When I visited last November, Sightglass Coffee seemed to have many months of construction left for its extensive SoMa facility, which boasted generous natural light, two loft-like levels, and a large roaster. The space is currently just a few weeks from completion, with workers putting the final touches on the coffee bar. A full opening wouldn’t be more than a month or two away, barring a major setback.
I wasn’t able to pull away the two brothers who started Sightglass from construction – Jared and Justin Morrison – but I did get a chance to chat with Archie Archer, who heads the wholesale side of Sightglass. The first thing I asked him was regarding the coffee culture here in San Francisco, which he said was close-knit and cooperative. Sightglass, Ritual, and Four Barrel are all within a few miles of each other in the Mission and SoMa districts of San Francisco, and other companies like De La Paz and Ecco are poised to enter into the market. Blue Bottle, based in Oakland, has already made significant headway in developing the local coffee industry. There are many different players, but what I was wondering was what differentiated Sightglass.
I liked how Archie was telling me that Sightglass wasn’t necessarily trying to do something different, just that they were trying to showcase the distinct flavors and terroir of some of the best coffees in the world. He used the words “beautiful” and “excellence” often when describing their efforts.
What I see from their current simple coffee bar operation is a commitment to high quality coffee displayed in a very straightforward manner, a method that makes it rather easy for customers to engage with baristas and have a greater understanding of their coffee. Small paper menus describe various single origin coffees available through Hario V60 pourover or Chemex. Archie hopes that the completion of the roasting facility and café (just behind the current setup) will serve to give customers greater “value”, service, and education.
Photo taken by Matthew Kang
Essentially, Sightglass is positioning itself to facilitate and convey a complete coffee system for clientele to see, from the roasting to the brewing. It’s not unlike what’s going on at many Portland coffee roasters, as well as locally here in Los Angeles at Iota in Koreatown and eventually Handsome.
As I was sipping a wonderful cup of El Salvador 100% Bourbon varietal that was brewed in a Chemex brewer, I could see Sightglass as just one of many San Francisco coffee roasters who see the value in developing an educated customer base that values quality. I think a lot of roasters have this goal in mind, though I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it really successfully executed. Even companies like Intelligentsia have to grapple with high demand at all three of their L.A. locations, making it difficult to balance rapid customer service with a high level of education. With a higher push upward on green coffee prices, cafes and roasters will need to figure out what mix of volume versus customer service will work for them, but the sheer size of Sightglass’s SoMa space should give them flexibility.
Archie tells me that this location will not have WiFi, which means you won’t have a slew of people camping out with their laptops, though some seating will allow for making the space a friendly communal gathering place. I still haven’t seen a large-scale coffee café or bar completely eschew WiFi internet. Then again, with personal WiFi networks available through ever-increasing mobile internet speeds via cellular networks, one wonders how long this will be an issue for serious coffeehouses.
One thing is clear with Sightglass: the company is driven by passion and quality, just like many of the other top roasters on the West Coast. This case and roasting facility will further cement not only their position, but San Francisco’s coffee culture as a whole. The city itself seems to care much more about the origin and quality of products, especially when they’re driven by small, local endeavors. I’m wondering if Los Angeles can one-up that culture with what clearly seems to be Portland-like proliferation of smaller top-quality roasters sprouting up within the next year (Intelligentsia is our “Stumptown,” in this case).