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Specialty’s Specializing in…Coffee?


I remember when Specialty’s Cafe and Bakery used to be something pretty amazing in downtown San Francisco. As Specialty’s has expanded and as sandwich shops (such as The Sentinel) have seriously upped the ante, Specialty’s has dropped a few notches on my list. Still, as sandwich shops go, and for the money, the food is quite good. I’m a big fan of the barbecued chicken sandwich (with bacon) myself. Of course, Specialty’s chocolate chip cookies are still some of the more decadent and amazing in the city.

The one area where Specialty’s has never excelled, however, is their coffee. This is a fact made all the more puzzling since they are a wholesale client of Intelligentsia. Various Specialty’s shops have proudly display Intelligentsia banners and served Intelligentsia coffee long before most of the Bay Area’s third-wave shops were even considered. Most of their cafes tend to serve Intelligentsia’s House Blend and/or the Diablo blend, which are both fairly dark and uninspiring blends. And while Specialty’s various cafes use Black Cat for their espresso, they often use super-automatics. While the resulting coffee and espresso isn’t atrocious, it is very sub-par for what I’ve come to expect from Intelligentsia wholesale clients and poor enough that I haven’t bothered previously to give them a formal review. One can only speculate why Intelligentsia hasn’t stepped in to assert some quality control (big client = big paycheck? an early contract that locked them out of this option? the value of a foothold in the Bay Area market?). If you’re interested, you can read up on how past Specialty’s espressos have fared on Coffee Ratings.

But there is cause for hope. My wife spotted the above remodeling of the Specialty’s cafe on Pine Street – soon to offer a new Intelligentsia Coffee Bar with Intelligentsia Coffee (see clarification in the comments below). I contacted Specialty’s, skeptical of any real changes, but it seems that someone may have finally decided that the time is right for a more true to form Intelligentsia-fueled expansion into the area. The plan is for a free standing coffee bar with “slow pour” single-origin coffees, which I’m assuming will mean some kind of drip or Chemex station. There will also be Black Cat espresso and Intelligentsia signature drinks such as the Angeleno (1,2,3). While this high end, slow food take on a Starbucks coffee slushy doesn’t move me much either way, I’m hoping that Specialty’s attempt to produce such concoctions mean a greater attention to the ingredient at their core – i.e. the coffee. Hopefully, well-trained baristas also come along with the package.

I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see. Allegedly, the redesigned cafe will be open in mid to late October. Keep your fingers crossed.

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9 comments to Specialty’s Specializing in…Coffee?

  • Good report on the serious coffee upgrade at Specialty’s. This should set the standard for coffee service in the Financial District. It’s hard to imagine going to Mint Plaza anymore for coffee.

  • I wanted to clarify that the coffeebar inside of Specialty’s is not an Intelligentsia owned and operated coffeebar, but rather a Specialty’s owned coffeebar using our coffee and training and a commitment to higher level coffee execution than previously seen. They will have a traditional La Marzocco espresso machine, Mazzer espresso grinders and feature a pour over dripper bar with single origin choices (along side a Fetco extractor series). We wish them great success in their new endeavor.

    Doug Zell
    Intelligentsia Coffee

  • Ben

    I love intelligentsia coffee. It’s easily one of my favorite brands in Chicago.

  • Grove Under

    Thanks for the tip. I stopped by today (10/27/09) and am happy to report that they also sell the Black Cat espresso blend (whole beans), as well as a couple single origin beans. So Intelligentsia beans are finally available for retail sale in San Francisco!

    Only downside is that the roast date was 10/2, so this is probably from the first shipment they received prior to their re-opening. They said they’ll have a new shipment of beans in a few days, so hopefully, they’ll start getting better sales turnover which should result in fresher beans.

    I didn’t get the price of the beans ($15/lb online for Black Cat), but even with a retail markup, I’d have to imagine that it’ll cost less than the mail order price for a single bag, especially when Intelligentsia’s higher than average shipping costs are factored in.

    Got a shot of their house blend espresso (it was not Black Cat), which at $2.30 ($2.52 including tax), seems a bit on the higher side compared to the other Specialty’s locations where a shot is < $2 including tax. Blue Bottle is $2/shot. Maybe they need to help pay for the nicely designed coffee bar with the big lighted Intelligentsia sign (well done branding setup). If it wasn't for Doug's comment posted earlier, I would have thought this was a Intelligentsia run outpost in the middle of a Specialty's location. I'd also have to imagine this is probably a business experiment of some sorts for both companies. Nice relatively smooth and creamy chocolaty shot with a slightly sour bite (water temp a tad low?), so they might still be dialing in the parameters. Or maybe this is what the house blend espresso is all about. For those who are big Intelligentsia fans in the San Francisco area, this will become a regular stop.

  • I wonder how this will play out with many of the Specialty’s locations in the south bay now serving Peet’s.

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