I go to Starbucks on the way to work every day. I know it’s not the best coffee available, but for all its detractors, it’s an efficient caffeine delivery mechanism.
It’s not every day you hear about a coffee chain getting venture capital money from firms that usually invest in tech companies. Summit Partners, which led the round, has invested in Uber, Belkin, and Arista.
Philz started up in 2003, so it grew up during the latest tech boom. But it doesn’t deliver coffee by drone, accept Snapcash, or put Soylent in its drinks (as far as we know — although it does advertise a secret ingredient).
So why all the fuss? I decided to find out, and visited Philz’ original shop in San Francisco’s Mission district.
The first thing I noticed after walking is in was the shop’s walls. They’re painted with clouds and covered with colourful paintings:
The couches, sofas, and tables opposite the coffee bar itself give Philz a calm, social vibe. There wasn’t much of a line when I visited.
People were on laptops but it didn’t seem like a place to do business. Everyone was relaxed and happy, not staring at their phones waiting for someone to call out their name.
Philz is a place for people who enjoy the experience of drinking coffee.
The blackboard menu was filled with an overwhelming number of blends, each with odd names like “Silken Splendor,” “It’s the Best,” and “Ambrosia Coffee of God.” It wasn’t clear what each one would taste like. My barista told me each blend was made from two to seven coffee beans blended together and mixed with a mysterious blend of cream and sweetener.
I say mysterious because the sign out front touts a “secret ingredient” and they didn’t tell me exactly how they do it.
There’s plenty of food, too. Philz offers fresh-looking bagels, muffins, and pastries for about $US2 to $US5, which is reasonable. You could eat breakfast there if you wanted, but I got the impression that people come here for the coffee, and the food is just an added bonus.
I finally chose a blend called Tesora — a medium roast, and Philz’ first blend ever. I saw Splenda behind the counter, but I got my coffee “Philz way,” with medium cream and sweetener.
Philz Coffee’s slogan — and possibly the secret to its success — is “one cup at a time.” I soon discovered that Philz isn’t for the commuting worker. It’s a slow process. I watched my coffee drip from its bag in one of the four brewing machines my barista was in charge of.
But once it was done, it was unlike any coffee I’d ever had. The coffee I’m used to tastes like coffee. But this genuinely tasted like butter, nuts, and caramel. It was the smoothest coffee I’ve ever had.
You definitely pay for the quality, though. My large was $US4, about a buck more than I pay for something similar at Starbucks.
So while there’s no obvious tech angle, Philz investors probably see an opportunity in the premium coffee market. It’s possible that slower-moving sit-down coffee shops like this one will steal some customers from Starbucks, just like “fast-casual” food chains like Chipotle and Panera Bread have taken business away from McDonald’s.
It all depends on why you’re drinking coffee. If you’re in a hurry, just trying to wake up before a busy day, Starbucks has your back. But if you’ve got a little extra time and money to burn, I’d go to Philz almost every time.
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