A barista at Ritual Roasters in San Francisco pours hot coffee into Thermoses about to be shipped around the country. (Courtesy Thermos)
Last week, Thermos overnighted me a cup of hot coffee from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., to see if it could. It was a bald-faced PR stunt. It succeeded in both senses: The coffee was still hot by the time it reached me, and I am writing about it now.
Now you’ve been warned: This is an article about a PR stunt. It was, however, an extraordinary PR stunt—well-executed, conceptually simple, and bubbling with zeitgeist. And I accepted the hot coffee for reasons beyond my love of roasted arabica.
The stunt’s part of a larger contest (and context). In May, Thermos shipped 25 of its Facebook fans in the contiguous U.S. free coffee overnight from Ritual Coffee in San Francisco. This month, the second time it ran the contest, it chose a more midwestern provider: Spyhouse Coffee in Minneapolis.
Courtney Fehrenbacher, a marketing manager at Thermos, told me that the company hopes to re-run the contest every other month, at least until the end of the year. Altogether, Spyhouse will hand 35 of its steaming envoys over to FedEx to be distributed across the country.
But, dare I say, the stunt was about even more than Thermos, Spyhouse, the Stainless King, or the Iron Throne. It was about logistics.
As best as I can assemble it, here is the trajectory of the Stainless King and its erstwhile contents.
The coffee inside the Stainless King was Spyhouse’s Las Nubes roast: a coffee variety indigenous to Kenya and grown in El Salvador. The varietal was brought to El Salvador in the early 20th century when that country’s economy rested on its coffee production. This bean was grown on a similarly old farm, high-altitude land owned by the same family since the 1920s. (Or, at least, that’s the story Spyhouse tells.)
This bean, though. It was harvested sometime last winter before it entered its customary months of rest. Afterward, it was shipped to Spyhouse, which roasted the beans on July 21, 2014. It became the shop’s Las Nubes lot.
I presume it roasted those beans in the morning, because by the afternoon it was brewing the coffee. Around 4 p.m., the team got out their 10 Stainless Kings (designated for me and fellow members of the media) and filled them with Las Nubes, which they dripped. Then they put them in Thermos’s special packages—augmented with a bag of freshly roasted Las Nubes—and drove the boxes “about a quarter mile away” to the local FedEx facility.
According to a FedEx spokeswoman, the package was placed in a modified McDonnell Douglas DC-10, called an MD-10*. That plane’s a couple decades old, at least—McDonnell stopped making them in 1989—and FedEx owns more than anyone else. FedEx indisputably owns the largest private cargo fleet in the world, and, according to the trade journal Supply Chain, the fourth-largest aircraft fleet, period.
Perhaps the package was stopped and exchanged in one of FedEx’s global or national hubs, in Memphis, or Indianapolis. Eventually, though, it arrived in D.C. in the wee hours of the July 22. Unloaded from the plane, sorted, loaded onto a truck, and carried to The Atlantic’s office/cement island-fortress, the Watergate, it reached its destination at 7:21 a.m. The coffee had been roasted less than 24 hours before.
Of course, the coffee wouldn’t reach its final destination—my belly—for another hour or so. I got to work during the eight o’clock hour, hoping to intercept the Stainless King, and discovered Santa had already arrived.
With my colleague Adrienne, I unboxed the long-traveling liquid. Like Max’s dinner in Where the Wild Things Are, it was still hot.
Talking to Spyhouse’s founder and owner, Christian Johnson, I’ve been able to piece together the coffee’s temperature-history. Spyhouse uses water at exactly 203 degrees Fahrenheit to brew Las Nubes. Johnson estimates that by the time that liquid—now coffee—departs the brew shuttle, it’s between 175 and 180 degrees. Then it was capped, vacuum-sheathed, and sent on its way.
But still the conditions outside changed. “Depending on the exact placement of the package inside the aircraft, temperatures range from 40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit during an average flight, with the average temperature being about 60 degrees,” a Fedex spokeswoman said of the Thermos’ cargo transit. And the pressure changed outside as well, rising to the equivalent of 8,000 feet above sea level.
It was about 72 degrees in the district as the package trundled through, and a few degrees cooler in my almost-refrigerated office. When we uncapped the Thermos, we measured its temperature to be 151 degrees.
“Wow. That’s amazing,” said Johnson, after I shared this heat conservation with him. “So really you only lost 25 degrees between when we capped the thermos to when you opened it.”
