Saint Frank Coffee is, by any discerning standard, having a good year. Kevin Bohlin’s four-year-old specialty coffee shop has become a coffee destination here in San Francisco, and the brand continues to push boundaries in its approach to cafe environments and green coffee buying. This year, the company has opened a side project—St. Clare Coffee—in partnership with human slavery non-profit Not For Sale, to help provide education and jobs to women who’ve been victims of slavery in both San Francisco and countries of origin. Bohlin has also quietly thrown open the doors on a new roastworks, in a space last occupied by De La Paz. It would be enough to fill any small business owner's plate, and yet, there's more.
Earlier this year, Saint Frank opened a stand-alone cafe located in the MPK 20 building at Facebook. MPK 20—better known as the Frank Gehry building—is, with 430,000 square feet and almost no walls, considered to be the largest open office working space in the world. It fits 2,800 employees—including Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and the core of Facebook's leadership team—and features a 380,000-square-foot rooftop park with 400 trees and a half-mile walking loop. Within the center of this building sits a shining new cafe bearing Saint Frank’s logo. And though the opening of the cafe has provided Bohlin with a new source of income, a large space in which to experiment and an extremely appreciative customer base, it hasn't all been sunshine and rosettas. There are big preconceptions when it comes to coffee and tech, something we've covered extensively here at Sprudge. Moving past these norms has been a challenge—with results that are perhaps Bohlin's greatest success to date.
When Facebook’s Culinary Department (you read that correctly) reached out to Bohlin, he wasn’t immediately drawn to the idea. “I had a lot of conversations with coffee people,” he says, “and a lot of them flat out scoffed at the idea. But Facebook said, ‘We can build a coffee bar, but we’re not experts and we want an expert doing this that stands behind what they believe and can deliver that to our people.'” After a few visits to the space, Bohlin was intrigued. “Facebook said, basically, ‘do what you do, be who you are, whatever that means,'” Bohlin says, “and that was awesome.”
Though Facebook originally intended for Saint Frank to be a kiosk accessible in the middle of the sprawling rooftop park, this wasn’t the right fit for Bohlin. Instead, his vision was a permanent structure built in the center of the main building that would protect not only the integrity of his product but allow him to continue to espouse the values of his company. “I said that if we were going to do this, we wanted to build a structure with moveable glass walls that would show all of the sunlight and also protect us from the environment. This wasn’t going to be a kiosk; it was an opportunity for something else entirely.”
What Bohlin got was a cafe nearly twice the size of his original Polk Street store. A massive space with large moveable windows that allows the light to shine in, a beautifully worked wooden bar with gleaming white tiles that reflects the pragmatic uses (the bar is low in height for better interaction between baristas and customers) of the Polk Street shop’s bar. “I was very clear,” Bohlin says. “You want us to be us? This is what it’s going to be.”
Bohlin was initially worried that Facebook would flex its tech perk muscles and ask that the coffee be served for free. Instead, Facebook employees are given a 10-percent discount on coffee drinks, a number that Bohlin sees as akin to paying extremely low rent for a space he could never otherwise afford. “I was excited that people were going to be paying for their drinks,” he says. “It makes the coffee stay special. They get a lot of perks, but the perk here is ‘wow, I get the best coffee in the Bay Area, right here.‘”
The perks flow both ways. Bohlin and his team are operating a gorgeous, sunlit cafe with huge windows and sparkling white tile that had an immediate, sizable customer base, allowing Bohlin to grow profit margins across Saint Frank. Increased volume and revenue has enabled Bohlin to hire more employees, and continue his focused work with small holder producers in countries like Honduras, where he's traveled extensively. Most importantly though, Bohlin sees the Facebook cafe as a place for research and development, for experimentation and the testing of new coffee equipment that he’d later roll out at his flagship shop. One of these devices is the Marco SP9—affectionately known as “The Splurty”—a single-cup automatic brewer that he’ll test within the walls of Facebook, before introducing it to his customers at the original Saint Frank on Polk Street.
Bohlin is also using the space as a testing ground for new varieties of cold brew. “We’re playing with different ingredients in the nitro kegs,” he says, “like, signature drink style. It’s super interesting.” But if you strip away the new space and the ability for experimentation, this is very much a functioning cafe. “The way you order with the barista, the flow, the sustained human engagement, even while you’re waiting to pay—it’s all still Saint Frank.”
Nearly three months in, Bohlin now looks back at those who scoffed at the idea originally with some amount of distaste. “To me, that way of thinking was completely unfair,” he says, “and I think a lot of it is tied up in the controversy with tech in the Bay Area. This idea that tech dehumanizes people. And, I’m not saying there aren’t issues, but Saint Frank is all about humanizing—producers and customers. We’re keeping people at the forefront.” Many early critics believed that a cafe within a tech company could never be a fun place, but Bohlin's experience so far has been totally the opposite.
“Everyone is a regular here, and everyone is stoked that you’re here,” he says. “And they’re generous tippers.”
Photos courtesy of Michelle Park.