Coffee Bar – Outperforming Starbucks in San Francisco and Beyond?


Since coffee is a necessary element to software implementations, writing efforts, and life in general, let me talk about local coffee shops – in San Francisco in this case. While at Oracle OpenWorld this week, I reconnected with Robert Stang, a grad school friend who is now in the coffee business. Currently he has three shops in San Francisco and plans to expand further.

Perhaps you ask, do we really need more coffee stores?  Don’t stores like Starbucks, Pete’s, and Tully’s have that cornered? How can you compete? On quality, says Robert. For those who are happy with their go-to cup of Starbucks espresso or cappuccino, realize that this is made in what is called a super-automatic machine, a single device where the grinding, metering out, tamping, preloading the espresso shot, and the final pull done by one machine. It’s not a horrible way to make coffee, but it’s far from the best.

By contrast, look at the Italians. I spent a few weeks this summer in the discerning country, and decidedly caffeinated most of the time. Being a bit of a coffee enthusiast (with my own commercial grade coffee equipment), I carefully studied the Italians, their process, and of course the lovely equipment as they went about pulling delicious espresso shots. Compared to the big US firms, the Italians still go about this the old school way – with a separate coffee grinder (massive machines from firms like Faema, Macap, and others), a manual dosing and tamping step by the barista, followed by shots pulled from dedicated espresso machines made by Italian companies like La Marzocco and others.  Most of these espresso machines look like works of art in their own right.

La Marzocco Strada MP, image courtesy of

La Marzocco Strada MP, image courtesy of

With the same beans, the latter process – given a trained and passionate hand behind the levers – will produce a better cup than what a super-automatic can. Too many compromises with the autos, but it requires a skilled touch to master the craft the traditional way. Robert tells me that this is his main differentiator: finding, training, and retaining the right staff. These are typically 20-something individuals who love coffee and the fast-paced retail environment, but who inevitably move on to other careers later in life. He adds that it is quickly obvious if a new hire has the right attitude or is just looking to punch the clock.

This is how my friend has built his reputation and his business plan: by delivering a superior coffee experience to a more discerning audience. According to him, there are many in San Francisco who have now outgrown the Starbucks offering. (I wouldn’t be surprised if his scrappy local start-up approach also plays to the anti-big business attitude that, ironically, is so prevalent in the high-tech VC-fuelled Bay Area.)

Further adding to the better experience, his stores offer freshly baked (not frozen as with the big name competition) pastries, unique fruit juice mixes (made fresh every morning, discarded in the evening). Prices are what one might call premium, but you do taste the difference. This end of the business caters to another aspect of the Cali greenie mindset – fresh, organic, local.

Personally, I’m not particularly ideological about my coffee, so all I can say is that the cappuccino and the pastry I enjoyed at the Coffee Bar were both delicious. I can also recommend their in-house kale juice mix– an interesting combo with celery and apples among other things. It makes me want to try making my own juice mixes at home.

Try out one of the Coffee Bars next time you're in San Francisco – you might want to change your coffee drinking habits. Be warned, it’s almost impossible to go back once you’ve tried the good stuff!

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