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Monday, September 27, 2010

An Open Letter from Blue Bottle to the Dolores Park Community

Posted By on Mon, Sep 27, 2010 at 1:08 PM

click to enlarge Rendering of Blue Bottle's proposed coffee trailer and its site in Dolores Park. - BLUE BOTTLE COFFEE CO.
  • Blue Bottle Coffee Co.
  • Rendering of Blue Bottle's proposed coffee trailer and its site in Dolores Park.
Organizers of tonight's community meeting at Dolores Park Church to discuss Rec and Park's vendor plans for Dolores Park are finalizing the final agenda. And while representatives of would-be Dolores vendor Blue Bottle Coffee plan to speak tonight, Blue Bottle's James Freeman and his wife, Miette founder Caitlin Williams Freeman, won't be, due, Freeman says, to longstanding travel plans.

This morning, Freeman sent SFoodie two open letters to the Dolores Park community: one he penned, another from Caitlin Williams Freeman. He also sent a diagram of the Blue Bottle trailer (reproduced above), and its proposed location in the park. We present both open letters here, unedited. [Note: in Freeman's letter, "Crystal" is a reference to Dolores Park Works' Crystal Vann Wallstrom, organizer of tonight's meeting.]

The public meeting, in the church at 455 Dolores (at Dorland), starts at 7 p.m. Dolores Park Works has the full speaker roster.

UPDATE: Read our report of the Sept. 27 meeting.


Dear Dolores Park friends and neighbors,

I apologize that I can't attend today's meeting. I had made plans to be away several weeks prior to hearing about this meeting. Such is the nature of the nonrefundable plane ticket. Nevertheless, I'd like to tell you a little bit about my history, our company's history, our desires for the park, and address some of the concerns that Crystal has communicated to me. Mike Hamm, our manager of the outdoors, will be here to answer questions directly, but if you would like to ask me anything, please send me an email at, or perhaps we could meet at one of our shops and discuss over a coffee.

I started Blue Bottle in 2002, but prior to that, I lived on 25th and Guerrero and 20th and Guerrero from 1990 to 1999.

At the time I was a freelance clarinetist, driving around to gigs in the bay area and teaching at the prep department of the San Francisco Conservatory. Every once in a while I would work in the Mission; I have fond memories of playing with the Clubfoot orchestra at Brunos, with my quintet (the City Winds, in case you were one of our 12 ardent fans) at the ODC center, the Intersection for the Arts, and the Community Music Center. I remember eating at the Flying Saucer (Albert Tordjman, RIP), Val 21, Radio Valencia, the Latin Freeze .... A great time to be in the Mission. Living in the Mission caused me to fall in love with San Francisco. It's a different neighborhood now, of course, but that sense of vitality and community is what makes it so magical still. I lived in Oakland from 2001 to 2005, and moved back to San Francisco in August of 2005. Hopefully for good. Now I live a block from Alamo square, but my son goes to school on 25th and Valencia, so I'm in the Mission almost every day. I still love it.

I started Blue Bottle Coffee in August of 2002 in a 186 square foot former potting shed in Oakland's Temescal District. I had no background in business (or coffee really), but I was an avid home roaster and loved coffee so much. It was a total pipe dream. But it seems to be working out. I started in Farmers' markets (where I met my wife) in 2002, and we opened our kiosk on Linden Street on January 23d 2005. We opened our café on Mint Plaza January 23d 2008. In 2009 we opened a shop in the Ferry Building and in the new Rooftop Garden of the SFMOMA, and in 2010 we opened our new beautiful roastery in Oakland, and a roastery and coffee bar in Brooklyn New York. I think that our coffee is getting better and better as we grow. I work with outstanding crew (many of whom have been with me for years), and we have incredibly loyal and passionate customers. I feel very lucky.

The growth issue is a tricky one. I get phone calls and emails from real estate people every single day asking if I wouldn't be interested café spaces all over the country. I usually say no, thank you. But every once in a while opportunities come up in such beautiful or interesting locations that I get tempted. Ferry Building and SFMOMA are prime examples. And we do need to grow carefully and methodically to keep up with increasing costs (for example, our average price for green coffee has tripled over the last eight years). Another factor is labor costs. If I want to hire great people, and keep them motivated, I need to offer them regular raises, the best possible health benefits, and the potential for upward mobility. Almost every single salaried position (except for the accountant) in our company is occupied by former baristas, or other hourly production positions.

