Saint Frank owner Kevin Bohlin came to San Francisco with coffee on the brain.
Originally from northern Texas, he had just finished a short career as a middle school teacher and moved to the city in 2010, landing a job as a barista at Ritual Coffee on Valencia Street.
Interested in the idea of producer-retailer relationships, he began accompanying Ritual's "green" (unroasted) bean supplier Steve Ford on his trips to countries such as Honduras, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. According to Bohlin, it was on one of those trips where he came up with the idea to partner with Ritual's roasting capabilities and begin a brand of his own.
Since then, Saint Frank has become a neighborhood favorite in Russian Hill, and Bohlin has seen his producer-focused, light-roasted style of selling coffee come to fruition as the market for such shops exploded over the past few years.
Bohlin works directly with producers on every part of the supply chain, and tries to highlight the care and production that goes into producing the beans, as well as the socioeconomic realities of the regions from which they came. In addition to the Latin American countries mentioned above, Bohlin's business has also brought him to Kenya, Burundi, and Rwanda.
Next month, Bohlin plans to launch a more widely manufactured and "accessible" sister brand, Saint Claire, at pop up shop on Mission and New Montgomery.
Saint Claire will be partnering with Not For Sale, a non-profit that fights human trafficking, and the beans will be sourced from Northern Thailand, a hotbed for the global sex trade. Bohlin hopes to provide economic opportunities to the region, while raising awareness through the brand.
Additionally, he plans to work with Not For Sale to train survivors to be baristas, along with donating a portion of proceeds of the sales to the organization.
We sat down with Bohlin to discuss his business, his passion for coffee, and the importance of raising awareness of where it comes from.
What sets the concept of Saint Frank apart from other coffee shops?
Historically, coffee shops are social and they are a neighborhood thing, and they always should be. But typically, it kind of starts and ends there. People will think, 'oh, coffee is coffee'. In our approach, coffee is never just coffee. It's about which coffee, who grew it, where did it come from, what makes that coffee taste the way it does.
What do you do to promote that mindset?
Certainly the way we represent the coffee on the shelf and on the menu. It's always telling you who produced the coffee and where it came from. If you're interested, we're ready to talk to you about it.
Are you still traveling to the actual places where it's produced?
I'm traveling down every one to two months right now. If you go to buy a bag of beans on the shelf, you will find these really pretty cards that are on there that will represent the farm itself, and if you turn it over, we've got some social information, but also something that translates to the flavor or the taste. We're trying to tell a story, without cramming it down your throat.
So you source the green beans from their respective countries of origin, then work with Ritual Coffee to roast them. Tell us a bit about that partnership.
When we first started, a lot of my relationships were based on where I had already traveled with Ritual when I used to work there, so some of the producers we're working with we met while I was with them. We basically have the coffee imported and most of these coffees, as we have grown, have become exclusive to us mostly because they are small producers and we buy everything they grow. So we bring the coffee in, and we have an arrangement with Ritual where we work together on how we want those coffees roasted and expressed in flavor. It's always similar to the way Ritual roasts coffee, sometimes exactly the same way, but these are our coffees. Because Ritual also has a big value for producer relationships, they've also been really excited about partnering with us and seeing a different expression of those relationships and collaborating with us.
Photo Courtesy Saint Frank Coffee
It sounds like there are some parallels between the your approach to the coffee industry and the wine industry. Could you elaborate on that?
Well, in the wine industry, really fine wines are looking to express terroir, they are looking to express the vineyard, the weather, the land, the soil, because you can have the same grapes planted a mile apart from each other and taste quite different. Especially, with a really good producer and a mediocre producer, one can really shine and sing to you, and one can just taste mediocre. The same is true in coffee. It's a seasonal thing, and just like there's vintages every year, coffee has a production season, and it's only at its best at certain window.
Are coffee and wine similar in a cultural sense?
Well, while there's a strong parallel between the ideas of terroir and quality, specialization, and the enjoyment of the beverage, there's a glaring difference, and that is the socioeconomic distance between a coffee and coffee producer, and a wine drinker and a wine producer. The wine drinker and the wine producer are more often than not a little closer to each other in the way the wine drinker is going to have an admiration for the respect, quality, capabilities and education of a wine producer. However, we don't do that with coffee producers. We're in the global north, we're more privileged, and we don't expect a coffee producer to be doing something incredibly special, specialized, intelligent and crafted, but they do, and it's a beautiful thing.
A lot of these villages have no electricity, and these coffee producers are growing incredible things. For example, Siete Estrellas, grown by a producer in Bolivia named Francisco Hillar. His whole community has no electricity, but he grows beautiful coffee and he does so with a craft focus and a focus on specialization. We want to give you a window into their life and where the coffee comes from.
Why did you name your business 'Saint Frank'?
Well, 'Saint Frank' is just 'San Francisco'. Like I said, coffee shops should always have a local connection and a community-driving aspect, so I wanted something that had a local connection to San Francisco. This is a really progressive city for coffee quality in the world and I wanted it to be rooted in that. There's also a social vision side, like when I'm talking about my passion for connecting with coffee producers. The way they've changed the way I see the world has a parallel to Saint Francis of Assisi, and that's really cool.
He was a guy in the middle ages that grew up in a privileged family but had this crazy spiritual experience and his response was to go live among the poor because he thought that would give him more spiritual clarity. There's a parallel to that in the way that I think a clear connection to where the coffee comes from can give us more clarity to the way we see life and the way we experience it. Coffee is something to be celebrated and appreciated, not taken for granted. Coffee is special and should always be connected to where it came from.
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