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Creativity in a Cup.. of Coffee

Making our way through the pile of chairs in the narrow hallway hours before lunch service began, the worker finally pointed to the makeshift shack hidden behind the restaurant. I thanked him and knocked on the door. It all felt like some Prohibition era speakeasy.

photo: Blue Bottle Coffee

A bright-eyed man with glasses invited me in. He looked like one of those musicians who you couldn’t tell their age because of the gray hair and youthful features.

“What would you like?” he asked.

“I don’t know - what do you suggest?”

“Well, if this is your first time, I’d recommend the Guatemalan medium roast. You can’t go wrong.” He hands a brown paper bag to his partner.

“Sounds good,” I replied.

This was the early days of Blue Bottle. A coffee roaster filled up the room barely the size of a single car garage. From these modest beginnings grew a caffeinated empire that now spans across the Pacific.

In February of this year they opened their first store in Japan to lines around the block. Only a few months later they began a second store. Meanwhile, in June they raised $70 million in funding.

What struck me about Blue Bottle from that first bag to the last drop I've enjoyed so far is the attention to detail and quality. You known when you drink a cup that this ain't your neighborhood Starbucks.

At the center of this is James Freeman who started what some have called the “Apple of the coffee industry.”

“I think Apple has been really influenced by the very rigorous simplicity of a lot of Japanese design elements and their focus on simplicity and quality. I'm obviously very influenced by those things too. Apple's doing it for the world; we're doing it in twenty stores. Lessons are lessons,” says Freeman.

Freedom to Take Creative Risks

While it’s easy to point to success and oversimplify the process of getting there, Freeman was well aware of the risks and went into this with eyes wide open.

“If we were going to make a big mistake, I wanted it to be my big mistake, not anybody else's big mistake. I wanted to be more responsible for all the details and I knew there would be more risk because we might have gotten it wrong—and that's expensive,” he said.

Finding the Right Creative Team

For the missing pieces of the business DNA that Freeman felt they needed, Blue Bottle acquired several key players including San Francisco bakery Tartine.

“If you could have the world's best croissants, why not? I've known Chad (Robertson) for a long time. He's been wanting to grow, but he hadn't found the right team. Then he was here when we opened. The first week, he saw how well the team here was working with this launch, as well as the incredible demand, and that's when he said he found the team that he wanted to work with.."

"So much is about the team," Freeman says, "because these are people I’ve got to see every day or every week—so it has to feel like it's a natural fit. It's not just about how much money we're going to make, or real estate or anything like that.. It's all about who we want to work with.”

Be Willing to Play the Long Game

Although Freeman wants to expand more quickly, he realizes that quality takes time. Blue Bottle now has twenty stores with ten more coming. "We're getting better and better at it," he says.

"The store feels a certain way because we really care about things; like how the doorknob feels when you walk in, as well as what you see, and how the light shines in the pastry kitchen. It takes a lot of time to do that."

I love a nice latte for a bit of liquid inspiration, but these are just some other bits of creativity that you might find in your next cup.

Quotes are from Toyokeizai - (Part 1) (Part 2)