He added that the other factors involved in long-form transit—the altitude, the pressurization—shouldn’t have significantly affected the coffee’s taste. I think that sounds right. I found Las Nubes as described, similar to other El Salvadorean coffee I’ve had that didn’t migrate: acidic in a citrusy way, a little sweet.
According to Fehrenbacher, the idea for the contest came from an anecdote that Thermos’s president would tell. Once upon a time, the story went, a client had paid the company to regularly overnight coffee from across the country. (No one seems to remember just which client this was.) Why not see if they could recreate the story for marketing purposes?
The gimmickry of the stunt seemed to attract Johnson to the idea. But when he spoke to me, he obligingly remarked too on the pop-cultural power of Thermos. He and the other baristas carried Thermos-made lunch boxes as kids; they respected Thermos as a stalwart American product. Now, they were proud to partner with the company for the contest.
And Thermos is an enviable tool for that reason. It embodies “do one thing well”in the world of beverage receptacles. People buy it because they want something that does what a Thermos does—and every time, without fail, without system reboots or lag, it dispatches this task admirably. (Though if I have one quarrel with the Stainless King, its top cap was sometimes very, very hard to screw off.)
Talking to Thermos and Spyhouse, I was struck by the image at the top of this post: A Ritual roster, pierced and bearded, pouring single-origin coffee into that most mainstream of food receptacles: the Thermos. It’s more than urban-meets-rural: It’s the new dream of artisanal, ethical food preparation meeting the old dream of mass-produced American plenty.
It reminds me of the most recent product of K-Hole, a kind of art collective that mocks corporate trends-casting reports by issuing its own. K-Hole calls the aesthetic that gives rise to artisanal coffee “Mass Indie”:
Mass Indie ditched the Alternative preoccupation with evading sameness and focused on celebrating difference instead. […] Whether you’re soft grunge, pastel goth, or pale, you can shop at Forever 21.
But as Mass Indie becomes mass-er, it starts to hit snags. “Individuality was once the path to personal freedom—a way to lead life on your own terms,” says K-Hole’s report. “But the terms keep getting more and more specific, making us more and more isolated.” Each product, slightly different and catering to a slightly different audience, winds up isolating people in islands of taste and difference:
Feast.ly, Fast.ly, Vid.ly, Vend.ly, Ming.ly, Mob.ly: each provides a specific service, finetuned to a specific user need, brought to life by a specific entrepreneurial urge. They’re all targeting different audiences, but the general public can’t remember who’s who.
As Mass Indie approaches cultural domination, its elites flee. They’re alone on their perfectly curated and indecipherable islands of taste. They instead embrace—and please, please, do not stop reading when you encounter this word—normcore.
Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness. But instead of appropriating an aestheticized version of the mainstream, it just cops to the situation at hand. To be truly Normcore, you need to understand that there’s no such thing as normal. […]
Normcore seeks the freedom that comes with non-exclusivity. It finds liberation in being nothing special, and realizes that adaptability leads to belonging.
“If you live in the middle of nowhere,” Fehrenbacher told me, lauding her own company’s stunt, “you get to try some of the country’s best coffee.” Thermos has already shipped hot coffee to central Florida, northern Michigan, and (of course) New York City.
Looking at that picture of the bearded barista and the line of identical Thermoses, I thought, what could be more normcore than this?
But there’s something that enables all of this, from my supping of the coffee to your reading this now: the global supply chain. The ability to fling ingredients and products from coast-to-coast and continent-to-continent makes not only Thermos’s contest but Spyhouse’s very business possible. It’s the supply chain that moves coffee beans from El Salvador to Minneapolis, where they can be roasted and sipped in days. It’s the supply chain—in the form of FedEx, which, remember, has the world’s fourth largest collection of aircraft—that performs the final stunt of getting coffee around the lower 48 in half a day.
Behind every ingredients list stand the movers and shippers of our world: each, like FedEx, possessing a private army of execution. I accepted Thermos’s coffee contest because it seemed a spectacle of logistics. But every single day of our lives is already that.
* This post originally described the plane which shipped the Thermos as a DC-10. It is properly an MD-10: a DC-10 modified by FedEx to have a larger cockpit and different hull. We regret the error.
