“Let’s get a coffee and catch-up.” It’s a throwaway line but if you say it to David Bowman, CFO of Blue Bottle Coffee, you’ll get invited over for a tour along with your cup. Satya and I visited Blue Bottle’s Oakland HQ a few weeks back and I love talking with retailers about the way technology is changing their business (such as this previous post with a SF-based bakery owner). One of our investment themes at Homebrew VC is SMBs gaining access to new powerful tech.
Q: How’d you get connected to Blue Bottle Coffee and what role do you play on the team?
DB: I met James Freeman, our founder and CEO, through one of our investors in the summer of 2012. I was a devoted customer and inspired by what he had built and his vision for the future. Lucky for me, he was looking to hire someone to look after the financial side of the business, so we worked together for a few months to try out working together. It went well, so he asked me to join the team. I now look after finance and digital efforts for the company.
Q: You’ve been opening new retail cafes recently and have several more coming. How do you pick locations? Is it an art or a science?
DB: As with anything done well (I think), a bit of both, but mostly art. Ultimately, we want to go where our customers are and open beautiful cafes. We think a lot about that moment you walk into a special cafe. How it looks from the street, how it fits within the neighborhood, the architecture, the light inside, how it smells. It all matters. This is the art, and no one is better at the art than James Freeman. There is some science of course to make sure we’re focused and that the cafe can be successful economically. The science only acts as a filter though. Nothing beats physically standing on a street corner and feeling the neighborhood and cafe space. The final decision to open a new cafe is driven by these intangibles.
Q: How do you find baristas for your cafes? Do they train in the mysterious art of espresso pulling?
DB: We’re fortunate to have a phenomenal team of baristas in our stores today. Good people know good people, so a lot of our hiring comes through internal networks. We also post openings on a number of sites, and we receive inbound interest through our site (on the latter, if you love what we’re doing, we’d love to hear from you!). Once hired, first time baristas receive about 30 hours in our training lab before they pull their first shot in the cafe. It starts with education about coffee from our buying team: where it grows and how it is harvested, processed, bought, shipped, roasted, brewed, and enjoyed.
Baristas then learn how to make pour over drip coffee, followed by espresso, and then milk. Espresso and milk are hard. It’s all about the details and the subtle slight of hand. I spent hours in the lab and can still barely make a passable espresso drink. Our head of quality control says it takes thousands of attempts to pour really great drinks (which means I’m still probably thousands of drinks away). The lab training concludes with a simulated cafe experience judged by some of our best baristas. Along the way and once in the cafe, new baristas are often shadowed by trainers to give them the support they need during those early shifts.
Q: How does technology impact your business?
DB: Well, to a certain point, we try to limit the presence of technology in our cafes. We want our cafes to be physical places where our customers enjoy coffee and interact on a human, personal level. With this said, technology makes us better at what we do. In terms of hardware, we’re always looking to learn more about new coffee gear, be it a new espresso machine or home brewing tool. Software helps us run our business, of course. Aside from basic financial and operational IT products, there is some awesome innovation happening across horizontals and verticals. For example, we use software that reads from sensors attached to our roaster to measure temperature over time so that our roasting and quality control teams can dial in on the best roast for each coffee. Additionally, I think we’re just scratching the surface in ecommerce. It could become a whole new environment for connecting with our customers and helping them brew delicious coffee at home. I take a lot of inspiration from companies like Tonx who are doing a great job in this space. Once you start to understand an industry in detail, you see how much more room there is for software to change the world in specific, immediately impactful ways. I’m far more bullish on technology now than when I started at Blue Bottle Coffee.
Q: What future innovation are you most excited about?
DB: I’ve thought a lot about this. I used to be a management consultant and always wondered why the systems used by my clients – mostly big, highly successful companies – were so hard to use and so rarely integrated. I knew very little about IT back then. I see today how easy it is to take a company down a path like this. We’re fortunate to work with Square. They have a great product that makes our cafe experience better for everyone. Square exists to make commerce easy and the potential for them beyond the POS is massive. I also love what ZenPayroll is doing. Not only do they have a beautiful product in a space that is not known for beautiful products, they are focused. They believe that the future is characterized by teams doing one or a few things really well, and then letting APIs provide the integration with other products of similar quality and focus. It’s a breath of fresh air to me and I think they may very well be right.
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