Blacktop, an espresso bar, opens today on Third Street and Hewitt in the Arts District, sandwiched between sausage king Wurstkuche and high-ceilinged retail art warehouse Alchemy Works. Blacktop is tiny, a 250-square-foot counter that's designed to spill out onto the street. The small size and street spillover are intentional, envisioned by its founder, Tyler Wells, to be a visual emblem of living community.
Less than two years after founding Handsome Roasters, in December Tyler Wells abruptly left the the coffeehouse he'd created in 2011. In March, Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee bought Handsome Roasters.
“Everyone was looking for recapitalization or sale. [Handsome] wasn't gonna grow without more money or infrastructure, and that's what Blue Bottle brings” says Wells. “I think it's great for them, it gives them what they want.”
It was not, however, what Wells wanted.
“Handsome started as three guys who wanted to make coffee and be nice to people,” Wells says, “We never wanted to run an HR department or be bookkeepers. The whole operation surrounding roasting and distribution is massive, and I'd envisioned something smaller and more intimate. It wasn't where I wanted to be, so I left.”
Now, he's giving community-focused coffee another shot.
“Since the beginning, I've always wanted a little 200 foot espresso bar,” says Wells. “Something truly European, where people can stop in and have a drink, a little two minute bright spot in their day, and go on to whatever's next.”
One of Blacktop's co-founders, Tyler Wilson, also an owner of Wurstkuche, shares Wells' vision. “If we sell 10 cups of coffee or 200, it doesn't matter. As long as we build community, we're happy.”
But in a neighborhood already filling up with coffeehouses, will Wells' have to grapple with Handsome, a heavyweight contender of his own creation?
“It's not us versus them. There's the Fourth Street Divide. This part, what I call the Wurstkuche side, is kind of a separate neighborhood from the south side of Fourth, the Church and State side.”
Location isn't the only difference. Unlike Handsome, Blacktop is not a roaster, meaning it will serve third-party coffee, and offer a fuller retail experience. It has an exclusive deal with Sightglass Coffee (roasted in San Francisco), which will provide the espresso for tiny drink menu of “Whites” (Lattes, Cappuccinos), “Blacks” (shots and Americanos), and “Chocolates” (Mochas).
There will be also juices from Pressed, and homemade open-faced toasts. Another food option will be Wes Avila's Guerilla Taco Truck, which will move from it's location outside Handsome to the street outside Blacktop.
Another key change is that Blacktop will comply with customers' requests for sugar in their coffee, a departure from the controversial anti-sugar stance of Handsome.
“We're a little less rigid than Handsome. We had something to prove there, but it grew tiresome. The reasons for not serving sugar sometimes got lost in translation,” Wells explains from an office above Blacktop, the thumping of fresh potatoes being chopped vibrating in from Wurstkuche next door, “Blacktop is simpler. It's just a little sidewalk café.”
Blacktop is located at 826 3rd Street in the Arts District. Open daily 7 a.m.-7 p.m.