When James Freeman started Blue Bottle Coffee back in 2002, it was just a stand at an Oakland farmer’s market and a small-batch roaster in a potting shed. This was before the “coffee with an arc” phenomenon, when a roast date and country of origin on every bag was unheard of. Freeman had a distaste for the bitter, coffee urn culture then and wanted to rarefy the “chemical, wonderful substance” getting him through many mornings.
There was a lot riding on every cup, and he still remembers regulars and the modest, methodical set up. When Blue Bottle opened its first 7-days-a-week kiosk in a friend’s garage on Linden Street, Freeman was resigned to be a “dimly recalled coffee legend.” This is when the repetition and mastery that defines such a hip brand–the elbow grease of short, timed shots and barista’s sweat-pebbled brows all the way down to the equipment, the coffee kettle with a fine spout to get more water control–took shape and got noticed.
Speaking at the second day of the Vator Splash Oakland conference, Freeman said there’s a lot of “code words” thrown around for why they were and continue to be such a success, but he sums up his philosophy: “Respect the delicious thing.” In ways like this, he shrugs off the usual start-up jargon, but it wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe Blue Bottle as “scrappy”: Freeman started the business with some savings, not knowing it wasn’t enough, did a lot of head scratching, and ultimately put trust in the roast.
It doesn’t hurt that Blue Bottle is right in Silicon Valley’s backyard and got the attention of all-star tech investors. (Turns out the scrappy spirit helped.) The new capital inspired him to think about “correct decisions” and expansions, like their new ready-to-drink iced coffee in a carton, and opening new locations, like the W.C. Morse building takeover. Freeman said he’s also gotten more “ruthless” and protective of the nearly 300 employees and his brand. The investors, for their part, are pretty hands-off. “They don’t want to be the person who messed Blue Bottle up,” he said.
Still, the trick is proving Blue Bottle is more than a trophy for the tech mantelpiece. Again Freeman asserts the companies substance and identity. He advocates for anti-clutter and letting the coffee do the selling, quoting Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”
Whatever he says or does, Freeman admits Blue Bottle might always get lumped in with the technorati and growing snobbery of San Francisco. “What we strive for is excellence, not symbolism,” he argues, and even if there are lines around the corner for their $5 coffee, firefighters are waiting shoulder-to-shoulder with the tech engineers. This is where low-tech and high-tech meet. “I look around and I don’t see enemies,” Freeman said.
In the end, what Blue Bottle offers is the real thing. Cared-for coffee. Freeman admits that on the way over to Vator Splash he was listening to classical music and thinking about “the transcendent experience,” how complicated it gets to build a business around. Someone can pay $200 for tickets to watch a 200-bodied orchestra play 200 year old music, or someone can pay a couple bucks for a cup of coffee, for exactly what they want when they need it most. We’re all basically trying to reach the same place, he said, “but I can’t get it or give it all the time.” The real thing‘s still not perfect.