Walking into Four Barrel Coffee in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission district is a bit like watching the narrative unfold in a Coen Brothers film; a meticulously composed set, a cast of charismatic characters, that perfect soundtrack serving as a soft backdrop against which the rhythm is set. This is Jeremy Tooker's vision for what coffee should be. A place in which the ambiance and people with which you share a cup of coffee are just as important as the quality of the product itself. It is equal parts a coffee connoisseur's paradise, a rustic neighborhood hangout, and your best friend’s living room.
Over the din of the massive, Geman Probat roaster whirring away in the background, a genial team of baristas hurry back and forth pulling shots of espresso, steaming milk, and chatting away with patrons. Gorgeous Italian espresso machines hum away non-stop with a subtle intensity, like idling sports cars. You hear one of the baristas call out “Hey! What’s up next on the turntable?” while thumbing though the shop’s carefully curated collection of vinyl. All this commotion serves as the soundtrack to the well oiled machine that is Four Barrel. Over the past five years, the shop has developed a solid reputation as one of the premiere roasteries in this city known for it’s predilection for top quality coffee. The cafe rarely has a quiet moment, and lines often stretch out the door onto Valencia Street, the Mission district's main drag.
Despite it's current succes, things weren't always so idyllic. When Jeremy started Four Barrel in 2007, he had a mere $1,000 in his bank account and was working 120 hours a week to get the shop up and running.
“...I’m down to like 40 hours a week now. When we first opened I was working about 120 hours a week. 7 days a week, I’d get here at 6, open the café, turn the roaster on by noon. Get it warmed up, step off the floor by 1, start roasting, bag it all up, deliver it all by 9 at night and close the store down by 11:30. That was 7 days a week for the first year.”
From the start, Jeremy has left no stone unturned in executing his vision for what the experience of great coffee should be. He designed most of the shop himself, from the furniture, fixtures & equipment mounts. Pointing at just about everything in the cafe, he recalls,
“...Most of the design came from, recycled material. I didn’t have a lot of money when I started this thing. So all the wood tables, those were free. ...those were from the side of the road. And this up here was a fence. And this was on Craigslist. I picked that up for free. And this was scrap from an old high school. Including these things, I had to cut them. I flew up to Washington and got them. I barely worked out the plan on paper before I got there. I knew they were probably too long. I had to figure what the major cuts to make. I had to run a circular saw with a 16 inch blade and do the minor cuts so it would fit. It was pretty by the seat of my pants designing it, figuring it all out.”
If you stop into the cafe these days, you may take note of the gorgeous matte grey porcelain cups and saucers drinks are served in. You immediately notice their substantial weight and presence, reminiscent of a miniature stone mortar,
“They’re all cast in East Bay. Still gonna try some stronger clays. The size was the most important thing. I hunted around specifically for 5 ounce cups instead of the 6 or even 8 ounce ones and I finally found them but nobody imported them. So that was main thing. I was running out of those every year, and had to get it by the pallet and if they’re behind or if they’re on their local sabbatical in Italy, it’s a pain in the ass. And they weren’t that good looking, so then we couldn’t sell them either really. So this way, I make my own, between the breakage and the theft, at least we break even with the cups. ...[they] will last an average of 50 espressos or more. Now that they’re so beautiful, people are going to start stealing them!”
Jeremy's eduction in coffee has been a life long pursuit. He got involved at an early age and even managed to get himself fired from Starbucks along the way. Remembering his early years,
"I got into coffee when I was 17. I was a high school dropout trying to get my GED. And I got a job at a coffee shop outside of Portland. And there was a Russian lady running the coffee shop, and I was her only employee. She was roasting in the back. Her father had retired and moved to Honduras, and was shipping it up there. I mean, at that point, I was 17, I drank coffee as a kid but didn’t know anything about it. I just thought every coffee shop roasted their own. She taught me how to do latte art and all that stuff. This was back in ’97. ... I didn’t really get my roasting chops there. I left that place and went to Starbucks. And I moved in with a guy who was managing a shop, a good friend of mine. I told the staff I do latte art, and I got fired for that."
