As reported by Eater SF, Paramo Coffee Roasters has now opened its first flagship café in Embarcadero Place in San Francisco today. The company, founded by noted roaster Gabriel Boscana and Highwire Coffee Roasters' Robert Mires, will serve coffees sourced and roasted by the pair. According to Boscana, Paramo will attempt to set itself apart from other cafes in the Bay Area by putting a strong emphasis on service.
All signs point to Paramo being a leader in the exciting crop of new roaster / retailers opening in America in 2014, and that end, our Bay Area staff writer Leif Haven sat down with Mr. Boscana for an expansive, fascinating interview all about his new venture. Boscana is a coffee industry veteran, having worked with Bay Area roasters like Ecco, Intelligentsia Coffee, and Sightglass, which means he's got heaps to say about the current state–and future–of great coffee in California and beyond. (Cleveland, anyone?)
Leif Haven: Tell me about the first Paramo location.
Gabriel Boscana: There’s tons of foot traffic. In terms of density, it’s great. It’s a different way to picking a space. It’s a place that a lot of people come through, but they might not be aware of what’s actually around them. We want to become a destination within a place that already has a lot of traffic rather a place that nobody knows about and having to be a beacon.
It’s the reverse of the usual café being the avant garde of a changing neighborhood.
Exactly. So for the first café that was the focus. We want high foot traffic because it allows us to change minds very quickly. All these folks coming out of their offices for lunch, they’re going to want coffee. The average person who’s not into super coffee stuff wants to drink coffee right before work, and they want quick service, nice service, and a really good cup of coffee. Not very many shops do that or serve that customer. The every day joe deserves to get a good cup of coffee quickly with out any fuss and without a huge conversation unless they want that to happen. That was our ethos from the beginning.
You want to serve an accessible cup of coffee.
Yeah. Buying really good green coffee is not difficult. If you’re a good cupper and you are able to form good relationships with people you can find good green coffee. What is difficult is finding good green coffee, good roasting, good service, in an environment that doesn’t intimidate people. I think we have a long way to go.
So part of the mission is to not intimidate people.
It’s so easy in the Bay Area especially to intimidate people, and alienate people. I’ve been in coffee for a long time and I’ve seen trends happen and I think there’s room for someone to be a super kind and generous person who truly cares about customers vs. caring about showing how much they know. That’s a very different experience from a customer’s perspective. If you’re doing a workshop, if people sign up for that, that’s great…
A workshop is a very different interaction because someone’s asking to be taught rather than served.
Right, so that’s our basic mission, to give people a good cup of coffee. The other part that I think is really awesome, is that we want to make contributions to a charity, depending on where each store is. We are not wholesale focused–we’re very retail focused–and wherever we open a store we’re going to find out what is the best charity to give to, not just sign a check, but pay baristas a day’s work to go and volunteer somewhere.
It sounds like Paramo is looking to grow rapidly?
We hope that it goes well enough that we can do it! [laughs] We hope to open one or two stores a year. That’s the hope, small scale, meaningful, but a for real profitable business, because if we can’t do that we can’t take care of our employees. We all come from a background where that’s really important. The employee, that person that’s serving your coffee is so important, and that they’re happy and motivated and excited about what they’re doing is so important. Being a barista is a really tough job and we want to develop strong communities in each store. I think people jump around from project to project because there’s something they’re not getting from their employer; we’re hoping we can make something that’s profitable so we can offer bonuses, benefits, and things that keep people stoked about working for us.
It’s the Bay Area–it’s almost impossible to make a living here–so if we can keep people motivated in a place that they can stick around for a long time, that’s a goal.
What does your team look like now?
Robert Myers from Highwire is a co-founder. This project is mostly envisioned by myself and Nicole Prior on the retail end. Robert is co-founder and mostly in the role of advisor. Nicole Prior will be the manager and she is both a Flying Goat and Sightglass veteran. We’re small and scrappy.
You’re doing all the roasting?
I’m doing all the sourcing, roasting, bagging, and delivery.
You’re the whole production department. How are you doing the sourcing?
I did a lot of traveling with both Intelligentsia and Sightglass, and there’s a huge advantage to traveling because you get a face-to-face connection with that person, but I do not think it’s necessary. If you know who to call, you can buy good coffee wherever you are.
There’s a lot of great green coffee imported here in the Bay Area.
It’s probably the best group of people to buy coffee from in a concentrated area, and that’s their gig, that’s what they do. Unless you’re getting really big, you would really just be traveling to solidify relationships.
What’s the end game of this one or two shop a year growth model?
