As our pilgrimage left Ritual, I realized I had forgotten to pick up beans to take home. To their credit, the caravan waited patiently for me while I stood in line again. I finally got what turned out to be some excellent beans (more on this in a later post) and we headed to Philz.
Just to clarify, I’m talking about the Philz at Folsom and 24th. There are now two others, one in the Castro and one deep into SOMA. The original mission location is a transformed vessel of Phil Jaber’s former business. It started out years ago as a semi-upscale mission market with a strange mish-mash of bulk bins and organic food smack up against the cocktail wieners and hostess cakes. Phil and his son and the occasional other guy manned the middle eastern deli counter and chatted with a cadre of middle aged men and mission hippies as I passed by on my way home from work.
About a year after I left that part of the mission, I stumbled onto the former corner store to find a mostly transformed Philz. It was certainly a coffee shop, but it reminded me a little of a famous philosophical problem of identity: if you replace all the planks in a ship one-by-one over a period of time, do you still have the same ship? Amongst the tables, board games and (dirty) chairs stood a few remaining bulk bins and grocery shelves while the deli counter had been transformed to make way for coffee brewing stations. Upon my return this time, I noticed a few remaining, empty refrigerator cases still lining the back of the store, and there was still a cadre of middle-aged men and mission hippies hanging about. I just couldn’t shake the feeling of that corner store.
Here’s the way Philz works. You pick from roughly 20 blends on the menu with names like “Sooo Good,” “Anesthesia to the Up Side,” or “Dancing Water.” The descriptions communicate little more that the roast level of each blend, lack the linguistic finesse of more stylized descriptions such as Blue Bottle’s and say little more than “you will really like it.” Staff either don’t know or won’t say what kinds of beans that comprise these blends, where they come from or who roasts them. They also don’t offer espresso at this location (I’ve also read that the espresso at the other locations is not a good idea).
The staff do brew each cup individually, which is a very good thing. They also add any cream and sugar (and sometimes spices) for you, which is bad since they can’t possibly know how much of these things you like. (I’ve been arguing with the entire Northeastern United States for years that “regular” coffee means “with caffeine,” and not “with cream and sugar.”)
I didn’t bother with the menu; I went with “Jacob’s Wunderbar,” my friend’s favorite. In part, I wanted to taste the coffee that got him jazzed about Philz. I also simply didn’t want to muddle through the menu. I ordered my coffee, emphasizing only a tiny bit of sugar and cream, but of course it still came out very milky and sweet.
In case you haven’t caught on, I was and am quite skeptical of Philz. The lack of transparency about the product and the process of brewing it may be a mesmerizing gimmick for some folks but I find it frustrating. If his coffee is so good, why not tell it like it is. There’s a suave bit of marketing obfuscation going on here that seems unnecessary if the coffee was good.
Funny enough, the coffee is actually good, even the very darkly roasted Jacob’s. Once I worked around the taste of cream and sugar, I found rich, smooth and not over-roasted or bitter coffee. Just to be sure, I tried my friend’s wife’s coffee, the Anesthesia, a medium roast and it was good too. I think I lost some of the sublety with all the cream and sugar, but it had some strong herbal notes that rarely taste in anything other that higher quality, medium to light roasted beans. I’d like to try both coffees again without all the cream and sugar.
I do feel the need to mention that this 12 oz cup of coffee set me back about $3. I’m sure labor costs are high since each cup is made by hand, but I can get almost the same amount of clover-extracted coffee at Ritual that is far more precisely brewed for about the same price and both Cole Coffee and Blue Bottle also prepare their coffee the same way for less than 2/3 the price. I’m just not quite sure how Phil justifies these high prices, especially when beans are reasonably priced at $13/lb, or why people are willing to pay them.
After reading threads about Philz and Ritual, I think the answer to the willingness to pay question is this: a lot of people want a comfy café with decent coffee. In other words, they want board games and used books. They want an independent feel (i.e. not starbucks) but they don’t want a modern, or too-hip setting. They don’t want pretentious guys with dark glasses or coffee-geeked crowds, and while they want good coffee, they don’t want or need to know the details. Phil has found a niche: good coffee with dirty chairs.