It could be said that Blue Bottle Coffee, after years and years spent defining itself as the measuring point for Bay Area specialty coffee, has in the past few years taken a step back from the land of its youth. There’s been openings in New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo; a global-minded partnership with Tartine Bakery; even a door-to-door, fresh-coffee delivery service, designed to ferry coffee to your home even if you’re a thousand miles from the Ferry Building. Like it or not, our partners at Blue Bottle have evolved from the metal awning of their Linden Street Kiosk to a global entity, in the process becoming as much of a household name as you’ll find in specialty coffee.
And yet, with the opening of their new cafe/kiosk on Mid-Market, in the shadow of booming new food emporium The Market (with plans for another space in the Financial District later this year) it feels as if Blue Bottle has, for a moment at least, come home. The new space is small, just 500 deceptively spacious square feet, and tucked away on 10th Street at the base of the historic Market Square (the home of Twitter). The cafe is sparse and warmly lit, and functions very much so as a kind of grab-and-go operation, a place to pop in on a break from work to grab a cup, shoot the shit with a co-worker, and maybe, just maybe, spend a little time outside on the green turf-covered patio. Regardless of size, in purpose and philosophy this is a Blue Bottle cafe through and through.
Mario Bustamante is the manager of Blue Bottle’s new Mid-Market location, and a passionate supporter of all things great coffee. He’s there to ensure that this is more than just a place to get refueled for the day; that this is place that offers more than just the fine coffee; that this is a place where you’ll walk away not only with a coffee beverage, but with a piece of the story of where that coffee comes from. I sat down with Bustamante to discuss his personal philosophy for the space, the challenges of opening on Mid-Market, and the ongoing connection between tech and coffee.
You’ve been open a week—how has it been so far?
We were supposed to open in March, but got pushed back to, well, last week. The extra time was actually a blessing. Our staff had so much time to hone in their skills and I had time to figure out all the operational stuff. When we opened the door it was turnkey, the smoothest opening I’ve ever experienced. A week out, I was actually stressing, because I wasn’t stressing. I kept asking myself, “Why aren’t I panicking?” Our teams knew exactly what to do, it was like watching an orchestra move across the space. I know that when I leave everyday, this team will represent Blue Bottle the way I would. And that’s the best feeling.
What are the challenges of opening Mid-Market in San Francisco?
People don’t come out here for coffee, specifically in this area. Foot traffic during the week is great, but on the weekends it’s a desert. It’s not an attraction; it’s not Hayes Valley. Our first weekend we saw half of our business drop off. People see this as their home base, so on the weekend they leave to experience other places. Now though, there are businesses and back alley food halls. This area will evolve into a place where people don’t just come to work, but a place where they want to go and bring friends, even on the weekends.
What do you think the cafe’s role is in this part of San Francisco?
I’ve lived in San Francisco all my life, and this community has always been where the stragglers went and it’s never been a pretty place. Having [The Market] here, well, it’s a place to access fresh food and through that you spark innovation and creativity for the community, and from that you help to build the community.
What’s the philosophy of this space?
We have three tenets of opening a space: hospitality, deliciousness, and sustainability. I want to focus on hospitality and service. They’re different. Service is the structure, hospitality is how you feel after you leave. I want people to want to come back. I want people to say, “I know a great place, it’s right down the street.” I want this to be a place of knowledge, a place where people come in and learn something. We’re pushing our lead barista to do public cuppings every week. Hospitality, that’s what’s driving me right now.
You guys are opening up in the sort of new tech-heart of San Francisco. What do you think the connection between tech and coffee is?
We keep them running. We keep them fueled up. I watch them take the elevators down from the Twitter building, and they’re doing cartwheels on the Astroturf and having coffee together. I think with the tech industry they care about quality in their coding and product and marketing—they like quality things. They search for that. At noon, this place is booming. Everyone is connecting, having relationships, and then they split up and take a part of their experience here, back to their offices.
How does it feel to sort of join the new wave of speciality coffee on Market Street?
We don’t see competition, we just care about what we’re doing. There’s enough business for everyone. I think it’s great that we’re building out our industry, showing people the story behind a cup of four-dollar coffee—the thousands of hands that touched it, that brought it to a washing station. We’re the protectors of that industry. There’s something primal, human even, about drinking a cup of coffee. You disconnect from everything and it’s cool to see all of these cafes helping to keep that going, to not make it commercial, to keep that artisanal quality.