This Coffee Chain Doubled Its Revenue By Choosing Not To Compete Against Starbucks

James Freeman Blue BottleFounder James Freeman

Photo: Clay McLachlan

Blue Bottle Coffee founder James Freeman only uses vintage and Japanese machinery to slow-brew his coffee.”You have to know a guy, who knows a guy, who knows a guy,” Freeman tells us of finding these one-of-a-kind vintage suppliers.

The equipment used to brew and roast coffee goes beyond the standard plug-and-press technology.

“We believe in touch,” he says. “We interact with our machinery.” Its Williamsburg, Brooklyn location carries a 1958 Faema Urania expresso machine with a tough lever, while its Oakland location on Webster Street houses two 1950s roasters from the German company, Probat.

In 2002, the coffee enthusiast began selling coffee at the local farmer’s market. Prior to that, he had no experience in the business world. Three years after, he opened a kiosk in an unlikely location—his friend’s garage.

Now, a decade later, Blue Bottle has expanded to 10 locations; six in California’s Bay Area and three in New York City. Growth is tremendous for Blue Bottle. Since its first retail location opened in 2005, the company’s revenue has increased about 50 per cent annually, Freeman told the Wall Street Journal. Two Manhattan locations were opened within the past six months. They show no sign of slowing down.

According to its web site, their Brooklyn venue boasts “perhaps the longest and most theatrical drip bar on the eastern seaboard.”  The Kyoto slow cold-drip is from a Japanese company called Oji and contains a sequence of five glass globes and connecting filter and pot. This apparatus makes cold coffee that doesn’t need sweetening or milk. In this process, the water is distributed evenly as it absorbs the core elements of the coffee beans, passing through a cloth-covered metal disk on the top and bottom of the filter, and dripping the remains into the bottom vessel.

This process takes about 8-12 hours to produce a full pot.

The Oji drip isn’t the only high-tech equipment the business employs. They also use a $20,000 Lucky Cremas Bonmac 105 siphon bar manufactured by another Japanese company that is similar to the $11,000 Clover machine that Stumptown Coffee and select Starbucks location uses. The Bonmac machine features a halogen light on its bottom that tightly controls the brewing process and temperatures (differing temperatures produce different flavours). Blue Bottle was the first to use a halogen-powered model in America. 

James Freeman Blue BottleLucky Cremas Bonmac 105

Photo: Clay McLachlan

The slow-brewing process is all second nature to Freeman. He played the clarinet in symphonies and used to make his own coffee, roasting it on a perforated baking sheet in between gigs.

“It was my own geeky little hobby,” says Freeman. “I would get excited about the way coffee tasted as time progressed. It really planted the seed in me that freshness is key.”This aspect of freshness is vital within the artisan coffee business. Unlike other coffee shops, who serve coffee roasted more than a week ago, Freeman maintains a strict “under-48-hours” rule. All of his beans are organic and shade-grown, and must be served within 48 hours of roasting, ensuring the freshness of each cup.

A primary roastery is set up in California and New York and each supply product to the retail locations in its respective state. Each roastery contains a training room, a cupping room, a kitchen for baked goods, and offices.

Freeman is currently working towards getting his iced coffee drinks, available in two flavours, into stores. He has carefully crafted the shelf items so that the ingredients don’t lose their essence if not consumed immediately, as some of his store-brewed coffees do. “We’ve discovered a pasteurization method that doesn’t involve heating,” says Freeman. “Heat destroys the flavour of the coffee. This is the secret to the process.”

And now, Freeman is sharing some of those secrets in a book he wrote with wife and pastry chef, Caitlin Freeman and food writer Tara Duggan. Set for release in October 2012, “The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee: Growing, Roasting, and Drinking, with Recipes,” will detail Blue Bottle’s history, explain how to roast at home and profile farmers who the business works closely with.

If you’re looking for a shop to get your coffee on-the-go, Blue Bottle isn’t the place to be. The average cup of Blue Bottle coffee takes five minutes to brew, and each cup is given careful consideration.

“What’s important to me is that we take the time to make something delicious,” says Freeman. “There are always going to be people that don’t have time to sit there and wait. And we’re OK with that; we just aren’t for them. But this model has worked for us this far. And we find that, when people do wait, they end up coming back.”

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