Talking to Jeremy, you begin to realize how passionate he is not just about coffee, but about the entire community he’s fostered in building Four Barrel from the ground up. Since opening the business in 2007, the cafe and roastery have become the anchor around which an entire neighborhood has evolved. When he first purchased the property, it was a starkly different place,
“There were bullet holes to patch outside the building and we decided to leave them. I knew we wanted to build a café in the Mission. I parked there across the street and I walked about a half block before I saw a burning mattress, tripped over a cart of trash, and I was like, I’m gonna park somewhere else."
Now, when you approach the store, you’ll often see a gaggle of stylish Mission folks chatting over lattes and leaning over the counters of the beautifully designed “Parklets” (part of San Francisco’s “Pavement to Parks” program) that have allowed the cafe’s contagious energy to spill out on to the sidewalks. Still, despite the undeniable gentrification, the neighborhood has managed to retain some of it’s gritty character, and never fails to surprise,
“Oh yeah, we’ve got an office over there on 15th. And even that half block of walk, we see the funniest shit all the time. The other day Tom and I were walking to the office and it was 8 in the morning. We looked across the street and this second floor window flies up and we see this white sheet pop out of it. And we see this guy totally cavalier just stick his head out and totally like he does this all the time just flies down the sheet. And this lady comes out and she says ‘You forgot your bag!”
Since it’s inception, Four Barrel has been built holistically, from the ground up on the premise of quality, trust and respect. It’s evident from Jeremy’s relationship with everyone he works with from his baristas all the way down the supply chain to his farmers, distributors and co-ops. Jeremy sees intelligent, well trained, and personable baristas as an integral investment in his business. Four Barrel has set up a barista training center just around the corner from their Valencia Street location in which they train both their own staff, and provide training for other business around the Bay Area. He’s gone so far as to build height adjustable tables for the espresso machines so that they can be adjusted to the comfort of the barista working the station at any given time,
“...I wanted to call all the shots because on paper none of this stuff makes sense. I pay 20-30% more than the going rate [to his staff] and offer health insurance. You do all these things, I’m using that as part of my strategy for retention and it keeps getting better and better and better. There’s not really a ceiling for baristas. I still have my first barista. That’s part of my strategy, everyone here does such a good job here. Statistically though I haven’t been able to keep up. Every time I give out raises, it’ll get busier. Our labor’s always about 20-28%. ... I want to say it’s just the quality that matters but it’s not [everything]. It’s the service, it’s the flow, it’s the environment. It all makes a difference.”
Looking forward, Four Barrel has recently purchased San Francisco based De La Paz coffee and is shooting for a January 2014 launch date for their new space in North Beach. With the De La Paz re-branding, Jeremy hopes to introduce a new audience to top quality coffee. It'll feature elegant and simple color coded packaging describing tasting notes which allow customers to understand the qualities of various roasting methods and varietals,
"So, we bought a company called De la Paz. This is actually the first time I’ve been able to sit down and figure all the shit out before we open our doors. We bought it back in November last year. We’ve taken the time to polish up the brand and figure it all out without any pressure. ...they were actually Mission based before, [and] now they’re [in the South of Market neighborhood, SoMa]. And we have the small café in the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Now we have a space in North Beach. The most epic space. It’s beautiful."
Four Barrel is one of Ground to Ground's favorite places in San Francisco to experience top quality coffee. If you'd like to learn more about their business, you can visit them at www.FourBarrelCoffee.com or stop in for a cup at 375 Valencia Street, San Francisco, California.
Thanks to Jeremy for his kindness and generosity in allowing us an insight into the inner workings of Four Barrel. It's a wonderful, community oriented business that Ground to Grounds in proud to be involved with.
Thanks for reading!