milk. 

The business is proud to have a team passionate about coffee while also being talented creatives and entrepreneurs. Along with the team of creatives working behind the bar, they’ve also created a residency program designed to spotlight local community members, especially the AAPI, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ communities. 

Designed to empower business newcomers, SPC’s residency program offers creatives an opportunity to run a part of the cafe as their own. The aim is to encourage residents to utilize the space creatively, allowing entrepreneurs to share their new businesses and ideas with a broader audience. Through the residency program, SPC has hosted pop-ups (they offer their space for free), entrepreneurial residencies, artist display walls, coffee roaster cafe takeovers, and brand collaborations.

During its 2023 residency, Amber Agave, a new boba tea concept, used SPC to gain more recognition and experiment with design and presentation. “As a new face of the boba scene, they transformed their setup into more than just a boba bar—it became a memorable experience, complete with merch and eye-catching signage,” says Meade.

Justin Lerias, the owner of Del Sur Bakery, also hosted a pop-up in SPC’s space in October 2022, bringing in pastries with Filipino-inspired flavors like longanisa, calamansi, and banana turon. The pastries turned out to be a hit: they sold out within an hour, and Lerias now supplies SPC with pastries as he works towards opening his very own bakery. The pop-up helped Lerias commit to his bakery business full-time, and he estimates he made 6000+ pastries in 2023

Side Practice has grown through its residency program, and neighbors are drawn to the shop’s ever-changing creative pop-ups, making it a neighborhood hub of community engagement. “We don’t support the talent. The talent supports us,” says Meade. “We are incredibly grateful for all the folks who have been here since the beginning. It’s incredible to see the community built around SPC.”

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Leah Bowman

Leah Bowman is a marketer and writer. She covers topics on coffee and food, especially branding and consumer trends. She learned about coffee working for a national coffee roaster and is currently based in Vancouver, Canada.

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