Blue Bottle Coffee opened Tuesday on Abbot Kinney, and it opened in perhaps the most fitting place for Blue Bottle to open in L.A.: in the former home of Equator Books, which was home to a cafe serving — you guessed it — Blue Bottle Coffee.
This is the Oakland-based roaster's second Los Angeles location; the first opened in the cafe and roastery formerly known as Handsome Coffee Roasters (Blue Bottle acquired Handsome, along with coffee subscription service Tonx, earlier this year). And while that first shop still feels a bit ruggedly Handsome, this 650 square foot Venice spot feels one hundred percent Blue Bottle: bright white brick walls, a wood counter, a short menu of coffee drinks, including its popular New Orleans-style iced coffee.
It is, as Blue Bottle founder and CEO James Freeman puts it, a "sensible, spare, efficient little shop."
And it's standing room only at this sensible, spare, efficient little shop (Freeman says seating was not possible given the "formidable" city regulations around having seats); there's just enough room for a few grinders, a nifty Kees van der Westen espresso machine, a row of pourover cones, retail bags of coffee (including Bella Donovan, the "wool sweater" of the company's coffee blends, and a terrific Yirgacheffe Gelana Abaya), milk cartons full of New Orleans-style iced coffee that you buy now to drink later, and a small case with cookies from Blue Bottle's pastry department and baked goods from FarmShop. The food menu will eventually expand; Freeman hopes it'll include shaved ice that will be a "Southern California analogue" to the Italian granita, with pure flavors (fruit and coffee, perhaps).
The biggest splash of color in an otherwise stark shop comes courtesy the subdued glow from the custom light panel that serves as a backdrop to the bar. Created by Tekamaki, a team of video display professionals who also worked with James Turrell, the panel has some 1,700 connected LED pixels that will change colors as seasons change (current season: ocean blue). After your coffee fix, then, maybe head east and check out the James Turrell installation at LACMA that will be around for a few more months.
That the Venice shop is this spare might come as a surprise if the only Blue Bottle location you've ever visited was the company's first cafe, which opened in 2008 in San Francisco's Mint Plaza. That space is outfitted with the sort of gear that coffee geeks tend to geek out about: a siphon bar, a tall, elegant Kyoto-syle iced coffee dripper, lots and lots of knickknacks. It "really says how I felt about coffee in 2007: coffee is complicated and mysterious," Freeman says.
Now, perhaps reflecting a current sentiment within the specialty coffee industry, he's more interested in simplicity.
"I just wanted this to be easy. Regardless of the complexity of [Blue Bottle's] training regimen, or where the coffee's from, I wanted this to feel easy," he says. "It might not have the same symbols and signs as other coffee shops that you might be used to seeing, but it still has a feeling of ease."
Thus a simple menu of drip coffee and espressos and restraint in the aesthetics. It might be worth noting here that ease and simplicity are not necessarily synonymous with speed: pourover coffee, especially, takes time; more time, anyway, than pushing a nozzle on a batch brewer like the ever popular Fetco. Which is fine by Freeman, as he prefers the flavor of the coffee brewed via pourover, even at the cost of a few minutes.
"Is [speed] really how we want to stake the future of coffee? Is that how we want to differentiate ourselves — 'Yes, we can be just as fast as Dunkin' Donuts, too'? Maybe it's not as important to be just as fast as Dunkin' Donuts." Maybe what is important, he says, is "to be at our best, to serve the coffees that we're excited about, in a way that we're excited about serving them. Things we believe are delicious."
Indeed, if you want to gamble on the future of coffee, you might want to consider that the odds might ever be in the favor of Blue Bottle. Thanks to several rounds of funding, the company is set to grow, and quickly (the Starbucks comparisons are inevitable, which, depending on how you feel about Starbucks, may or may not be a good thing). Indeed, the Venice shop is only the beginning.
In Culver City, Blue Bottle has plans for a "cabana-like" shop with some seating, Freeman says, and an Echo Park cafe, located in Jensen's Recreation Center, will have a "sportier" feel. That one will be a large space with seating with a menu of food: "poached eggs and toast, some waffles, maybe sandwiches. That will be fun." The Downtown cafe and roastery — which Freeman says has received a nice welcome despite initial skepticism about Blue Bottle's acquisition of Handsome — will roast all the coffee for the L.A.-area shops, and a pastry kitchen is in the works next door. To top it all off, the company will open a roastery and coffee bar in Tokyo.
The great irony in all this is that Freeman never thought he would open any shop after his first. Indeed, beyond a manifestation of his coffee psyche at the time, he considered the Mint Plaza opportunity as something of a carpe diem moment. "The reason why it's packed with all my favorite stuff is that I thought I'd never open another shop," he says. "I thought I had one shot, and I'd better make it count."
As if that weren't enough, there's one more thing. The company just launched Blue Bottle at Home, a continuation of Tonx's vision to vastly improve, if not completely reinvent, the coffee subscription model and experience.
Coffee subscriptions are "surprisingly hard" to do well, Freeman says. "To make it so people don't have to think about it, so it's easy. How do you have it so people don't get the same coffee two times in a row? What should it feel like when they open the box? What should be inside and how could it be this nice little thing that happens? There are so many ways of disappointing people, and we've done it all. So, how do you build a system that's not going to do that? I want to get better at that."
The plans start at $11 per shipment, and you can choose what kind of coffee you want to receive: espresso, a blend or a single origin. At the moment, there is every reason to believe that Blue Bottle will indeed get better at making your coffee subscription as exciting as your subscription to Nintendo Power was back when you were 10. There is reason, in fact, to believe that the company will get better at much everything else even as it grows.
At the Venice shop, Freeman was checking on not only the quality of the coffee (which was tasting very good), but also fretting a bit about the other things that subconsciously add to your experience: the doors were a little smudged with fingerprints, he noticed, and there was a dog bowl outside but no dog treats inside. For him — and thus for Blue Bottle — there's always room for improvement. It helps that he possesses an almost endless patience, which makes it possible to appreciate that change happens not overnight but over the course of many, many nights. It helps, perhaps, that he was, in a former life, a professional clarinetist.
"Most people think what classical musicians do is put on their tux and go on stage and do their performance," he says. "But really what classical musicians do is the same thing, over and over again, thousands and thousands of times, alone in a room. And then every once in a while, they put it on stage. So that idea translates: that you're doing a pourover thousands and thousands of times, or pulling one espresso shot thousands and thousands of times, and hopefully, with little microadjustments and paying attention, you'll go to sleep and be a tiny bit better than when you started."
And so. The coffee will be adjusted here and there, the smudges will be wiped, the lucky dogs of Venice will get their treats. The tiny bits will add up to big bits. It can only get better from here.
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Blue Bottle's Venice shop is open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.