Interview: coffee pro Jeremy Tooker (Four Barrel)

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Coffee San Francisco

Jeremy Tooker has been one of the more influential figures in San Francisco’s coffee community. The Portland native co-founded Ritual Coffee Roasters in the Mission District with Eileen Hassi in 2005. He left and launched Four Barrel Coffee three years later. The coffeehouse with wild boar heads on the north wall now draws more than 2000 customers per day on weekends. Tooker recently expanded focus to Divisadero, partnering with an artisan baker Josey Baker. He also has more plans for Four Barrel, but only if in more emerging neighborhoods call for the brand name. We met at Four Barrel on March 31, and Tooker shared several caffeinated insights that hint at why he’s generated success.

Was it a given that you’d work with coffee for a living, or did you consider other careers?

Early on, I’d say in my coffee career, when I grew up, I wanted to be anything from a firefighter to a motorcycle racer. I had a lot of different things going. Photography was one that I wanted to do for awhile. I couldn’t figure out early on how to earn a living. If you’re not a famous photographer, you do weddings. That doesn’t sound like very much fun. When I got into coffee, I was trying to get into motorcycle design, but I actually met a Ducati designer on a plane, on the way to New York, when I was 19, and he talked me out of it. He said, “This is a terrible industry,” so I stuck with coffee.

Do you still ride motorcycles and take photos?

I do take photos, a lot. Motorcycles, less so these days. I sold my last bike about two years ago, but I did my way through my bike collection until I got my dream bike.

Which was what?

It was a Ducati 740R. I bought it with stickers all over the bike that said, “For Race Use Only. Never Street Legal.” It didn’t have a kickstand, headlights or tail lights, so I had to buy all that and then sneak it into the DMV system to be street legal. It was super fast. I sold it because I didn’t ride it for a year after I started working too much.

Have you had any coffee mentors over the years?

Yeah, definitely. I would say my biggest coffee mentor for both buying and for just morality in the business is probably Tom Owen from Sweet Maria’s. He’s like my coffee hero, does it exactly how he wants to do it. He would argue otherwise, but I would say he doesn’t do anything in the normal style of marketing. He does no marketing at all. I think he’s very humble…He’s great. He taught me how to cup as well, and buy. He walked me through that whole process. I’ve taken cues from other people. I would say that I’ve learned mostly what not to do from other people. Tom was definitely my number one mentor.

What was your very first day like working in a coffeehouse, and where was it?

Man, I don’t even remember what my first day was like. It was in a little shop not even in Portland, right out of Portland, called Java Man. It was a franchise type of set-up, but this sweet Russian lady who owned the store, her father had a farm in Honduras, so she bought a roaster and learned how to roast. She basically taught me everything in that shop to know for the next 10 years. She was way ahead of her time. She taught me how to do latte art. This was back in ’96, ’97. It was not at all popular back then. People didn’t even know to do that in the States.

It was pre-Barista Competition, for sure.

Yeah, for sure. She taught me how to roast and everything, which is really funny, because I just thought that was the normal coffee shop job. You roast coffee, learn latte art. It was just her and I in that little shop. It was pretty slow. We had our regulars, including a strip club across the street. All the gangsters would come in there. That was my introduction to coffee, and then I moved to Starbucks. She retired and sold the shop to two young girls, who I trained, but since there were two of them, they didn’t need me, so I went and got a job at Starbucks. I was shocked at how little the baristas knew about everything, or that coffee was even roasted. It was pretty amazing.

Pretty basic…What brought you to San Francisco?

I worked for a company called Torrefazione Italia after Starbucks…I worked for a company that I thought was more in line with how I thought coffee should be. For coffee in milk, the roast was super dark, but they did have some medium and light roasts, which was cool. They didn’t have any syrups, and didn’t really have sizes either, so a lot of the stuff that I learned for this model was back in those days as well. I worked with a bunch of Italians, some surly Italians, so it was pretty fun.

Was that in Northwest Portland?

It was all over Portland. I moved back and worked at all the different stores they had.

I know. I’ve been to one before, before I was super conscious about coffee.

And that was sort of the thing. It was a very good introduction…I wish it was still around, because it would be a really good introduction to this style of coffee.

Oh, it’s not around anymore?

They sold it to Starbucks. I worked my way up through the system there and became manager of a few stores there, and then I moved back here to get some of the stores profitable before they sold to Starbucks, so they could look good on paper.

And then you helped found Ritual after that?

Yeah. As soon as the buyout was looking to be official, I left…I moved here in 2003, worked for about six months for Torrefazione Italia, left and we opened up Ritual in 2005.

What’s your favorite aspect of operating Four Barrel? Is it roasting? Is it the café?

Oh man, it’s everything. That’s what it comes down to. That’s why I’m so successful. We dig into each aspect pretty thoroughly. And we’re always trying to improve, which is the other goal with this company. We always tried to push the envelope, always try to be a step ahead of everybody else.

How has Four Barrel changed since you opened the back alley?

Well, since we opened the front doors, the flow on bars has changed, the sourcing has definitely taken off. We used to share coffees with Stumptown in the early days, and Tom from Sweet Maria’s, but we pretty much buy all our own coffees now. We still share some with Tom and just for fun sometimes with Stumptown. They have a new buyer, and he and my buyer get along famously, so we share coffee just for fun. That’s taken off huge. We’re 100% direct trade now, which is great.

Is that the hardest thing to really ramp up?

Sort of. I mean it’s expensive. It’s time consuming. As the owner, you don’t want to step away too much for the first couple years. I got a really awesome crew and taught them the system. The store I think was even better when I left, because I wasn’t stressing everybody out by trying to fix everything all the time.

What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work behind your bar?


Address: 375 Valencia Street , San Francisco, CA 94103

Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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