Kevin Bohlin’s Saint Frank Coffee is considered by some to be one of the world’s best coffee shops, serving exacting, nuanced cups of coffee to the city of San Francisco. It is, in Bohlin’s own words, “extremely niche”—an establishment built by specialty coffee people for coffee aficionados. But Bohlin wants to do more: he wants to help specialty coffee eclipse commodity coffee, and in doing so, help coffee producers in coffee producing countries to grow, evolve, and improve their lives. For risk of sounding hyperbolic, Kevin Bohlin wants to help change the world.
With this in mind, Kevin Bohlin and the team at Saint Frank Coffee have opened St. Clare Coffee, a new pop-up in the lobby of the SPUR Building in San Francisco’s sprawling SOMA neighborhood. The goal of St. Clare (named after St. Clare herself, the first female follower of St. Francis) is, first and foremost, accessibility. Bohlin wants to open up the world of specialty coffee to those who aren’t just looking for light-roasted, flavor-profile-forward brews. And while he’s at it, he wants to help coffee producers who may be toiling in the middle ground between commodity and specialty coffee to up their game, to help them push the limits of the quality of their coffee. Beyond this, Bohlin and St. Clare are working with Not For Sale, a San Francisco-based non-profit that focuses on battling human trafficking and sex slavery in developing countries to not only provide financial support, but to help provide survivors of sex trafficking a route to learning barista skills and becoming a functioning part of society.
Though St. Clare is in pop-up mode now, Bohlin hopes to not only tastefully expand the retail reach within the Bay Area. But unlike Saint Frank, the coffee and vision of St. Clare is destined for wholesale distribution across the United States. We sat down with Bohlin on a sunny afternoon to discuss accessibility, working with Not For Sale, and just what it means to him to make good coffee do good.
What’s the original spark of an idea behind St. Clare?
I enjoy working with producers that don’t have a specialty coffee connection. These are places that are producing coffees that are, if you had to put a number on them, 83s that totally could be 86s or 87s. It’s just a matter of creating space and a relationship and a market for them. Doing this gives me more accessibility to producing communities, and I can work with more coffee. These coffees can be sweet and have bodies; we can develop the roast and then these coffees are more accessible to more people. What we want to do is keep the full traceability and transparency of these coffees but make them more successful. We won’t have to limit how long it’s on the shelf. And if we’re blessed with the option to grow as a company, then these coffees can grow with us.
How does this differ from Saint Frank?
Saint Frank is high-end place, and I love it and couldn’t be more proud of it, but we are extremely niche. And for me to keep buying more producers and for me to play a part in impacting the specialty coffee world, we need to be able to do more. We want to make delicious coffee but I also want to be part of making the world better. That said, the more we grow at St. Clare, the better Saint Frank gets. All those coffee communities we work with, when we’re able to identify their best coffee, those coffees will go to Saint Frank.
Tell us about St. Clare’s work with Not For Sale.
Not For Sale (NFS) is an organization that tries to stop human trafficking and modern-day slavery. I went to their gala and heard stories about these young women who’d been kidnapped and it was sobering. We found out that NFS was working in Northern Thailand with the Aaka Tribes because they’re one of the most at-risk communities for trafficking in the world. As it turns out, this guy Lee Ayu is out in the sticks of Northern Thailand growing specialty coffee. Lee’s doing incredible work out there with the village he’s from, but no one’s been importing Thai coffee because it’s basically commodity grade, but I’ve tasted the 85s and 86s and I’m like, “let’s do this.”
How does your involvement with NFS benefit these communities?
I’ve learned that you need success stories in these communities. Let this success grow through their own networks and let them see that happening. This isn’t charity. When you can do it through business it’s much more empowering to the people involved. They’re working for it and they’re doing it on their own. We want to make a difference but it has to be a sustainable business.
Beyond that though, you guys are also working with survivors of trafficking in America.
NFS helps a lot of these survivors get involved in society contributing work forces. I thought, let’s teach them how to be baristas. But for a lot of these wonderful ladies, Saint Frank and Russian Hill are a really different world from where they came from. Accessibility is a part of the emerging story of St. Clare so let’s provide coffee in a work environment that is more accessible for the people we want to work with while helping to open up [specialty coffee] to a less niche customer base.
How will this affect what you serve at St. Clare?
We’re going to serve regional blends, where instead of a single farmer it’ll be the region where they’re from. We’re also going to make a version of a Thai Iced Coffee but we’re getting the coffee from Thailand.
Where does the name St. Clare come from?
St. Clare was the first woman to follow after St. Francis and his crazy, radical movement and this band of great-hearted misfits. The second Order of Franciscans is called The Poor Clares. In medieval, patriarchal Italy, women had no opportunities The Church wanted her to have a formal benefactor and for her to create a nunnery and she said no. She’s going to be poor and she’s going to beg and they’re going to do this and they don’t need formal benefaction to follow God. So she gets permission from The Pope and that’s just what she does. She’s a great example of an independent woman.
At the end of the day, what’s your philosophy at St. Clare?
We can do something about this tragic human supply chain by using the coffee supply chain. Over there we can help produce great coffee at great prices and change the economics of their villages and then over here, we can give really great people a great chance to be baristas. How cool is it that we can help like that?