Ukiah, California, isn’t known for much.
It’s a small community, almost 18,000 residents, just a stop-over town in the heart of Ukiah Valley, and considered by many to be the urban heart (such as it is) of rural Mendocino County, 2 hours north up the coast from San Francisco. You’ve probably only ever visited as a place to fill-up on gas on your way to Oregon.
Maybe you know it because of its vineyards, row after row in every direction, which supply some of the region’s biggest wine producers with grapes. Or maybe you know this region for its hundreds of weed farms—small to large to enormous—tucked away out of sight in the rolling hills surrounding the town, helping to supply marijuana enthusiasts in California and beyond. What you don’t know it for, as of now, is coffee. Up until recently if you were up north, you might stop in Healdsburg for a cup of Flying Goat Coffee, or if you’re smart, pack a thermos of whatever you drink at home, and pray that it lasts you the three to five hour haul to the border of Oregon. With the opening of Keith Feigin and Jon Frech’s Black Oak Coffee Roasters in Ukiah though, there is now a coffee destination, for both travelers and locals alike.
Black Oak Coffee is on Ukiah’s Main Street, a rectangular building that has the sort of blocky architectural stylings of a 1960s mechanic shop. Prior to Feigin and his business partner Frech buying it in 2014, it had been a string of coffee shops, the best known among them was called The Coffee Critic. Feigin was born and bred in Ukiah, the product of a family that had lived in the area for generations and had owned businesses there for almost half a century. “I grew up going to this coffee shop as a kid,” Feigin recalls, “we came here every day and we’d sit out on the patio and smoke clove cigarettes and not buy anything.” Feigin and his wife, Kate, own Lover’s Lane Farm—named after his family’s ranch where they, their kids, and his parents live—a successful honey company, but after years of debilitating drought, Feigin was looking for a backup. “Being an agricultural producer is really volatile,” Feigin says, “during dry spells, it can just be months and months of no income.”
Jon Frech is an East Coast transplant who’d migrated west in his 20s to try farming in the fertile valleys of Northern California. He and Feigin bonded over ranching—specifically goats—and a friendship quickly grew, with Frech helping out with business aspects of Lover’s Lane. Feigin had been researching the profitability of owning a coffee business, and when he decided to make the first step, Frech came aboard as his partner. Problem was, neither knew anything about roasting coffee. Enter Steve Ford.
If you’re keen on the coffee industry, Steve Ford might be a name you know. He spent years as Ritual Coffee Roaster’s roaster before recently taking over as Head Roaster at Counter Culture Coffee’s massive roasting expansion in the Bay Area. He also grew up in Ukiah and has been one of Keith Feigin’s best friends for most of his life. “Steve really saw the value of what we had here,” Feigin says, “and him and Jon and myself started meeting over the campfire and talking about coffee and our business model.” The day before Thanksgiving 2011, Frech and Feigin purchased the former Coffee Critic space. With Ritual Coffee helping to train their employees and get the coffee tech side of things ordered and calibrated—“mother-henning” them as Frech puts it—Black Oak opened its doors in December of 2012.
It wasn’t easy at first. The Ukiah community wasn’t ready for the nuanced flavor profiles of the micro-lots Frech and Feigin were selling when they opened the door. “We had no blends when we opened,” Frech says, “and people were complaining that the coffee tasted like acid and that it was bitter.” Frech and Feigin know that the success of their coffee shop is entirely dependent on pleasing the Ukiah community, so, without sacrificing their own ideals, they’re creating a menu that plays towards the wants of their customers—a primarily working class town. “It’s a smaller market,” Feigin says, “all of our customers are either locals or regulars, so we have to be more customer-friendly. Light roasted coffees from individually named co-ops are our passion, but you’re going to see a large range of roast levels and a large range of drink options here.”
Black Oak’s Black Bart blend—a dark roast named after a notorious highwayman who terrorized the area in the 19th century—was introduced six months after the store opened and quickly became its most popular coffee. And, to be frank, it’s good: a big, chocolate-y roast with just enough nuance to elevate it to a higher level. Same goes for the specialty drinks on the menu, in particular the Lover’s Lane Latte, a latte infused with a shot of Lover’s Lane Honey and then garnished with a crust of bee pollen. It could be just another shockingly sweet drink, but the earthy pollen dust and the espresso offset the herbal sweetness of the honey. “To be honest,” Frech says, “I don’t think people need coffee education. If someone tastes something they like, they’ll want it. That’s our job, make it delicious and then the journey begins.”
Frech and Feigin want Black Oak to be a coffee shop as good as any in the Bay Area, but one that doesn’t sacrifice the small town, communal aspects of Ukiah in the process. You can feel the combination of hip Bay Area cafe and community coffee hangout as soon as you walk in. It has refurbished hardwood, stylishly vintage furniture, and a gleaming La Marzocco GB5 espresso machine, but it’s also huge and decked out with comfortable-looking couches and big tables that beckon you to meet a friend or plug-in your laptop and stay for awhile. “I want it to be a place where you can go and say, ‘I’m going to stick around here for a while, drink my coffee, and look out the window,’” Feigin says, “When I was growing up, I wanted that community coffee shop. It’s about discovery, and bringing these coffees to Ukiah, and if I can facilitate that, it is very satisfying.”
Frech and Feigin wouldn’t object to more stores, but their focus, for the moment, is on Ukiah. That means building not only a stellar coffee program but also creating a place where people want to be. And who knows? Maybe a little further down the line, folks in Ukiah can expand the way they interact with coffee. In the meantime, Feigin and Frech will take the small victories and keep moving forward. When customers walked into Black Oak, there used to be a sign that read, “Why isn’t my coffee hot?” with an explanation of the proper way to serve a milk-based drink. Two years later, that sign has disappeared—it's no longer necessary.