How a Coffee Shop Found Its Niche
March 12, 2015 | Home and Family
Jeremy Tooker admits it. He had a chip on his shoulder when he started Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco in 2008. “We made conscious decisions about what we would and would not do. All business is personal, and how you operate involves choice,” he says. “I wanted to set an example for San Francisco.” Some of his choices seem benign enough—none of the low-fat milk or sweet syrups that have become standard coffee house fare, for example. But no Wi-Fi? No charging stations? What are we, savages?
Not at all. Quite the opposite, Tooker insists. For him and his partners, Jodi Geren and Tal Mor, coffee plays a much more important part in their lives than it does for the average person. Four Barrel Coffee roasts its own beans, and Tooker travels the world selecting them personally. Wholesaling is part of its business, but when it comes to running a café where the magic elixir will be served and consumed, Tooker and company are quite picky about the details.
“I had a coffee shop before we started Four Barrel Coffee, and we did provide Wi-Fi,” he explains. “We ended up with people parking themselves at tables for long periods of time and buying little or nothing; but more importantly, it really killed the vibe. There’s just no energy in a room when everyone’s eyes are locked onto their laptops or smartphone screens.”
Tooker says the no Wi-Fi policy at Four Barrel Coffee is in part a social experiment, but it’s also good business, guaranteeing that tables will turn over more frequently and people will really engage with each other. “The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” he reports, noting that anyone who has an urgent need for Internet connectivity can literally just walk across the street. San Francisco is the heart of tech-savvy Silicon Valley, and as Tooker points out, “Free Wi-Fi is basically everywhere.”
Four Barrel Coffee’s flagship café is in the Mission District, and Tooker and his partners have opened two more outlets over the past six years, one at the request of San Francisco city government to help revitalize the Portola neighborhood. That shop is in a much smaller space and sports the Four Barrel Coffee name. The other has a different name, The Mill. It’s a collaboration between Four Barrel Coffee and Josey Baker Bread. While the original café was primarily a solo effort by Tooker, the others reflect a collaborative approach that he and Geren say is the key driver of their creativity.
“The collaborative nature of everything we do is the most visible manifestation of the creativity behind Four Barrel Coffee,” Geren says. “We don’t bring our egos to the table. Instead, we really try to be humble—always willing to admit when we don’t know something—and open to learning new things.” The owners apply that same filter to all aspects of their business, including management and human resources. “We don’t believe in micromanaging. We give our employees and colleagues ownership of their work and let them learn by doing, which makes for a lot of creativity,” she says. “Trust and freedom are two of our greatest strengths.”
This article originally ran in Creative Living Magazine