When Ritual Coffee Roasters’ founder Eileen Hassi opened her flagship coffee shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco, in 2005, specialty coffee wasn’t really a thing yet. People still ardently defended Peet’s Coffee & Tea as the Bay Area’s best coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee amounted to just a handful of farmer market stalls and a kiosk, and the majority of the city’s specialty coffee heavyweights were distant bubbles floating across the collective coffee brain. “We were fighting with people to try our coffee,” Hassi says, “we had to be talking about how we were different from the norm because aside from, like, Peet’s, we were alone in the coffee scene.”
Almost a decade later, San Francisco has, to put it modestly, changed. Today, the City by the Bay is one of the world’s premier specialty coffee destinations, a breeding ground for exceptional roasters and cafes, a mecca for coffee enthusiasts, and a petri dish for new ideas and concepts in the specialty coffee world. And as San Francisco has expanded and evolved, so has Ritual. On Tuesday, April 26, Ritual opened their newest cafe, their sixth location, and the first to open since 2011, on a stretch of Haight Street Hassi has taken to calling “Central Haight,” across from the sloping grass of Buena Vista Park. Along with the new cafe, Hassi and Ritual will introduce the first rebrand of their iconic logo since the shop first opened. And though Ritual has never stopped progressing and tweaking and adapting, the new cafe and the new branding represent a new, somewhat different approach to spreading their passionate belief in the joys of spreading specialty coffee to the masses.
“The coffee culture in San Francisco and in the United States is so different now,” Hassi says, and if Ritual was an upstart punk trying to tear down the norms of commodity coffee in 2007, now, well, it’s a foundational part of the booming American specialty coffee industry. “When we opened,” Hassi says, “we were acting like kids, testing our boundaries and, well, we don’t have to do that anymore.” It starts with the new cafe. Ritual’s flagship store on Valencia (which went through an extensive remodel in 2015) was built as an altar to specialty coffee, a place, as the company’s name implies, for devotees of good coffee to come and worship. “People walk into our Valencia shop, and are like, ‘what is this?’” Hassi says, “Everything about Haight Street is more humble, no one is going to walk into the Haight Street store and not know exactly what it is.”
Which is to say the Haight Street store, designed by Envelope A + D, is a more traditional-feeling neighborhood cafe, one with huge light-filled windows that look out onto the park, beaming succulents, platters of croissants and other pastries, and a convivial atmosphere that draws people in. “I’m very picky about location,” Hassi says “and ultimately I chose this spot because it feels like a place I want to drink coffee in the morning. This cafe is easy to sit in and feel like you’re going to have a good day because you started it off on the right foot.” Hassi worked with her architect to “make it feel like you’re in the park,” lining the tops of the walls with huge mirrors that reflect the bright green of Buena Vista into the cafe. The mirrors are also a nod to the European cafes of the 1930s, as Hassi says, “This is a spot that looks back on its history not forward to what’s next, so it felt right to reference cafes of the past.”
It’s been almost five years since Hassi and her team opened their location in the Hayes Valley Proxy Project, a renovated storage container in a parking lot, and both Hassi and the company haven’t been sitting idle. Hassi herself has gotten married and had a kid (“I took five years to have a personal life”), then remodeled the Valencia store, but she’s also dedicated herself to improving the infrastructure of the company. “We needed to figure out all the things that made this place a great place to work,” she says, “we needed our people to feel secure in their jobs and knowing what those jobs were before we could take another step.” Beyond that, Hassi believes in opening her stores organically, when it feels right. “I really want to have the people to do the project before I decide to take on the project,” she says, “If I have to look for people from the outside it’s probably not worth it because it’ll invariably change the culture.”
A change that can be seen, somewhat in the company’s subtle shift in their branding. If Haight Street’s white walls and soft light are the quieter, more recognizable balance to the high ceilings and harsher angles of Valencia Street, then the new design, by Good Stuff Partners (with assistance from designer Emily Craig), “I realized that our branding didn’t reflect us anymore.” Though the iconic star and cup Ritual is recognized by isn’t going anywhere, the almost militant-feeling red, black, and white of the original design have been softened, and paired with an organic-looking white and gold honeycomb pattern (which adorns the front of the new store’s three-group Synesso Hydra MVP espresso machine).
“For the first few years,” Hassi says, “[the original design] felt like us—aggressive. I mean one of our famous things was a frequent buyer card that said, ‘You’re an asshole without coffee.’” The new design features a more welcoming font, one that still pops from the front of their bags (now made entirely with compostable material), but is more spaced out, and doesn’t have the fist-shaking verve of the former. It’s a friendlier, almost more trusting design, for a company that now has a vast and very trusting customer base, a company that doesn’t need to change the state of coffee, because, well, it’s already done that.
A new font and a new neighborhood cafe doesn’t imply that Ritual has changed though, as Hassi says, “I think it’s easy to look at us and say, ‘They’re getting old.’ But it’s more nuanced than that.” Ritual hasn’t lost its edge, it’s just found a modicum of comfort in a San Francisco scene they helped to created. “Our customers trust us now,” Hassi says, “We’re in this whole blossoming scene in San Francisco that people know about worldwide and wanted to do something more approachable because, well, we don’t have to yell anymore.”