Blue Bottle Aims to Blend Slow Coffee, Fast Growth

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By Ian Sherr

In an era of fast-food cappuccinos and drive-through coffee shops, Blue Bottle Coffee Co. is banking on slowing things down to help itself grow.

Since the Oakland-based coffee company’s founding in 2002, its revenue has jumped an average of about 50% annually to between $15 million and $20 million last year, according to James Freeman, founder and chief executive. As the company continues to expand—with plans to enter Manhattan in the next month of so—Blue Bottle could have more than 200 employees by the end of this year, up from about 70 two years ago.

Blue Bottle’s concept is slow coffee, an unusual offering in today’s coffee-retail industry. Brewing a cup of Blue Bottle coffee is a laborious process that can take up to five minutes, including the time it takes a barista to grind the beans and pour the grounds into a filter suspended above a cup before water is added on top.

The process takes substantially more time than it does to get a typical cup of coffee from shops like Starbucks, raising questions about how many customers would be willing to wait for a cup of joe from Blue Bottle and whether they can taste the difference.

But so far, this slow style—which Mr. Freeman says has become popular in Britain in recent years—has helped Blue Bottle and rival Bay Area practitioners of the art, like Ritual Coffee Roasters, develop a devoted customer base.

“It’s really excellent” coffee, says Jayn Pettingill, a local 48-year-old musician and music librarian. She says she buys only Blue Bottle beans for coffee at home because the company delivers the most consistent good taste she can find.

Still, Blue Bottle faces the usual limitations of an artisan food business. Its coffee is pricey, with a standard 12-ounce cup costing about a dollar more than the roughly $1.65 charged at Starbucks.

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(Published Feb 2, 2012, in The Wall Street Journal.)