Rare is the person who derives equal inspiration from Steve Jobs and Marcel Proust. But spend some time talking to James Freeman, the founder of the rapidly growing Blue Bottle Coffee empire, and those names keep coming back.
Let’s begin with Steve Jobs. Since Freeman is in the brick-and-mortar business—his passion is to devise the physical spaces where people consume his coffee—it’s no coincidence that when he thinks of Apple, he’s most inspired by the company’s retail stores.
"I don’t know if you know the tables at the Apple Store..." he begins.
Does he mean just those tables that showcase the products?
"Yeah. The fact that you use the word ‘just’ is a tribute to their art," he says. He goes on to explain that while the user experience of an Apple store table is to approach a clean, simple piece of furniture to interact with a product, there’s in fact considerable infrastructure housed and hidden in each table—a thicket of wiring that runs power to each device. Each table, in fact, is really a system. "But you don’t notice it. All you notice is a very elegant table with devices on it," he says.
Now consider the user experience of entering a typical café. You approach a tall piece of furniture. You’ll interact with a barista, but you’ll be seeing that person from the waist up—you’ll sense a real physical barrier between you. That barrier will further be cluttered by a glass case full of pastries and a vast coffee-making apparatus. Compared to the Apple Store experience, it’s less intimate, less informal, and less open.
One of the main things Freeman would like to achieve with the $20 million funding round he received last year is to experiment with ways of bringing the Apple Store experience to the café experience. How can the café-goer feel the kind of ubiquitous hospitality felt at the Apple Store? And how can the infrastructure that powers a café be hidden from the café-goer, so that the café-goer can focus her attention where it matters? Freeman says he’s questing after a "purity of experience." After all, he says, "If you went to the Apple Store and saw all the messy cables, the Wi-Fi, the power strip underneath, that would make you feel differently about those products." Freeman thinks the same may be true of coffee. And he’s "betting a fair amount of money" on it, he says. Indeed, Blue Bottle aims to open between seven and nine new cafés in three to four cities next year, several of which will serve as laboratories of these new ideas. (The two renderings of future locations shown here give an idea.)
When Freeman sits down to brainstorm about the experience he wants in one of his coffee bars, he often begins by compiling a document that may run as long as 60 pages. He puts together a "narrative with words and images," he says. "I have a very personal view of what I want in a café. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what other people want. I have my enthusiasms, and it’s exciting to work through them in this medium of coffee bars."
One of Freeman’s current—and indeed, longstanding—enthusiasms is Marcel Proust. Freeman has read the entire seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time several times, and is currently reading the Lydia Davis translation of Swann’s Way aloud with his pregnant wife. (He calculates they can make it as far as the end of Within a Budding Grove by the time she gives birth. "That’s either warped or thrilling," he says.) Reading about the cork-lined room in which Proust composed his masterpiece, Freeman was taken with an image of a maroon brocade chair Proust had in the room. That material will be featured prominently in a forthcoming Brooklyn Blue Bottle location.
What is it like to work for a café auteur like Freeman, who thinks of his coffee-selling locations as something like works of art? He cites the employee who is tasked with bringing his dreams to life as being occasionally irked with his grand visions. "She’s good-natured, but has to deal with the downside—the practical side of my enthusiasms," he said. Another employee once would dismiss Freeman’s ideas as "PFF’s"—short for "Proustian flights of fancy." (That employee is no longer with Blue Bottle.)
At the end of the day, Freeman has earned the right to have whatever flights of fancy he pleases, and to begin to experiment with the possibilities of the café. He built up his empire from a cramped location at the end of a urine-soaked alley to the rapidly expanding network of cafés across the country (currently 10 are in operation) bringing in a revenue in excess of $15 million per year.
"We’ve had an incredible run of luck," says Freeman. "So most people at the very worst are tolerant to indulgent about this, and many others do share my enthusiasms."
[Image: Flickr user John Pastor]