What’s Really Going On Inside Square’s Secret R&D Cafe?

Square HQ-0873

Square‘s slick, low cost point of sales system has taken the speciality coffee world by storm. From fully integrated POS systems in high-end cafes, to every last pop-up barista humbly sliding (and occasionally re-sliding) your card a their kiosk, the last 3 years have seen a tremendous amount of integration between Square technology and speciality coffee culture. This is not an accident.

Square knows that the cafe is one of the most demanding environments for a point of sale system, and they’ve made a concerted effort to target that environment. That’s why the Square HQ on Market Street in San Francisco houses one of the most slick, tricked out, and exclusive cafes in the Bay Area. This cafe is closed to public. No, you can’t go there, unless you work at Square or know someone who does. Here’s a look inside.

Square HQ-0878

My tour was led by Square’s PR Guru, Lindsay Wiese, and included a look at the Square offices as well as their cafe. Aside from a mechanism by which to receive delicious coffee drinks, the cafe’s second purpose is as a testing and proving ground for every new Square feature and upgrade. Square employees pay with their Square Wallet for all espresso drinks. Transactions are processed like a normal café. And just like a normal café there are rushes, lulls, and regulars.

The baristas staffing the situation are Brad Wharton, a veteran of Blue Bottle Coffee, and Sergio Arreola from Ritual Coffee Roasters. They told me that the Square café was a lot like working at a café in the real world – except that all of their customers are regulars. That and the engineers will come over and check out their order themselves to try out some new feature or software upgrade.

Since Starbucks owns a chunk of Square, and Sightglass Coffee is a “sibling-owned company,” you might expect the cafe to be loyal to those brands. But that’s just not the case. Beyond the Clover, there’s no Starbucks in this cafe. And in addition to Sightglass, they carry coffee from other local Bay Area favorites Blue Bottle Coffee, Barefoot Coffee Roasters, and Four Barrel Coffee. Teas come courtesy Five Mountains and Samovar.

Square HQ-0891

Wharton and Arreola get a La Marzocco Strada MP and a trio of Mazzer Robur-E grinders to play with on the espresso side. The brewed coffee end of things is just as tricked-out: the gear is set up on a long counter outside of the bar, in a self-serve style, with detailed instructions on each brew method. Square employees wander up and make pre-dosed batches for themselves. Something like two-dozen people could be making pourovers at any given time, primarily through Hario V60s and Chemexes, though they’ve got one of just about any brewing method you can imagine lying around. Two Marco water boilers and two Mahlkonig EK43 grinders power the brewing setup. No word on if you can order a coffee shot or not.

When baristas are off-duty, those working long hours can make themselves coffee or they can head upstairs to the Egro fully-automatic espresso machines across from the juice bar.

Square HQ-0846

Getting/making coffee at the Square cafe isn’t the only superlative part of the experience–working there sounds about as plush as (North American) barista gigs get. The baristas work a 9-5ish work day, and are obligated to take a lunch. Of course, as is the custom of Bay Area tech companies, the kitchen and food program is at least as high-class as the coffee service. During my visit, Mssrs. Arreola and Wharton had time after enjoying their bulgogi lettuce wraps and paleo carrot truffles to squeeze in a game of pool before going back to work.

Part of the baristas’ job description, beyond making coffee for the company, is testing and development. If they find issues with the Square system, they “just throw a rock at a developer and tell them to fix something,” according to Mr. Arreola. “It’s cool to have something to do with developing the product.”

While I can’t say for certain, I imagine professional barista experience is something that might be lacking in the ranks of Square engineers. Having Arreola and Wharton’s input can only be a good thing for the future of Square in cafes, right?

Square HQ-0841

In addition to those duties, the two are also leading some coffee education programs for Square staff. “I’ve got a halogen siphon bar laying around that I might use to teach a class,” Wharton said, befitting his time previously served with Blue Bottle during speciality coffee’s late-aughts siphon phase. Espresso, latte art, and other manual brew method classes are also on the agenda, and they apparently fill up faster than they can schedule them.

Eventually, Square hopes to have the giant flatscreens behind the bar showing educational videos about coffee origin, processing, or brew tutorials. For the company’s Hack Week, where every employee is given an opportunity to work on basically anything they want, there was talk of doing coffee related things – that or starting a band.

I expected the cafe and the baristas to be an afterthought here at Square – but the centrally located cafe actually seems completely essential to the operations of the office. It acts as a social space, a place to have meetings, and a place to take guests. Which is to say, just like any other cafe. The fact that the baristas are the ones that get to deal with the software in the most real-world way possible in an office environment makes them indispensable to the engineers.

Square HQ-0829

The cafe is obviously smart for Square. But it’s cool that they’re gone beyond simple utilty and are using local beans and hiring local baristas, not just from their sibling companies, and making what looks like a real effort to promote specialty coffee and educate employees. I think many baristas  would jump at the chance for a stable income with great benefits, tons of perks, and experience in the tech industry.

While there, I tried to convince Arreola and Wharton to represent Square at the Big Western Barista Championship coming up in February in Los Angeles. After all, the tech world is all about disruption, paradigm shifts, innovation, etc. and, in a lot of ways, that’s what specialty coffee, and the spirit of barista competitions, are all about too. Big Westerns happen in late February in Los Angeles. This is me calling them out again: Will Square be the first tech company to field a barista competitor? Sounds like an innovation touch point to me.

Square HQ-0893

Leif Haven (@LeifHaven) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Oakland. Read more Leif Haven here. 

Pin It