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'I Don’t Think of Blue Bottle as a Chain'

Amidst a merger with Blue Bottle Coffee, Tartine Bakery boss Chad Robertson prepares to scale up—way up.

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Name: Chad Robertson
Job:
Co-owner, with wife Elisabeth Prueitt, of Tartine Bakery
Age: 43
Residence: Corona Heights

You started off in Point Reyes with a tiny place called the Bay Village Bakery. If someone had said, “In your future, you will merge with a third-wave coffee company and expand from San Francisco to Tokyo, New York, and L.A.,” how would you have responded?
I like it when things take a turn that I didn’t really expect. When Liz and I left Point Reyes Station, we left the wood-fired oven. A lot of people were kind of upset and thought that we were going to lose all the charm. But I had none of those feelings. I was just excited to go in and start something new. And I have that same exact feeling about what we’re about to do now.

In San Francisco, it’s almost a taboo to talk about making money when your product is something artisanal. How do you feel about that?
I think it was a Ferran Adrià quote, but I always have it in my head: “Creativity must be financed.” Working in the food business is hard work, and I think if people work hard, they should be able to make a living doing it.

So will you describe your bakeries using the dreaded C-word: “chain”?
Yeah, I don’t know. It’s funny because I don’t think of Blue Bottle as a chain. I mean, they have a lot of stores, but all of them are different, and they all have their own neighborhood feel. So I guess I think of it as this grand collaboration. I know—the next question is “How many? And how many is too many?” Bryan [Meehan, executive chairman of Blue Bottle] always says, “When we can’t grow and make it better, then that’s when we stop growing.”

If anyone has perfected the artisanal ethos, it’s you. Keeping up quality is clearly going to be a huge priority.
The plan is that as we get bigger, the quality will go up on everything. It’s actually really fun for me to have access to all of Blue Bottle’s brainpower. All of our team is going through barista retraining at Blue Bottle, and it’s really intense. They come back, and they’re like, “Oh my god, I thought I knew what I was doing!” Blue Bottle has always had this reputation for being super, like, coffee-nerdy, and they are. It just means they care about the details.

Speaking of growth, isn’t your new space in the Heath Ceramics building huge?
It’s 5,000 square feet, and we just got another commissary space across the street in the Coffee Bar building. We’re calling the Heath space the Manufactory after Lionel Poilâne’s bakery in France. He was famous for making one kind of bread in a wood-fired oven. Eventually he wanted to scale up, so he built 24 wood-fired ovens. Each baker would come in and make one batch of bread, shape their 100 loaves, and make the levain for the next baker. That was the inspiration for how you can scale up but respect the craft and artisanal method.

What words of business advice have you been given along the way?
I remember Annie Stoll [of Delfina] saying something to us back when she only had the one little Pizzeria Delfina and was about to expand, and I remember how much it cost. At the time it seemed like a crazy, crazy amount of money. And she said something like, “You know what? You have to set yourself up for success.” It was true then, and it’s true now.

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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