I am interested in putting a coffee trailer in Dolores Park, not because it is a gateway to riches (more on that later), but because I think it is a charming idea. To backtrack a little, I'd like to talk about Rec and Park's prior approach to vending in the parks. For some time in the past, I gather, they had been charging steep rents to vendors. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25% of revenues. People in business tell me that you shouldn't spend more than 6-7% of revenues on rent, and as a company, we average about 6%. If you are spending 20% of revenues on rent, then your options boil down to hiring people at minimum wage, firing them if they want more money, and buying the cheapest possible ingredients. So when the RFP for vending in the parks went out in September of 2009, that signaled to us that Rec and Park was changing direction: that they realized that a smaller piece of a bigger pie was to the park's financial advantage, and that they wanted approved vendors to represent the high quality food and drink environment that San Francisco is known for. So we were very excited to be part of that change in philosophy. Many of our colleagues in the food industry shared that excitement, and quite a few organizations submitted responses to the RFP. We felt very lucky to be selected to the second round, a tasting round, which occurred in January 2010. After we passed the tasting round, we started planning for the cart in earnest. I had assumed that since there were published articles in The Chronicle, the Examiner, and the SF Weekly in November of 2009, and January 2010, that the community around Dolores Park was well informed. So it pained me to hear that many of our (hopefully) future neighbors were upset that more outreach had not been done.

To start serving coffee in the park at 8am, Mike Hamm needs to be at the roastery in Oakland by 5am, to load up, and get to the bridge at 6am, and start setting up in the park by 7am. The second shift starts cleaning up at 4pm, and will be lucky if the get back to the roastery by 6pm. So the thing about mobile vending (which we've learned from our years at the farmers' markets) is that there are a lot of hours of labor that are not occupied making and selling coffee. In order to be profitable (our target, our hope, our fervent wish is to average 10% profit in the park), we needed to choose a park that 1. We loved, 2. Had access to a lot of our customers and 3. Was pretty busy much of the time. Dolores Park fit that bill in a way that no other park really did.

Now to a few nuts and bolts questions:

Are we commercializing Dolores Park?

Short answer: yes. Longer answer: I believe commercial enterprises in parks can be charming amenities. Some of my favorite parks around the world have commercial enterprises within that are beautiful, high-quality ventures that add a different layer of interest, put another set of eyes on the park, raise money for the park, and add to the texture of the community's experience. I think of Madison Square Park in New York, Villa Borghese in Rome, or Kyoto Gosho, being some examples of the most successful integration between the commercial and the public.

Will having Rec and Park approved food vendors change the culture of the park?

The culture of Dolores Park is so strong and vibrant that it will take a lot more than two trailers to change it significantly. We want to enhance the culture of the park, make it even more convenient and pleasant to spend time there, rather than change it.

What's the impact on the park's infrastructure?

Our trailer will run on propane and Honda's smallest and quietest 3000-Watt generator. Our trailer will sit on a concrete pad near the dumpster by the playground and not on the grass. Nor will we have to drive on the grass during any part of our load in or load out. That location was chosen because it is the farthest place from the 18th st. retail corridor that is paved and flat enough to park. We will pull in every morning and leave every evening. Our permit requires us to pack out trash within 100 feet of our trailer. Currently, 2/3 of our waste (by volume) is compost.

Will there be an increase in people because vendors are there?

It's possible, but we suspect that most of our customers will be park patrons. Coffee and cookies are often about convenience and whim, rather than premeditation. Having said that, I think it would be lovely if people were spurred to go out in the fresh air and discover Dolores Park for themselves because of us or La Cocina.

How did it go from pushcarts to a trailer?

"Pushcart" is a term used by the health department and Rec and Park that is a generic term to cover a variety of mobile vending operations. Unfortunately, if you are not in the food industry, the hominess of that term conjures up the popsicle vendor pushing his cart rather than trucks or trailers. I originally wanted to modify a Ford Transit Connect for this project, but sadly realized that it would need to have larger interior dimensions than exterior dimensions. Which is either impossible or prohibitively expensive. So the solution we have arrived at is an 8x12 trailer, clad in shiny new aluminum, tastefully and discreetly branded with a medium sized blue bottle and menu, and a jaunty red, lever-pull espresso machine. The trailer will allow the crew a modicum of comfort in inclement weather.

How much money will be paid to Rec and Park in rent?

We are hoping 20-30k will be paid to Rec and Park. Our minimum rent is $1000 per month. What Rec and Park does with the rent money is out of our hands.

Now that Blue Bottle has a roastery in Brooklyn, is the money generated in

Dolores Park going outside the Bay Area to fund a national chain?

We are still a Bay Area business with our headquarters in Oakland. Although our project in Brooklyn is, mercifully, breaking even financially, we are rooted right here. I chose to expand in Brooklyn precisely to avoid having too many retail locations in one area. It's not the most efficient way to grow, but I think it's more interesting. Four of the nine employees we had at the opening of our Brooklyn roastery were blue Bottle employees who started either in San Francisco or Oakland. They were excited to have the opportunity to take on more responsibility in such a fascinating part of the country.