2010 is upon us and what began as a graduation gift idea between professor and scholar has now evolved into a means of stimulating interest in the specialty coffee industry and in its entire supply chain –
– from farm level decision makers who must decide how to react to how global climate change is impacting their growing season and yields;
– to cooperatives who must decide how to integrate IT solutions into their business processes;
– farmers who must choose between numerous certification choices;
– exporters who must decide what price is a ‘fair’ one at which to sell their prized beans;
– importers who must navigate an increasingly competitive specialty coffee market;
– specialty roasters who must communicate their value proposition to a growing market segment;
– shops trying to differentiate their brand and product from the Starbucks baseline and from other shops claiming to provide the ‘gourmet’ experience;
– to end-consumers who seek clarity and consistency of quality despite all of the contingencies that must occur before the latte art is disturbed by the first sip.
Cafehound.com was launched early this fall as an online medium for Krislert Samphantharak and Matthew Maher to communicate and share their knowledge and experience with each other more than anything else. It began as an incremental journey to explore various portions of the supply chain in detail and encourage participation and collaboration with some of the major actors in the specialty coffee industry. Before long, Café Hound was able to secure interviews with roasters, importers, shop owners, professional baristas, farmers and people involved on the academic/research end of the soft commodities market. Given the very positive response that the website has received and as a consequence of very promising content in the future, Café Hound has decided to begin institutionalizing some processes.
1. Custom blend releases on occasion to generate publicity and raise funds for charity
2. Regular café reviews spanning the globe with occasional guest postings from our friends and associates abroad
3. Spotlight pieces that investigate particular segments of the supply chain with specific attention to farmers, importers and roasters.
4. Academic themed reviews of literature empirically evaluating aspects of the soft commodities market, especially coffee and specialty coffee
5. Newsletter updates
6. Creating a non-profit organization to provide a legal basis for managing funds and further enhancing our ability to provide value to entrepreneurial agricultural producers and children in the developing world.
Sightglass Coffee Bar & Roastery has already garnered a lot of attention even though they just opened the kiosk three months ago and the “real” coffee bar and roastery are still under construction. It is located in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood on 7th Street at Falsom– a short walk from BART Civic Center station.
I visited Sightglass in the morning of a weekday. At first, I was a bit disappointed that the cafe seemed to be closed and there was construction inside the building. A second later, I smelt strong coffee aroma coming from inside so I kept walking down to what was once a driveway to a warehouse. Finally, I spotted the coffee kiosk inside the garage gate.
Sightglass is owned and run by the two brothers who are also the roasters, and apparently the contractors and constructors, of this coffee bar. They were originally from the Pacific Northwest so coffee is in their blood. They helped start Four Barrel Coffee in the Mission, and before that worked at Blue Bottle (which we reviewed here). People from Blue Bottle also help the brothers set up their new cafe. Jared also worked together with Eileen Hassi, the owner of Ritual Coffee, back while they both were in Seattle. All of these confirmed what Eileen told me during an interview with her that the gourmet coffee industry in San Francisco had a healthy “friendly competition.”
I enjoyed my latte while watching Justin and Jared working and supervising the construction of their new coffee bar. Right now they use coffee beans from Verve Coffee Roaster in Santa Cruz, CA, but plan to roast their own beans in a month. (I already spotted a Probat roaster there.) With their past roasting experience at Blue Bottle among other places, the quality of the beans they will offer is likely guaranteed.
I had a conversation with Justin who shared with me their vision. According to him, the building was a paint warehouse so it has gigantic size as compared to the usual neighborhood coffee houses. The ceiling is high and the place is very airy. They will have a mezzanine that people can sit and enjoy their drink. The coffee bar will be in the back while the roasting area will be in the front. They plan to have seating area around the roaster as well. They hope that the construction should be done in a few months. And I am looking forward to going check out the place and tasting their own roasted coffee soon.
Local 123 is a new cafe in Berkeley, CA. Even though it has been open for just five months, this coffee house has attracted great reviews. I visited Local 123 during the day on Saturday. The location is a bit far from the campus so either you have to walk quite far or you can take a bus to University and San Pablo.
Local 123 uses coffee beans from Flying Goat Coffee in Healdsburg (near Santa Rosa), CA. The beans are generally medium mild roasted. For espresso drinks, the default beans are Flying Goat’s espresso blend No. 9, but they are also available with single origins upon request. When I visited the cafe, the featured single origin was Costa Rica Puente Tarrazu. For drip coffee, Local 123 offers several single origin beans for you to choose. Then they freshly grind your beans and make your drip coffee cup-by-cup. I find this attention to quality as a big plus. I ordered latte as usual. My drink was prepared by Frieda, who was also a co-owner of Local 123 along with her sister-in-law. The latte was beautiful. It was mild and taste great. Frieda was friendly and attentive to the coffee she brewed.
