"It's kind of a risk, because we've bought the building," says owner and roastmaster Anthony Azzollini. "On the other hand, there's nothing there right now, and a lot of people work down there -- meter maids, the Highway Patrol, the Public Defender's Office. There's also the Flower Market. Where can you get a latte in that neighborhood?" (Nowhere, Dish agrees, although you can get a Double Quarter Pounder to go at a nearby McDonald's. "Yeah, they did our market research for us!" Azzollini says with a laugh.)
The new site will be more than a cafe. It will be a kind of manufacturing plant for Caffe Roma's panini and granite. And it will house a new computer-controlled coffee roaster (running -- yes -- Microsoft software) with a capacity of 1,000 pounds an hour. Caffe Roma has hundreds of wholesale clients for its coffee, Azzollini says, including a number of local high-profile restaurants, including Lulu, Moose's, and Enrico's. (Not to mention the Frugal Gourmet himself, Jeff Smith, who stopped in recently to pick up 20 pounds for his office staff.)
The 30-year-old Azzollini has big plans for Caffe Roma -- but not too big. While he's an admirer of Starbucks -- "They've raised people's awareness about good coffee, and they're conveniently located, which I'm not!" -- he sees his enterprise developing "along the lines of Peet's," the gold standard of specialty coffee roasters in the Bay Area. "If it gets bigger than that, I'd lose control," he says. "I want to keep our European flair."
Although Azzollini learned about coffee roasting from Alfred Peet himself, among others, he's developed his own style and, he hopes, a following in a fiercely competitive business. "Our coffee is smoother and less acidic than Peet's, which is roasted very dark," he says. "We have a stronger bite up front and a smoother finish. Sometimes people come to me and say they want really dark, acidic coffee and I'll tell them, 'You've got the wrong roaster. You want Peet's.' "
Maybe so, but the new Caffe Roma location seems to reflect the idea that there's no such thing as the wrong roaster in a neighborhood that doesn't have any. Look for a big grand-opening party, with food to be donated by Caffe Roma's client restaurants and proceeds benefiting Project Open Hand.
By Paul Reidinger