What do the carts look like and where will they be located?

Please see the rendering and site plan that our office manager and production artist, Michelle Ott, has provided. Unfortunately, the trailer itself is still in Benicia, CA having the finishing touches put on it, so we couldn't get a very good photograph.

I hope that this letter answers most of your questions. If you have more

questions, please let me know, and I'll try my best to answer them. I hope that

this letter is evidence of my best intentions. If you agree with nothing in this

letter, at the very least, I hope you are impressed by the sincerity of my effort

and that the fact that I spent several hours on a beautiful Sunday afternoon

writing this letter to you.

Best Regards,

James Freeman


My name is Caitlin Williams Freeman; I'm the Pastry Chef at Blue Bottle and the wife of Blue Bottle owner, James Freeman. I'm sorry that I can't attend today's meeting, but I'm hoping to give you a bit of information about the pastries we plan to sell at our cart in Dolores Park.

A little about me: I owned a cake shop and a candy shop here in San Francisco called Miette until 2008. After selling my business, I had intended to help my husband start a pastry program at Blue Bottle and move on to open another business. Blue Bottle has been such a wonderful work environment, with such excellent benefits, that I have stayed on and am happily occupying my position two years later. Our pastry team has grown as the company has added new retail locations; at first it was just me as the baker and delivery driver and we now employee two full time bakers, one part time baker and a full time delivery driver to handle the pastries going out daily to our retail locations. I am very proud that we are able to bake beautiful cookies and cakes daily for our customers and that we produce almost all food we sell in our shops in-house (the exceptions being Humphry Slocombe ice cream for affogatos).

I believe strongly in using the very best ingredients I can find. At the very minimum we use organic, but we really prefer to work with local artisans whenever possible. Our flour, eggs, nuts, rice, butter, dairy, sugars, maple syrup and oats are all organic. I buy our fruit and herbs at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market and the Tuesday Berkeley Farmer's Market, we buy our chocolate from Michael Recchiuti, our alcohols and spirits are from St. George Spirits in Alameda and Magnolia Brewpub in the Haight, our spices are all the very highest quality from Le Sanctuaire here in San Francisco and our olive oil is from Stonehouse in the Ferry Building.

Using these beautiful ingredients does have its cost, but it was my goal upon starting this pastry program to price everything at the very minimum possible. We aim to have a 25% cost of goods and I price our pastries directly from that number. We are able to keep our costs down and lessen our impact on the environment by reducing any packaging associated with the delivery and sales of our products. Any packaging we do have is either compostable (our paper cups for our cakes and coffee filters we use to serve to our customers) or re-usable (our mason jars for yogurt parfaits and granola).

Our product line is primarily small cakes and cookies priced between $1 and $3.50. We do offer granola and yogurt parfaits as a more substantial "breakfast" but, because my specialty is sweets, that's the focus of our food program. A list of our current products is as follows:

* Cookies

- Saffron Vanilla Snickerdoodles, made with Spanish saffron and Tahitian vanilla bean

- Double Chocolate chip, made with Scharffen Berger cocoa powder and Recchiuti chocolate

- Rosemary Olive oil shortbread, made with Stonehouse olive oil

- Biscotti Regina, made with Stonehouse olive oil and St. George Spirits Absinthe

- Biscotti Pizzetta, made with Spanish saffron and almonds

* Cakes

- Bolognese Rice Cake, made with Arborio rice and St. George Spirits barrel aged brandy

- Gingerbread, made with fresh ginger, frankincense and myrrh

- Fruit Buckle, made with seasonal fruit and topped with streusel

- Stout cake, made with Magnolia Brewpub Oatmeal Stout and topped with caraway streusel

* Other

- Yogurt parfait, Straus yogurt with seasonal fruit compote

- Granola, with pecans, walnuts and maple syrup

I would like to conclude by re-affirming that, yes, this really is a mom and pop operation. We have been lucky to grow the business to it's potential and have an audience for the coffee and pastries that we really love to make. I'm thrilled that Blue Bottle has given us a place to make friends in our favorite neighborhoods, employ outstanding and dedicated people, and use and support the services of very talented local artisans. We are delighted that the business has been able to grow enough to allow us to live in San Francisco and have our son attend the Synergy School in the Mission. On a very selfish level, I really look forward to being a customer at our cart in Dolores Park, enjoying the park with a cup of coffee, our son and our dogs.

Thanks for your time, attention and concern,

Caitlin Freeman

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