Local 123 has minimal decoration with some artworks on the wall. The cafe is clean. It seems to be famous for people who come with their laptops or books and spend time working while enjoying their drinks. The cafe offers free wifi throughout but also has the “wifi-free” area that encourages conversations among customers. There is also outdoor seating area in the back. They also have selected homemade pastry, sandwiches, and salad available. And they make jams from locally-grown fruits. The only problem that some customers may have is that this cafe takes cash only and do not accept credit cards. There is an ATM machine nearby however.
Overall, Local 123 is also a lovely neighborhood cafe that not only provides good coffee but also pays a lot of attention to sustainability and local community. (Big kudos on that!) As some of the reviews on the internet proclaim, if you are in Berkeley and don’t want to travel to San Francisco to get Blue Bottle coffee, Local 123 is the place that you will unlikely to get disappointed. So far, I do agree with them.
Over the past six weeks, we have enjoyed unofficially blogging on cafehound.com and have seen the development of the blog and its traffic from visitors “accidentally” coming to our blog. It has been a pleasure to offer diverse information accessible on our blog. Today, we take another important step and officially introduce to you cafehound.com.
What you will find on our blog is random but hopefully informative. As the blog’s name suggests, we are Cafe Hound. We search for the best coffee the world can offer. In Cafe Hounding section, you can read our reviews of cafes from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Coming soon, we will add reviews of coffee houses outside the US. We are also proud to present to you the exclusive interviews of “Who Is Who” in specialty coffee industry. We are honored to have Chuck Patton (founder and owner of Bird Rock Cafe Roasters in La Jolla, California) as our inaugural feature in this interview section. To be added to the list of fame are Eileen Hassi (founder and owner of Ritual Coffee in San Francisco), Michael McGuire (owner and roaster of K-Bay Caffe in Homer, Alaska), Timothy Castle (founder and CEO of Castle & Company, Santa Monica, California), and Karen Cebreros (founder and CEO of Elan Organic, San Diego, California).
Cafe Hound is not only the place you can get reviews and knowledge about your neighborhood cafes. We carefully select and present to you interesting news and upcoming events in coffee industry. Moreover, with our expertise in economics, finance, international relations, and public policy, we devote a section of the blog to analytical and educational issues related to every stage of specialty coffee production– from crop to cup, or from beans to brew. Currently, we proudly review an interesting article by Christopher Bacon of the University of California, Santa Cruz, on how organic, Fair-Trade, eco-friendly coffee could potentially help poor farmers in developing economies get out of poverty. Our main objective is to present to you the cutting-edge academic research on coffee-related issues in a non-academic language. Stay tuned for more of these geeky but exciting posts.
You may want to ask yourself why we, as an academic economist and a policy expert, fell in love with coffee and decided to devote our time to this blog. We have explained it all in the About the Hounds section. For those who have known us before, this section will give you eye-opening stories of the “dark” (but creamy and aromatic) side of our lives. We hope it entertains you and answers your curiosity.
You may also want to know what we expect from this blog. Well, first and foremost, we view this blog as our way to get us exposed to more people in the coffee industry. This is not only those working in the industry itself, but also those who are frequent customers of coffee houses and share our passion in great coffee. Please come join us in our journey to search for the best coffee. Please suggest to us where we should go “cafe hounding.” If you have favorite neighborhood coffee houses, feel free to share with us.
Finally, we realize there are several blogs and discussion boards out there covering coffee and cafes. Many of them are fantastic and comprehensive. By no means do we view our blog as their competitor. Instead, we think that our blog will offer something different, and provide you with both casual and more formal, semi-academic knowledge. The Cafe Hounding section does not rate the cafes (like yelp or other restaurant rating websites) but rather presents you with objective reviews of coffee houses that we carefully select. Most of them are mentioned by local coffee geeks as the “best in town” cafes or employ baristas who have made it to the final round of national or international competitions. The Interviews section gives you behind-the-scene stories about people in your neighborhood cafes and others in the industry that you may not have known before. Finally, the coffee.edu section takes advantage of our strengths and expertise in our main professions as an academic economist and a policy expert. It is very educational in a strict academic sense, i.e. very nerdy, but hopefully is exciting for those readers who are interested in more than just the taste and aroma of coffee.
And with this introduction, we officially proudly present to you… cafehound.com.
