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Is There Such a Thing as an Urbanist Café? Now There Is!
Lamar Anderson | Photo: Lamar Anderson | May 16, 2016
Coffee with a side of wonk.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in urban studies to know that coffee attracts San Franciscans. Maybe even more so than in-depth discussions on "the promise of prefab" or "Clipper Card 2.0," the usual carrots dangled by the urban think tank SPUR to get people into its Mission Street headquarters. And so SPUR recently made the leap into baristahood and opened a café at its downtown HQ. “We wanted to create a quintessential third place where people can come and have a great cup of coffee,” says Allison Arieff, SPUR’s editorial director, “and also engage in conversations about their city.”
The new café, Saint Clare, is a collaboration with Kevin Bohlin, owner of Saint Frank in Russian Hill. Like Saint Frank—which was born as a coffee kiosk in South Park—Saint Clare is starting small. “We’re in Phase 0,” says Bohlin, pointing out the portable machines—the same ones that got Saint Frank started as a pop-up in 2013. Bohlin and SPUR commissioned architect Amanda Loper of David Baker Architects to get the new café up and running, but there’s no permanent coffee bar yet. The idea, says Bohlin, is to “start simple, see how people use the space, and let that inform how we build the next steps.”
Bohlin and café manager Kate Black think of Saint Clare as Saint Frank’s more accessible sibling (or, perhaps, gateway cup?). The beans at Saint Clare are darker and roasted in bigger batches, so the coffee changes less from month to month than it does at the Russian Hill shop. Pastries hail from Jane on Larkin, and, yes, there is a signature drink, the Urbanist (spoiler: It’s a Gibraltar).
Proceeds from the café benefit SPUR as well as the anti-trafficking nonprofit Not for Sale, whose Reinvent program offers job training to vulnerable and exploited young women. The coffee at Saint Clare will advance that cause, too: Bohlin is working to help Akha tribe–owned coffee farms in northern Thailand—where the sex trade is pervasive—convert to sustainable, higher-dollar growing practices. “We want to bolster an economic alternative,” he says. “The Akha are an exploited people.” Some of Saint Clare’s beans are already coming from Thailand, which is not a typical coffee exporter but shows great potential, says Bohlin.
As a nod to Saint Clare’s sourcing, Bohlin is adding Thai iced coffee to the menu this month. Additional beans will hail from Burundi and Bolivia, two other “challenging regions where the potential is high,” Bohlin explains. “I’m a sucker for doing things the hard way,” he adds, sounding a little like someone who just emerged from an hour of PowerPoints about San Francisco’s housing wars.