Interior of Mint Cafe

Blue Bottle Coffee’s Food Venture: Boon or Blunder?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

San Francisco is well known for its haute coffee culture and boasts over 938 coffee shops, by online count. Amongst the stiff competition, Blue Bottle Coffee has made a name for itself by offering immensely popular single-origin espresso-based drinks and pour-over coffee.

Over the years, Blue Bottle has expanded to 11 locations, including 5 in New York City and 6 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although the cafes all use the same beans, they aren’t exactly the same.

The San Francisco Mint Plaza and Heath Ceramics warehouse locations use Saint Benoît milk, for instance, while the Hayes Valley and Ferry Plaza locations exclusively use Clover milk.

In addition, Blue Bottle at Mint Plaza is the only location to offer a full-food program. Already a big fan of Blue Bottle’s beverages, I decided to visit the Mint Plaza café to see if the food matched the high-quality coffee.

The shop is tucked away in downtown San Francisco at Mint Plaza, a public outdoor space surrounded by four historic buildings. When I arrived, a little before 1 p.m., the line was out the door, but only about 10 people deep.

After 10 minutes of waiting, I was dismayed to find that the line was moving at a glacial pace. On the bright side, it allowed me ample time to study the menu, which included items such as a tuna melt made with Ortiz oil-cured tuna, piquillo peppers, green olives, capers and Provolone cheese ($8.50 a quarter-pound All-Beef Hot Dog ($7.50) and a grilled cheese sandwich served on Acme bread ($10).

I was taken aback by the sky-high prices for what seemed like pretty simple plates, but reserved judgment in case the food turned out to be God’s gift to my tastebuds.

When I reached the cashier, an eternity later, I told him I’d like to try the grilled cheese sandwich. “Is that on the menu?” he asked. I stared back, unbelievingly. There were 10 items on the short menu, and a grilled cheese is not exactly an exotic item. I told him that it was and settled down to wait for my sandwich.

The café features an open kitchen, and patrons can see exactly how their food and drink is being prepared. Taking advantage of the view, I watched as my order, scrawled on a piece of paper, sat dejectedly on the counter while three (yes, three) employees dressed in chef’s attire milled about.

A long while later, one of them glanced at the order and slowly began untying the bag containing sliced bread. Total time from order to first bite? Twelve minutes — which is painfully long, considering that no one else had ordered food, all five ingredients were prepared ahead of time, and all that was necessary was assembly and toasting.

Time considerations aside, I turned my attention to the sandwich. It didn’t appear unusual in any way — just a regular old ham-and-cheese sandwich on two thick slices of bread.

Upon first bite, my tastebuds unanimously agreed with my eyes — this was pretty average. The Provolone cheese was unmemorable, and the slices of ham didn’t add any dimension.

The Acme bread was nice and chewy, and the mustard served on the side turned out to be pretty good, but this was thanks in no part to the Blue Bottle chefs. I finished my meal moderately thirsty and severely underwhelmed.

Glancing around at my surroundings, I did see some things that made this particular location stand out. Patrons are able to order espresso from a vintage San Marco espresso machine and special coffee prepared from Blue Bottle’s Siphon Bar, a drip-coffee contraption imported from Japan at more than $20,000 (which supposedly results in perfect flavor extraction).

There’s also a nice courtyard outside where customers can enjoy their purchases. Taking everything into consideration, however, the astronomical prices, slow service and mediocre food has convinced me that Blue Bottle should skip the food venture and stick to what it’s known for — great coffee.