The past two years have proven San Francisco to be fairly fertile ground for craft coffee. Armfuls of small roasters and "Third Wave" cafés are popping open monthly, and their missions are clear: to teach us to love coffee as we love wine -- to care about where it comes from and the prolific subtleties of its taste. The whole thing is quite suited to San Francisco's Slow Food-themed mantra that urges us to source food as locally as our rooftop, to find and pet the cow that produced our milk, to sit down with the person that coaxed it to cheese, to be mindful about its preparation.
But coffee is different, coffee is a more foreign beast to the food scene here. It takes a certain kind of experience, one that's a little hard to find, to bring us in touch with coffee's roots. But this summer, a certain new spot opening up in Russian Hill is going to bring the story a little closer to home.
The café is Saint Frank, and the man behind it is Kevin "Tex" Bohlin. He's a former middle school teacher who, as a veritable coffee nerd, found his way into the coffee world when a friend in Texas bought a three kilo roaster and started a tiny local roasting business. Years later, Bohlin is a 2012 United States Barista Championship competitor, coming off a stretch working with Ritual Coffee Roasters, where he has also been traveling to Central America on buying trips with the company's green coffee buyer. During this time, he's developed a few close relationships with farmers in Honduras, relationships he plans on nurturing for a very, very long while.
Saint Frank's opening menu will showcase purely Honduran coffees sourced from these few farms, presented in a way that attempts to bring customers closer to the origin of their drink, the story of its life. The model may sound similar to other cafés in the Bay, and it is in some ways, but Bohlin's model differs partly in being so hyperpersonal, small in size, and ambitious.
Lighting up the "story of coffee" serves often as a marketing scheme, but Bohlin is quite sincere. He hopes to bring baristas to origin, perhaps even customers if the resources align. Nurturing relationships with producers is the core of Bohlin's personal philosophy that, in coffee, human relationships are everything, and quality of life is a central value at every step of the supply chain.
"When you think about it, what is coffee without people? It's meaningless and pointless without the people who enjoy it and non-existent without the people who grow it. Coffee is much more like wine than it is like rice or grain, and is even more complex than wine when you consider the final beverage. Yet wine producers have much more in common with wine drinkers than coffee producers do with coffee drinkers. I think there is a beautiful opportunity in celebrating the particularity of diverse coffees and the communities that produce them," says Bohlin via email.
In his attempt to draw the two sides of the supply chain closer to each other, Bohlin has also brought the San Franciscan coffee experience to Honduras, packing his bags with beans roasted by Ritual and portering them back to the farms where they were originally harvested. He tells us of the time he brewed coffee for Sebastian Benitez, a friend and farmer in Honduras:
"Most small producers don't keep the best of their crop and certainly don't have expensive production roasters or brewing equipment and thus have never tasted their coffee in its clearest expression and potential. I explained everything I was doing as I prepared the coffee and told stories of customers who love his coffee. I wanted him to see how important his work is and that he is a major part of something very special. No doubt it was a special moment, you could see it in his eyes and how he held the bag of Ritual coffee with his name on it. It was very special for me too, I almost teared up, but I'm an emotional guy," says Bohlin.
Bohlin just returned from Honduras buying the first round of fresh crop coffees for Saint Frank, piggybacking on Ritual's shipping container on its way back to California -- a maneuver that enables Bohlin to buy in much smaller lots. Ritual will also roast the coffee for Saint Frank while Bohlin concentrates on the space and the experience within the café itself.
We hear the café will be clean and classic, with soaring ceilings and skylights, a loft overlooking the bar and seating on both levels. Bohlin hints that we are in for a surprise as well, promising the space will offer a completely new approach to the coffee experience through an innovative bar design. He'll be pouring focus into customer service, hiring for character over coffee experience.
"You can teach someone coffee, but you can't teach them to love people. They have to have that," says Bohlin.
Bohlin also wants Saint Frank to be a welcoming place, none of that alienating esoterism that pervades some quality-driven spots these days. It looks like hipsters may have a monopoly on quality coffee right now, but Bohlin assures us, "you don't have to be 25 with skinny jeans to feel comfortable at Saint Frank, but if you are you're totally welcome!"
Saint Frank represents a kind of golden combination, marrying Bohlin's extraordinary technical expertise in coffee with an approach to sourcing and service that hinges so heavily on values like empathy and sustainability. We, for one, can't wait for our first cup.