How an Obsession with Coffee Built a Four Barrel Success

Four Barrel owner Jeremy Tooker stands in front of his coffee shop's roaster.

Four Barrel owner Jeremy Tooker stands in front of his coffee shop's roaster.

En Español

Jeremy Tooker leans against a round table on which there are 20 identical porcelain mugs, each carefully filled halfway with dry beans.

“This isn’t beginner’s coffee,” Tooker says as he prepares to cup, a daily process of blind tasting to select the beans that will be added to Four Barrel Coffee’s menu.

As he describes the process of testing the fragrance and flavor of both brewed and raw beans, he speaks about their varietal, terroir and astringency — language expected from a wine reviewer, not a coffee-shop owner.

The allusion to wine is no coincidence. When Tooker opened his Valencia Street coffee shop in the midst of the 2008 recession, he had a single, unflinching vision — to have coffee be talked about in the Mission with the same enthusiasm and respect as wine, beer and food.

Fast-forward two years and it’s not uncommon to find a line spilling out the door of the former industrial warehouse. A line that’s there for the coffee, not the free Wi-Fi, which doesn’t exist.

Creating buzz and lines is not new for Tooker. The 31-year-old Portland native has been working in coffee shops for nearly half his life, and helped launch the instantly successful Ritual Roasters in 2005.

Two years later, he and his partner had a falling out. He dismissively characterizes the situation as the two having professional differences, but the differences were so great that he was unwillingly bought out from Ritual.

As Tooker celebrates Four Barrel’s second anniversary today, life hasn’t turned out badly. He is celebrating by giving away free coffee to customers and serving a Tartine cake. There will even be a photo booth on site to commemorate the occasion.

Tooker can often be seen gliding happily through the coffee shop, stopping occasionally to chat with customers. He has a growing business that allows him to pay baristas more than what many waiters make in San Francisco. Most important, he gets to pore over and control every last detail of the coffee experience.

A Four Barrel employee attends to a pair of waiting customers.

Two customers order as owner Jeremy Tooker chats with a customer in the background.

“We only use whole milk. We don’t sell tea. We don’t have Wi-Fi here,” he says, listing the self-imposed rules.

Excluding Wi-Fi was the big one. When Ritual opened, Tooker and his partners were praised for pioneering connected coffee shops. But after a while, Tooker grew to dislike it. The Internet hurt business as customers camped out at tables for hours, he says, and also kept people from interacting.

Looking out across Four Barrel at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, with the hum of customers’ chatter magnified by the vaulted ceilings, it’s evident that interaction isn’t a problem here. Nor is business.

On a given week, Four Barrel sells 1,000 pounds of coffee in its coffee shop, and nearly 5,000 pounds to wholesale customers. “We are unusually busy,” says Tooker. In comparison, going through 200 to 400 pounds per week is considered high volume for a coffee shop. Ritual, which also sells coffee to restaurants and other cafés in the area, averages roughly 3,000 pounds in wholesale sales.

Josh Margolis, owner of Rosamunde Sausage Grill on Mission Street, one of Four Barrel’s wholesale customers, says that it comes down to taste for him. “Even if I could get coffee for $1 or $2 less a pound, I wouldn’t change. It’s just not worth it.”

Jeremy Tooker, along with his tasting team, just after the morning's cupping.

Tooker has done well enough to start thinking about expanding, but he’s quick to say that it must be done right. “I’m a little obsessive about efficiency and quality. Some places have one or the other, but if you scale your operations right, you can have both.”

Not everyone agrees. One coffee drinker outside of Muddy’s Coffee House on Valencia and 24th streets calls Four Barrel elitist. “They seem stuck up in there, like they are a bunch of hipsters who think they are too good for the rest of us,” says Josh Robinson, a graphic designer who has lived in the neighborhood for seven years.

Tooker is unapologetic.

“I don’t want to appeal to the average coffee drinker,” he says. “The whole point is to not offer everything to everyone.”

At Friday’s daily coffee tasting, that meant just two beans made the cut.

Filed under: Food, Front Page

Tagged: ,

7 Comments

  1. Paul

    Can we leave behind the Ritual and Four Barrel comparisons please? They are different places run by different people. Their coffee tastes VERY different. I’m bored of articles always doing the contrasting thing, and trying to dredge up old news about the split. Can we retire that kind of journalism?

  2. Ryan

    Great place, although I prefer to buy beans from De La Paz myself.

  3. Profile photo of Ashwin Seshagiri Ashwin Seshagiri Post author

    Hey Paul, thanks for the comment. You’re right that Four Barrel is a very different place with different coffee, but as they celebrated a milestone, it also seemed interesting to see where they came from and what got them to be so successful now. Please keep letting us know your thoughts!

  4. J. Beaman

    What does this sentence mean?

    “He has a growing business that allows him to pay baristas more than what many waiters make in San Francisco.”

    Which waiters? Waiters in San Francisco? Waiters at empty restaurants? Did he tell you that? Did you talk to his staff? How much does he actually pay them per hour?

    Not to be misunderstood, I love Four Barrel and think Jeremy is a swell guy. And I believe that he takes pains to take care of his valuable staff. But this isn’t journalism. Get an editor. Leave lines like that out.

  5. Profile photo of Ashwin Seshagiri Ashwin Seshagiri Post author

    Hey J, thanks for your comment. I did speak with Jeremy about his wages and did talk to some of his staff, but you’re right, that was a blanket statement that needed more qualification. I appreciate you keeping us in check. Keep it coming!

  6. Zack Pianko

    oh, hey, that’s me helping some customers out at four barrel. cool.

  7. I love this place. I hear they serve soy drinks?! Im not into them but a pal told me. and take cards.
    Always nice to see coffee places in my reader, as I support them all around the city, multiple neighborhoods.
    The baristas here are nice, Im glad that rude thing is not their thing.
    My favorite times in 4barrel have been early, early morning you get to see the parents +their hyper kids at 7-8am already ready to go :D
    xxo.meli

Comments are closed.