Instagram for Coffee Addicts

When Ria Sim got sick, she found a whole new direction thanks to coffee, miniatures, and stop-motion.

By Susannah Cohen

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Can’t make it to Sightglass in San Francisco or La Colombe in New York City for your flat white this morning? You might just find your coffee hit on Instagram instead. A celebration of all things caffeine-related, Coffee Cakes Cafe is the social media equivalent of your favorite cozy neighborhood coffee shop.

Each post is a work of genuine charm, featuring hand-drawn paper miniatures created by the illustrator Ria Sim. More often than not, they are painstakingly fashioned into short stop-motion videos celebrating the small, daily joys of enjoying a cup of coffee, be it at your desk, brunching with friends, or at a charming, little cafe. Recently, she has moved into digital art, too.

A typical animated post might show coffee as toothpaste being squeezed onto a brush; another might show a harsh message to decaf — “You’re not my type” — punched into a vintage typewriter.   Some are stop-motion reactions to current events. When Kate Spade passed, Sims posted a stop-motion featuring a girl in a sequence of different dresses with an inspirational quote from the designer floating past on a balloon. Last May’s much-anticipated royal wedding was commemorated with a short video that included scenes of Westminster Abbey and the happy couple’s car driving past Buckingham Palace with a banner and balloons.

Add in a slew of authoritative café recommendations, some punny posts, and regular animosity towards Mondays, and you have a coffee-centric Instagram account that’s been growing organically since it began in 2015. The account made SF Weekly’s top 10 Instagram list that same year and has garnered thousands of followers online.

Surprisingly, Sim had no formal art training before she started putting pen to paper. She was previously in event planning and floral design before moving to San Francisco in the mid-2010’s. Coffee Cakes Cafe was started for her own amusement simply because she enjoyed spending time in coffee shops. Unable to create pour-overs or espressos at home, Sim has become a cafe acolyte, constantly on the search for the perfect cup of coffee. She posts numerous tributes to the cafe culture she so loves through her Instagram.

“Before I started my stop-motion business, I used to go and visit cafes every day, sometimes two times a day,” she told OK Whatever. “It was so fun exploring, tasting, and just taking in the cafe vibe.”

It’s not just about the coffee, of course; Sim loves the people watching, too.

“I often hear couple disagreeing or loving what they ordered. I see the guy consumed in his work or maybe pretending to work, the social media influencers taking that oh-so-perfect pic for Instagram,” she said.

A glimpse of Sim’s workspace. (  @coffeecakescafe  )

A glimpse of Sim’s workspace. (@coffeecakescafe)

What really makes her smile, though, is the sight of a dog waiting patiently for its owner to finish their coffee. “I love when cafes are welcoming to animals.”

In the beginning, Sim mainly posted photos to her Instagram account, but over time she began adding original art. She claims she “didn’t know how to draw” back then, but decided to try her hand at it because it was fun. She’s since honed her skills as an artist, but confessed that it took a while before she was comfortable calling herself an “illustrator.”

“I pretty much learn as I go. I don’t have the tools or techniques like artists who went to art school. I didn’t have the core know-how. I kind of just winged it.”

Sim’s days of faking-it-until-you-make-it are long over. Now a small video creation and advertising business, Coffee Cakes Cafe on Instagram has become her full-time job, with brands queing up to partner with her. Sim began accepting paid collaborations this year and now creates stop-motion animations for clients with whom she feels a genuine affinity. She has lent her aesthetic to coffee presses by Chef’n and a pancake mix from the New York café Bubby’s.

But in a bid to preserve the authentic, organic quality of her Instagram account, she has also said no to plenty of paid work.

“I have turned down big brands,” she said. “Is it tempting? Absolutely! Is the potential of exposure huge? Absolutely! But in the end, it’s back to the root of my Instagram, and that is to post what I love and believe in. If doing it that way creates slower growth, then that’s OK.”

Sim guards her integrity and anonymity fiercely. She wouldn’t be interviewed in person for this feature, but proved an open and engaging interviewee by email. There’s a reason for this. Coffee Cakes Cafe came about after a sudden life change. Sim had a “five-to-10 year plan” mapped out, and then it all shifted “in the blink of an eye” when she was diagnosed with lupus. For eight months, she experienced symptoms including difficulty walking and bouts of short-term memory loss, and she wondered if she would ever be able to hold a fork again without experiencing pain.

She could have crumbled. Instead, she ditched the life plan, learned how to manage her pain, and opened herself up to new opportunities. For a while during her recovery, she dabbled in interior design work before realizing her hidden talent as a stop-motion illustrator. In fact, if she hadn’t become ill, she might never have discovered her latent skills.

“What was so life changing for me, and at the time seemed so horrible, was one of the best gifts in my life — to live and embrace the moment and always be open to seeing possibilities,” she said. “Every day I battle my illness and every day is a new chapter in my life.”

As for the future, there’s a small online store featuring her original art in the works. She’s started selling coffee-themed enamel pins on her website, Cafe and the City, and hopes to expand to tees, totes, and the like in the near future. Other than that she plans on just going with the flow and seeing what develops naturally.  

“I see this as a ride, and who knows where it will take me?” Sim said. “What I know at this moment is how grateful I am that I’ve come this far with no experience whatsoever and I’m open to seeing what lies ahead for my Instagram and for me.”

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