At coffeeshops around the Bay Area, caffeine fiends seek solace in the one-cup-at-a-time specialty coffee of Philz Coffee, knowing nothing of the historical dispute hidden in their cups.
Inside the first “Philz Coffee” at 24th and Folsom streets, Phil Jaber, a man who has gone from owning a corner store to being backed by some $15 million in VC funding sits at the head of a wooden dining table, the overseer of 18 locations in the Bay Area who plans to soon expand nationwide.
But on the other side of the Mission, one coffee competitor says that the idea for the “one-cup-at-a-time” brewing method sprouted on his terrain. “I taught Phil how to do it,” said Rodger Bories, a wholesale coffee distributor who said that Jaber was his client from 2003 to 2008.
“I had the concept, and he wanted it. So, I gave it to him,” he said, adding that it was an exchange for which he never received due credit.
For his part, Phil says, “I’m the first guy on this planet to do this concept, I had the vision,” said Jaber, adding that even if Bories had the idea first, he “never acted on it.”
In that Bories would not disagree.
Bories opened his first coffee shop in 2009, and now runs “Rodger’s” Quick Drip Coffee and Tea, a small, inconspicuous coffee shop at 20th and San Carlos streets. On some days he displays a banner outside naming the cafe the first “one-cup-at-a-time” brewer.
It’s not appropriation if you have the idea first, explained Bories. Lacking the volume of customers that Philz has, Bories recently lowered his prices in the hopes of attracting more business.
Inside, customers are invited to place their orders while standing at a coffee bar similar to those found in Philz stores, where they then witness the pour-over process. Over 30 coffee flavors with names like “Gold Rush” and “Jet Fuel” are available for tasting, and all are Bories’ unique blends.
Bories broke into the coffee trade in 1982, when he developed a custom designed “quarter pound bulk dispenser” that he sourced to local supermarkets, responding to a need in supermarkets for accurately measuring bulk coffee beans for sale.
He dubbed the portioned coffee bean dispenser and his coffee bean blends “Coffee Magic,” and said they were “a big hit” in some 65 local supermarkets to which he distributed.
But when a corporation tapped into the local market, Bories said he lost half of his clients in a matter of months.
“Nestle came in with a lot of money, and like a good football team, they scattered the small players,” said Bories.
Then, in 2000, Bories was diagnosed with cancer. Despite firmly believing in his product, he said, he found himself “at the bottom” as he searched for innovative ways to keep his wholesale business intact and provide for his family.
“When I tasted my coffee brewed in these automatic brewing equipment that [my customers] provided, it never tasted as good as when I was brewing it the drip way at home,” said Bories. “I started thinking that I had to convince them to brew my coffee with my drip method, but in bigger quantities.”
Bories began tinkering with his brewing equipment, and eventually created a modified brewing basket, which he dubbed “Quick Drip.” With slanted walls, Bories said he figured out how to keep coffee grounds out of receding water, while “flooding” and stirring the grounds in the brewing basket cut down on brewing time, compared to other conventional drip coffee methods.
“Some of the new third-wavers of pour-over coffee make people wait five minutes for coffee,” he said, referring to a trend of artisan coffee shops usually run by local companies. “I can make it in three minutes and maybe make it taste even better.”
Bories’ pour-over brews quickly captured the tastebuds of a local businessman, he said, who expressed interest in the concept.
“One of my Arabic customers said ‘I have a friend who likes your Dark French and I want you to go see him,’” said Bories. “He sent me to Gateway Liquor on 24th and Folsom streets, and that’s where I met Phil Jaber.”
Bories recounts walking into Jaber’s liquor store in 2002.
“He had broken down equipment. So I said to him, I have all these coffee blends and I have this concept,” said Bories. “He had time on his hands and wanted to learn.”
Bories said he took on Jaber as his customer, but went beyond supplying him with coffee beans. The two formed a working relationship in which Bories said he helped turn the liquor store into a coffeeshop based on the one-cup-at-a-time concept for which Jaber is now famous.
“He talked me into giving him a box [coffee station], where he started making the coffee as I showed him how to make it [with the drip method],” he said.
Bories said that he saw his collaboration as a chance to revive his own wholesale business even as he underwent treatment for sarcoma.
But Jaber said that he built his own stations that allowed him to pour cups individually.
“I don’t have machines, I built [my stations]. I design them my own way,” said Jaber, referring to the drip baskets. “My first one was made out of wood. Now they are made out of stainless steel and last for life.”
Bories says that he gave Jaber pointers on marketing the concept as well. “I gave him the idea and told him to use it because it was a chance for me to show my concept in a store,” he said. “He was doing good and I was hoping that it would help to get my other customers to pay attention.”
But after working together for five years and with Philz’ mounting success, the relationship turned sour, said Bories.
“Phil mistreated the equipment that I lent and set up for him,” said Boris. “He was very protective of the concept, as if it was his and his alone.”
Jaber confirmed that he and Bories worked together “for a minute,” but did not divulge details about the split.
“I had to change him,” said Jaber. “He thinks he knows it all. He doesn’t know much. But god bless him, we are all here to learn.”
According to Bories, the breaking point came when Jaber dropped him as his distributor, but refused to return the brewing equipment.
But Bories said he has buried the hatchet and congratulates Jaber on his success.
“I’m not a litigious person. I don’t do things other than [based] on people’s word, and it turns out that it just doesn’t work that way,” he said. “It’s a lesson for everybody.”
Jaber has also moved on. Squinting through thick-rimmed glasses, he double taps on a cell phone picture that places him at Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s wedding.
“You know who that is?” he asks gloatingly, pausing mid-scroll on another photo that shows the 60-year-old in a chummy shoulder hug with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.