In early 2011, there were rumors that Chicago-based Intelligentsia had big plans for San Francisco. Stories abounded that Doug Zell, the company’s founder and then-president, was on the verge of storming into the Bay Area rc proclaim Intelligentsia the next big thing. After all, he had just set up shop in Los Angeles—the Silverlake flagship quickly becoming a coffee hot spot for Angelenos.
With San Francisco, a storied destination in its own right, just a six-hour drive away, the city was the logical next step. For a moment, the writing seemed to be on the wall. Intelligentsia absorbed local coffee legend Andrew Barnett’s Ecco Caffe, announcing that the future home of the cafe and roaster would be in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. The time for another major player in the coffee industry to enter the San Francisco fray had come. And then it didn’t.
For years, the short, boxy warehouse just off the intersection of Mariposa and Texas stood quiet. The opening date for Ecco slipped further and further back, before disappearing altogether. Then, a new rumor began to circulate—Intelligentsia would create a physical hub for their plans on the West Coast: a training and roasting lab. Architects were hired, plans drawn, and then—nothing. For years, the space sat muted, without signage or indication of who owned it or what exactly went on inside. We knew beans were being roasted, packaged, and shipped up and down the West Coast, but the promise of something bigger failed to materialize.
Five years later, under the watchful eye of Intelligentsia president, James McLaughlin, that’s finally changing. In February, the company opened the doors on the long-awaited Roasting Works in Potrero Hill—the promise of a roasting and training facility in the Bay Area, fulfilled.
“We made an investment,” McLaughlin says. “We got to a point with the business in the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest where we needed a training lab and sales office. We needed something formal.”
Intelligentsia will base much of their coffee roasting here, and the space will act as a hub for training and educating both baristas and lay coffee drinkers alike. This is San Francisco though, home to specialty coffee royalty, and an outside company building out a space here is akin to the planting of a flag.
McLaughlin knows this. “This is a world-class city in terms of food and culture,” he says. “We can contribute to that and [the Potrero Hill space] sends a loud, clear message that we’re committed to San Francisco and continuing to move into it.”
McLaughlin—with the help of Paul Rekstad, the West Coast sales manager for Intelligentsia and Marco Veneziano, Intelligentsia’s in-house Construction Project Manager, plus Berkeley-based interior design group Union Studio—has outfitted the space to artfully reflect its industrial nature without sacrificing any customer-facing approachability. A ceiling of bridge-like redwood trusses is offset by the shimmering gloss of white tile walls. The front of the building is almost entirely windows, with natural light falling in on high, cold marble tables and a poured concrete floor. It could be a cafe.
Yet, McLaughlin and team have gone to great ends to incorporate the actual workings of a roasting facility—orderly piles of burlap green coffee bags and the Probat roaster—into the space. It is at once inviting to an average San Franciscan and clearly a place where the work of producing roasted wholesale coffee comes first.
“It was very important to us,” Rekstad says, “to frame the roasting, the production, and their different aspects in this larger open space.”
For the moment, the Intelligentsia Roasting Works does not operate as a cafe. Its intent is to provide a place for wholesale customers to taste coffee as well as send their baristas for training. Though eventually there will be weekly public tastings and tours available, for now it’s an aesthetically pleasing space where the nuts and bolts of coffee production occur. But, in the ever-expanding San Francisco scene, it’s more than that—this is a declaration of intent from Intelligentsia. The company, quiet for so long, is stepping up its West Coast game.
“With this particular space, we needed a training lab and a business office,” McLaughlin says. “But San Francisco is definitely a city where we want to get into the coffee bar business. Stay tuned.”
Photos courtesy of Intelligentsia.