Blending Cultures and Flavors

Jodie Chiemi Ching

First came love, then marriage and then a coffee shop in SALT at Our Kaka‘ako — Honolulu’s hottest new community for foodies. Together, Stephen and Tracey Seta are the coffee and food-geek power couple behind 9Bar HNL, a specialty coffee shop with fresh-baked goods and made-to-order breakfasts served all day long.

“I went to California for college, where I met my future wife (Tracey, a California native) and spent 16 years experiencing the varieties of cultures, foods and concepts,” explained Stephen, a Punahou grad. “During my years in California, I found Tracey and I were drawn to developing urban areas and the transitions they made from rundown and old to updated and fresh. These new areas always had the most interesting and modern eateries, which Tracey and I would frequently visit on the weekends.”


Among 9Bar HNL’s food offerings is the Aloha Bowl (photo by Marisa Mizunaka)
Among 9Bar HNL’s food offerings is the Aloha Bowl (photo by Marisa Mizunaka)

Stephen and Tracey later moved to Honolulu and started a business wholesaling high-end Kona coffee to luxury markets. After a while, however, the desire to create a business that served food and coffee and that reflected their adventurous spirit grew into 9Bar HNL.

The coffee couple wasted no time embarking on a gastronomical journey and decided to travel the world, studying café concepts and equipment. It became the foundation of their success, said Stephen. They visited cafés in Tökyö, Seattle, Portland and all over California, learning and developing ideas that they implemented when they opened 9Bar HNL in 2016.

With a coffee shop founded on world cultures, rich coffees and food science with some local flair, their shop’s name had to stand out in a crowd: 9Bar HNL.

“9Bar refers to a unit of measurement,” explained Tracey. “Nine bars of pressure (nine times earth’s atmospheric pressure) are required to extract espresso. HNL is the airport code for Honolulu. Even if our customers don’t know this obscure story behind the meaning of our name, it can still roll off the tongue,” she said, laughing.

The Setas use coffee approved by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. There are standards set in the categories of green coffee (considered the top line classification standard), cupping (like wine tasting, but with coffee), roasting, quality of the water used and care taken in brewing.

“What really separates the coffee program from any other on [the] island is the research and development that goes into the service at 9Bar,” said Stephen. “Every item on the menu has been dialed in using the most precise equipment and executed by the most educated staff.”      

9Bar HNL’s food standards are just as stringent, he said. The shop’s “scuffin” — scone + muffin — is a favorite. Of the scuffins, the bacon, cheddar and chive scuffin is the most popular.

“Our scuffins are our most popular item,” said Tracey. “With a variety of flavors that rotate and the choice between sweet and savory, our customers are always able to find something to satisfy their craving. Customers can also enjoy their coffee with cookies, matcha (green tea) rice krispie treats and a vegan and gluten-free mochi, which was named Best Vegan Dessert by Honolulu magazine.”

Stephen and Tracey encourage their staff to be creative in their baked goods, so the selections in the pastry display case are always a surprise. Among the treats snatched up by customers before they even have time to cool are the matcha or pumpkin spice scuffins with cream cheese and white chocolate chip, Okinawan sweet potato or strawberry with mango mochi, and double-chocolate chip peanut butter cream cookie sandwiches.

If pastries are not your thing, you can always try their bowls. The Granola Bowl features yogurt topped with fresh fruit. There’s also the Aloha Bowl, which includes a Portuguese sausage-like patty on furikake rice, poached eggs, kim chee, a sprinkle of queso fresco (Mexican cheese comparable to goat or feta cheese) and cilantro; or the Cali Bowl, a combination of bacon, roasted potatoes, poached eggs, guacamole, sour cream, sweet onion, cilantro, queso fresco and salsa. Also on the menu are tacos –– three street style tacos with chicken carnitas, sweet onion, cilantro, guacamole, queso, lime wedge and side salsa.

Many coffee-loving locals have become regulars at the shop. “We have seen a huge amount of coffee fanatics telling others about 9Bar, and the word just spreads. We have also been noticing an increase in a number of coffee industry people, mostly baristas from other companies, gathering at 9Bar and just hanging out with each other.”

9Bar HNL has lots of coffee company at SALT at Our Kaka‘ako, where it is one of four specialty coffee shops. Tracey thinks that’s a good thing.

“We think having other coffee establishments around us is a good thing because it brings more coffee lovers to our neighborhood,” she said. “All of us have a unique approach to coffee.”

Stephen believes 9Bar HNL sets itself apart from other coffee establishments because of its “level of service with speed” by a knowledgeable staff and because they offer what he describes as “unique items” that are handmade and offered only at 9Bar. He’s also proud of the staff’s ability to produce the menu items at a consistently high level.

The beverages are finished artistically and served in a classic white coffee cup alongside a glass of sparkling water and set on a wooden tray with a spoon for stirring.

“The tray allows the customer to carry two drinks at once, and the sparkling water is there to hydrate you because coffee dehydrates,” Stephen explained, noting that the sparkling water serves a purpose beyond hydration.

“With our coffee, we have preselected the ideal roast profile for each coffee with the intention to bring out the most unique nuances each type of coffee has to offer,” explained Stephen. “After we brew the coffee, whether it be a simple brew of the day, espresso, pour-over or cold brew, we serve it, and the coffee will open up, cool and evolve as it is exposed to the outside world. Typically, as coffee drifts toward room temperature, it will tend to release more of its nuances and unique flavors, which brings in the main purpose of the sparkling water. As the coffee opens up, we encourage customers to sip the water as a palette cleanser, just like ginger does for sushi, to separate the slight changes in flavors and mouth-feel. To set something shockingly crisp, cool and bitter alongside coffee accentuates its evolution and creates a special moment in someone’s day. The back and forth sipping allows a customer to revisit a special moment in that evolution over and over again.”

The Setas have seen their customer base growing, thanks to the coconut wireless. Regulars drop in on weekdays, while the new and curious check out the shop on weekends.

9Bar HNL is located in SALT at Our Kaka‘ako at 685 Auahi St., #118. They’re open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends.


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