Blue Bottle Coffee Co. – Mint Plaza, San Francisco
66 Mint St. (corner of Jessie), San Francisco, CA, 94103 bluebottlecoffee.net
Blue Bottle Coffee is a household name for coffee geeks living or visiting San Francisco. San Francisco Chronicle featured an interview with James Freeman about a month ago. I have been frequented this cafe, both getting a latte at the cafe or buying their beans to bring back to my home in San Diego. The flagship Blue Bottle is at the Mint Plaza, not too far from Civic Center and Union Square. However, it is not located on the main streets so this place is ideal if you want a quick escape from the hectic people traffic on Market and Powell.
The cafe is easy to spot if you know exactly where it is. Otherwise, try to locate a cute “blue bottle” logo on the wall of the building behind the Mint Building. Once you enter the cafe, you will find yourself in a craftsman-decorated 17ft-ceiling room with modern, industrial redecoration. Looking around, you will see glassware of Blue Bottle’s Kyoto-style coffee maker and other coffee-related appliances on cafe’s long countertop. It really makes you feel like being in a chemistry lab rather than a cafe, which is very cool.
I usually visit Blue Bottle in the afternoon of weekdays, and always find the cafe packed with customers. Sometimes, the line even goes beyond the entrance. The staff are friendly, knowledgeable, and willing to answer your questions (including those related to the chemical reactions that might be happening in one of those glass beakers!). Since the cafe was very busy during the last time of my visit, I did not have a chance to talk to the barista although my latte was very good as expected. (Last month, my cappuccino was prepared by Sally, who had worked with Blue Bottle for 8 months. The drink was great, too.) Blue Bottle uses their 17ft Ceiling Blend for their espresso drinks. It mimics the Italian espresso blend but substituted robusta with high-quality organic arabica, resulting in a very smooth coffee with nice aroma. Blue Bottle also uses organic milk for their latte and cappuccino. If you are an ice-coffee guy, try Blue Bottle’s Kyoto or New Orleans ice coffee. (The Kyoto-style coffee takes over a day to prepare, slowly brewing drop by drop at room temperature.)
In terms of its ambience, the cafe is good for those who want a short break with a cup of coffee. The high ceiling makes the cafe airy, open, and relax. People also meet here for some quick informal business discussions. Although the cafe seems to be crowded and people have to wait for their drinks at times, I never have problem finding a seat in this cafe. There might be just around 20-30 seats in total, all with communal high bars rather than individual tables. Customers tend not to sit for a long time. One of the reason is that this cafe is not laptop-friendly (no electrical plugs and no wireless internet). However, I concur that this is a good policy after all, given the size of the cafe and the number of customers it serves. This is the place that you can come to enjoy your drink, relax, and leave your work behind– at least for a short moment.
Being a geek has served James Freeman well as one of the Bay Area’s premier coffee roasters. But it wasn’t so great in high school in the Humboldt County town of Fieldbrook. One day, a group of boys slammed the clarinet player against a row of lockers.
“Flute boy!” they yelled.
The fact that they got the instrument wrong almost bothered him more than the hazing.
“I almost said, ‘Well actually …’ ” recalled Freeman, laughing.
Freeman went on to become a professional clarinetist, but his musical career never took off the way his coffee business has. Known for his exacting roasting standards and his passion for high-quality, organic coffee beans, Freeman has just opened branches of his Blue Bottle Cafe at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Ferry Building, a year after opening his first cafe, in downtown San Francisco.
“He’s certainly the leader in roasting in the Bay Area,” said Dexter Carmichael, director of operations for CUESA, which manages the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market where Freeman got his break. Within a couple of months of starting up his coffee cart at the Saturday market in December 2003, the lines for his coffee, meticulously brewed one cup at a time, were often 20 people deep.
“It’s his attention to detail. It’s a really focused, really clean, really pure approach to coffee,” Carmichael said.
Expanding in Oakland
Freeman, 43, is about to move into a 9,000-square-foot warehouse in Oakland’s Jack London Square that will house the office, two vintage coffee roasters, a barista training room, commercial kitchen and coffee bar, with room to manage the company’s 50 employees and 50 wholesale accounts, including about 25 restaurants. In fact, many credit him with improving the quality of restaurant coffee.
“In restaurants, typically coffee was, if not an afterthought, certainly never given very high priority,” said Daniel Patterson, chef-owner of the four-star restaurant Coi in North Beach. “James is coming in and saying, ‘Why don’t you pay the same amount of attention to coffee that you do to the food?’ “
A center of coffee roasting since the Gold Rush, the Bay Area has seen various trends fall in and out of fashion. Along with Blue Bottle, a handful of other new local roasters share similar specialties: buying beans from sustainable, often individual, farms; roasting in smaller batches and at lighter levels than standard coffeehouse style; and a weakness for technology, such as coffee grinders that cost as much as a flight to Rome.