I don’t think we’ve really thought that far. We’re just hoping we can do this one store and then reorganize and figure out where we can go next. As a group we’re very pragmatic people, and we talk about how it would really be awesome to have a store here or have a store here, but our end game is really to pay baristas a living wage, to retain people for a long time, and to provide upward mobility. I don’t think there is an end game.
We hope that this works. I think it will. We want a few shops, and out of necessity, if you don’t do wholesale, you can’t just open one shop and survive. So the reason we decided not to do wholesale is that there are plenty of good wholesale providers here. We don’t feel that we need to get in there and we really want to control the product and the experience. Wholesale and retail are literally two separate businesses you’re trying to run. We think that it’s challenging enough to maintain a voice in your own shops without putting your coffee in someone else’s hands.
If someone approached you and said “I really want to have your coffee in my multi-roaster shop” you would say probably not?
Probably not. I would say grocery is a safe bet. You can put out a good product and make yourself accessible to lots of people. But I think there’s enough wholesale in the Bay Area. Maybe if someone had a really compelling project and they were really clear about what they wanted and we were really clear about what we wanted… maybe we would consider it. But wholesale is an entirely separate business that we don’t have the structure for or the interest in right now.
Do you see markets other than the Bay Area as potential locations for Paramo?
I have a very different fantasy from the folks I work with. I would love to open up in Cleveland, and people would be like, “Are you crazy?” I love Cleveland. Or Philadelphia. I like the idea of opening up in not the number one cities, but the scrappy ugly duckling cities, because that’s where I’m from. I came to the United States from Puerto Rico when I was eight, and I grew up in upstate New York. Upstate New York is like the Midwest. So that’s kind of my fantasy.
One of the reasons I was asking about end game of Paramo, is that the metric of success in the start up world–and even in the coffee world–is that you grow the company and then you sell it. How do you feel about that?
In a perfect world that’d be amazing, to build something that you love, and they sell it off and you can do other projects. It’s almost exponential. Think about like what [Stumptown founder] Duane Sorenson has done; he loves restaurants, so he started opening restaurants. It gives you financial freedom to do cool things. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I can’t imagine doing anything else, so I can’t think of what it would be like to hand the keys over. But I say that because we’re not even open yet.
It’s easy to see selling out as a bad thing but it can help you take care of your employees or do things like expand to Cleveland.[Laughs] They would fire me before I could do that for sure. I’ve never seen it as a bad thing. The romanticism of “Oh, but those are your dreams,” it’s up to the person who started it to make the decision–obviously it effects a lot of people, but it’s a personal choice. We’ve painted the café as this left wing, radical thing, but you have to make a profit to survive–the way that you do that can be positive–but you have to make money. There’s a ton of people involved in your success, so if you’re not making money you’re letting a lot of people down.
But right now, we’re just trying to be humble, and nice.
Let’s get back to the shop itself.
It’s small. It’s about 450 square feet. There’s two doors; you enter through one, and exit through the other. It’s a dream, there won’t be any crazy bottle necks. Three or four people behind the bar with a really simple menu. Never more than 5 single origin coffees available as beans, and drip coffee made on Curtis batch brewers. We’re trying to reflect the reality of that space and that is that we have to move coffee very fast. We’ll be doing a spectrum of truly different coffees. We’re not going to have four Ethiopian coffees at the same time. We’re not going to have dark roasts, but we’re going to have different coffees that embody different things to different people. Never more than five offerings at a time.
Do you have coffees lined up already?
I do. I’m waiting for fresh cup Ethiopias to land, but that’s it. I have a Rwanda, a Colombia, a Java–it’s been a long time since I roasted a Java, and it’s really good–a Guatemala, and a Sumatra. I might not be the biggest fan of it, but it’s pretty decent, and I know there will be a huge market for it. We have to be a little bit flexible.
For us, even if it’s not my favorite on the menu, at least I’ll know that I’ll have at least one coffee on the menu for everyone. If that sells really well and it helps me afford the ability to buy other really awesome coffees or to do something special for the staff, that’s a no brainer.
Isn’t that better than turning a customer away, or losing their business?
Right. And it’s not like I’m buying a whatever Sumatra, I’m buying a Sumatra from OLAM, and they own mills in Sumatra, and they do microlots, they’re amazing. They do really good work. Even if it’s not a profile that I personally love, there’s a place for it.
I’m hoping that I can rotate coffees only four or five times a year, but it’s hard to gauge right now. I’m a pretty conservative buyer, and I would rather run out of a coffee at its peak than serve a coffee until it’s dead. I will buy less than I think I know because I know I can always call up an importer and say what do you have that’s good right now. I’ll find something.