A few weeks ago at just before five in the afternoon, three men named Ahmed walked past the open door of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters on Union Street, barely giving the pineapple-wallpapered, bright white hole-in-the wall cafe a second look. This sort of sounds like the set up to an elaborate, coffee-themed joke, but it’s not. The Ahmeds turned out to be Saudi Arabian, visiting San Francisco for a tech conference downtown. With just a hint of signage and a few small, circular tables out front, Wrecking Ball’s admittedly hard to miss.
What the Ahmed’s did notice was my notebook, which was out and open to a page scribbled with interview questions for Wrecking Ball’s Nick Cho, and the half drunk demitasse of espresso weighing its pages down. I was waiting outside for Cho to show up. We’d been playing e-mail tag for a week or so at that point and had finally found a time where our schedules intersected. I told this to the Ahmeds, who nodded and asked why, of all places, was I writing a story about this shop. They’d been ambling around the Cow Hollow neighborhood for a while, killing time before dinner, and I suggested they go inside to check it out.
I think it's the best coffee in the city, I said. I’m sure at least one of them, if not all three, raised their eyebrows.
Nick ended up canceling our interview at the last minute. He’d just come back from vacation with his family the week before and somewhere along the line picked up a bug. We e-mailed a bit more, I told him it was alright, and rescheduled. Technically, I was supposed to be writing about Wrecking Ball’s signature (as of earlier this year) drink: an iced cappuccino, for its seeming incongruity as a Starbucksian standby in a shop as deeply rooted in the Third Wave tradition as Wrecking Ball is (Cho’s better half and co-owner, Trish Rothgeb, for instance, literally coined the term “Third Wave” back in the early 2000s, and writes an advice column for this website; Nick is widely regarded as one of the best baristas in the country, and among other things more or less established the rulebook that now governs the US Brewer’s Cup). But what I was finding as I came back over and over and over, either on my own for an espresso or to take pictures of the space, was not only that the iced cappuccino makes sense, but that Wrecking Ball does, too.
It wasn’t until the next week, or maybe it was the next next week, that Nick Cho ended up having time to sit down with me. The shop had been busy with its one-year anniversary, which it celebrated in early September with mini cupcakes and a very minor facelift—subtle repairs to things like doorknobs, touching up shoe-scuffed paint around the bar, and wallpapering the bathroom. Since arriving in San Francisco, Wrecking Ball’s been roasting across the bay, at Highwire Coffee in Emeryville. But even that’s getting an update. Wrecking Ball has a space in San Francisco’s SOMA district that currently acts as their office, but as soon as permits are worked out will become the permanent home of their roasting operation.
When I walked in, Nick was brewing a cup for a customer on a Kalita Wave. He looked at home, in a pale purple shirt and an apron, pouring an even stream into a brewer whose ubiquity in American coffee shops can be credited, at least in large part, to him—Cho was responsible for introducing the US market to the Wave in 2010, when he became its first importer. Coffee snobs would have cringed when the woman whose to-go Cho was prepping promptly asked where the cream and sugar was on receiving it. And Cho pointed her toward the condiments bar, not even batting an eye.
There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about the iced cappuccino on his menu. There aren’t any jokes to be made about it. It isn’t an homage to the silly controversy that spiraled out of his old shop, Murky Coffee, in D.C., and their espresso and ice policy.
“There's been a lot of energy distancing Third Wave coffee from Second Wave and for that matter first,” Cho explained. “But once you get secure with yourself, some of the leading shops and trendsetters are starting to let their guard down and do versions of Second Wave stalwart sort of drinks. The iced capp for us at least is a part of that.”
The other part? The iced cappuccino, Wrecking Ball’s Pillow Fight espresso poured into milk, mixed with ice and topped with a head of fresh foam, is just a drink that the regulars at Wrecking Ball like drinking. While Cho and I talked, one rush hit after another. Even though it was written in my notes, I didn’t end up needing to ask whether the iced capp was popular. Orders streamed in, and drink after drink, in glass tumblers and plastic cups alike, streamed out. They were all iced cappuccinos. The guy in the Nike t-shirt was drinking one. The couple in matching Lululemon pants. The teenage-looking girls taking each other’s pictures in front of the pineapple wallpaper. None used straws, preferring the top down, hot-tub-to-cold-pool sensation of drinking through the foam to the ice.
“That's the neighborhood,” Cho said. “And that's your core customer base.” What he means by the neighborhood is perhaps not so obvious to those not living in the Bay Area, but basically, Cow Hollow as a place is as uncool as it gets. People who like good coffee and care about beans and extraction rates—people my dad would call “hip”—scrunch their faces up at its mention. Directions to Wrecking Ball from downtown include phrases like “past the Soul Cycle” and “past the Equinox” and “past Starbucks” and “past La Boulange” and “past the hair salon for dogs.” Cow Hollow is not the Mission District. It’s not Oakland’s Temescal Alley. It’s Cow Hollow. Where people wear spandex and “go out” at night.
Wrecking Ball’s success as a shop, however, in a city as jam-packed with coffee as it is with, I don’t know, electric skateboards and iPhones, has hinged on those people.
Rothgeb, who I wasn’t expecting, walked in halfway through Nick’s and my interview and sat down. She’d just driven in from the East Bay, but no sooner had been slid an iced tea and said a few words about the insanity of the traffic on the Bay Bridge was she jumping in, game to explain.
“More than any other time in my entire career, I am concerned about this experience,” she said, gesturing around. “For the last fifteen years, this industry has been moving so fast that your eyes were always on the other industry people.” But now more than ever, all that seems like a lot of noise.
Wrecking Ball emblemizes a shop driven by its neighborhood and the pursuit of delivering it quality coffee. And yet, when it comes to trends, Cho and Rothgeb aren’t interested. This is perhaps what separates great coffee shops from good, this clear understanding of what’s actually important rather than simply what other people say is. So while the self-described fuddy-duddies will put out an iced cappuccino and sixteen-ounce cups and ice-brewed coffee, they don’t do public cuppings (“all kinds of shit shows”) and won’t serve you cold brew.
“Cold brew is a Second Wave wolf in Third Wave sheep’s clothing,” Cho said.
“It's objectively a poor way to make coffee,” Rothgeb echoed. And nitro cold brew? Like French Roast, “it's another thing we're going to have to answer for in the future.”
As for the future of Wrecking Ball, though, whether there’s going to be another cafe is not the question. When there will be, and under what modicum, and where, are already in the works.
“The location or the space would inform whether we do another Wrecking Ball or not,” Cho said. “We’re starting to think about it. We have five or six concepts in our heads.”
But whatever the next space looks like or feels like, it’s guaranteed to be driven by the same values as the first.
“I like actually bringing better coffee to people,” Trish said. “I just don't want any misunderstanding about what we're about.”
Which, as far as I’m concerned, is keeping a hand, not to the pulse of the industry, but to the neighborhood. Offering not what’s cool, but what’s good, and making sure everyone feels welcome. Not demanding the world come busting down their door, but keeping it propped open, laying in wait for the world to arrive.
Remember that joke? Three men named Ahmed walk into a coffee bar wearing polo shirts and tennis shoes. One of them says to the barista behind the counter, “I’ll take three lattes, to go.” After adding a couple sugar cubes each, they emerge from the shop, smiling, holding their coffees, blowing steam from the slits in their tops, before shuffling off together into the gathering evening of a city by the sea.