On a recent morning, Freeman left his San Francisco apartment to bring his son, Dashiell, 6, to summer day camp. He had breakfast at the Ferry Building cafe and then headed to the company’s Emeryville roasting facilities to join his staff for the daily coffee tasting called cupping.
They cupped four top Nicaraguan coffees from the online coffee auction Cup of Excellence and a new Brazilian coffee.
“I’m not super into No. 3,” Freeman said. “It feels like it’s hollowed out. No. 1 is the most expressive.”
Over the course of the week, the staff would cup 30 Nicaraguan coffees to decide which, if any, to bid on.
Made to order
Daily cuppings are standard industry practice, but the way Freeman runs things can seem extreme. A customer once asked how long he could store his ground coffee for espresso. Freeman’s answer: 45 seconds. When the customer said, no seriously, how long, Freeman thought about it and told him, well, maybe 90 seconds.
“If he was looking for advice, well, that’s what we think is right,” said Freeman, pointing out that ground coffee quickly dries out and becomes unpleasant tasting.
Visiting a Blue Bottle cafe is a rarefied experience, from the time it takes to get a cup of coffee – a barista makes one cup at a time, grinding the beans, then stirring the grounds while pouring in the water – to details like soft-scrambled eggs from pasture-raised chickens pillowed between crustless slices of Acme bread. Customers can get irritated by the long lines and not-piping-hot lattes, but Freeman counters that each cup is made to order and is meant to be consumed right away.
The son of a State Board of Equalization administrator and a homemaker mother, Freeman attended UC Santa Cruz, mostly so he could be near clarinet teacher Rosario Mazzeo in Carmel. After graduating, he earned his master’s degree in clarinet at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Freeman joined what is dubbed the Freeway Philharmonic, a group of Bay Area musicians who travel between part-time jobs with small orchestras. Burned out after a decade of being a musical nomad, he welcomed a brief foray with a music dot-com that ended in being laid off in the wake of 9/11.
Freeman had been in the grip of coffee obsession since the mid-1990s, when he started roasting his coffee at home on a perforated baking sheet. He would bring a manual coffee grinder and French press aboard airplanes to make himself a cup.
Started with cart
While unemployed, he began roasting tiny batches of beans and selling them at farmers’ markets. Miette Patisserie, co-owned at the time by Megan Ray and Caitlin Williams, was one of his first customers. The pair also had an espresso cart they were happy to sell to Freeman. (The relationship with Miette also became personal later, with Freeman and Williams marrying last year.)
Freeman has come a long way from that first cart. His Mint Plaza cafe in downtown San Francisco is distinguished by its refinement – black-aproned servers remove ceramic coffee cups and organic pastry crumbs from your table – and a row of Japanese siphon coffee makers that has drawn the attention of coffee geeks around the country.
Still, those close to Freeman say he’s not a snob or even a perfectionist.
“I don’t know if he would ever say he’s trying to get perfection,” said his wife, who is now the company’s pastry chef. “I think he would say he’s trying to do things as carefully as possible with as much thought as possible.”
It can be hard to find a crack in Freeman’s politeness; he’s even been quoted saying nice things about Starbucks. But he has his moments. Right before the SFMOMA location was about to open, an employee came to show him the new menu. He had fallen in love with a typeface called Gil Sans Light and was excited to see it in print.
“I said, in a very snippy way, ‘That’s not Gil Sans Light, that’s Gil Sans!’ ” said Freeman.
If only the high school bullies could hear him now.
Name: James Freeman.
Title: Owner, Blue Bottle Coffee Co.
Home town: Fieldbrook (Humboldt County)
Education: UC Santa Cruz, bachelor of arts, 1990; San Francisco Conservatory of Music, master of music in clarinet performance, 1992.
Career: Clarinetist with several Northern California symphonies, 1990-2000.
Businesses: Blue Bottle Cafe at 66 Mint St., Ferry Building No. 9, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Rooftop Garden, all in San Francisco. Kiosks at 315 Linden St., San Francisco; Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Tuesday and Saturday; and Temescal Farmers’ Market (Oakland) on Sunday.
Family: Married to Caitlin Williams Freeman. Son, Dashiell, 6, from a previous marriage.