I’m sitting in a tall wooden chair with curved armrests and a threadbare seat, sharing the corner of the room with a large ficus. At the table next to me, two hipsters huddle over their laptops, an old Mexican man reads the newspaper, and a new mother quiets her baby with a bottle. Behind me is a wall full of hand-drawn pictures of a boy and his father, and to my right, an embossed paper from Gavin Newsom proclaiming June 8 to be Phil Jaber day in San Francisco. In front of me, a row of baristas are making one cup of coffee at a time – pouring water over finely ground coffee, adding cream, sugar, and mint and spicing it with cardamom – while a disorganized line of people serpentines around the shop, waiting to order.
When I first moved to San Francisco I couldn’t find a decent cup of coffee, but over the last few years the city’s coffee culture has started to come into its own, rivaling some of the other West Coast spots for good coffee (I like Blue Bottle in Hayes Valley best because it reminds me of Seattle’s coffee and laid-back culture). But even with the burgeoning high-end San Francisco espresso culture, Philz is still making coffee the old-fashioned way – drip, one cup at a time. And that’s because Phil himself is an old-fashioned kind of guy. Old-world, you could say.
In order to even set up an interview with him, I have to go through Katie, the manager at the 24th Street shop, the original Philz. It takes more than a week to set up the appointment because Phil only likes to do things face-to-face and he’s pretty busy running seven shops and blending his coffee in the Potrero warehouse – what he calls an “experiment in alchemy.”
Katie explains that setting up this interview is a sort of scaled-down version of getting hired to work at Philz. For a job that doesn’t pay especially well, the hiring process is extensive. You have to first meet Katie. If she likes you, she introduces you to Jacob, Phil’s son, the one in the pictures. If Jacob likes you, you meet Phil, who expects you to be a morally strong individual and committed to making the perfect cup of coffee. Pass that and you’re on your way to a two-week training at the shop. Eventually, you’ll be ready to make coffee on your own.
Katie’s been at Philz for two years. She’s a neighborhood girl who got the job because she needed something after graduating from CCA’s furniture design program and discovered, like many of us, that coffee is a way to pay the rent while you’re looking for art jobs. While Katie’s day job is coffee, she participates in Permaculture SF, a program organized by Hayes Valley Farm. Katie’s other housemates are baristas at Blue Bottle and Four Barrel, so she’s fully immersed in the coffee world and says she notices the difference between Philz and the other places just by the conversations she has with her housemates – Philz is a real neighborhood joint.
Katie’s office is a closet in the back. When she moved into the spot, it was filled from floor to ceiling with Phil’s things. “It’s a bit like being in Phil’s head,” she says of the space. “He’s attached to everything here, even the pieces of tape that hold the pictures up.” I look around at the hardened yellow tape holding up a sign that reads “Phil Jaber recommends the Network Store on Mission Street for your next computer.” It’s a strange endorsement, but a reiteration that this is Phil’s space. Katie says she’s used her design degree a little bit to help streamline Philz, but even so, the place still has the feel of a college café, or maybe Phil’s living room. I learn that he likes to come in before the shop opens, lie down on the worn-out couch, and fall back asleep.
Katie offers to make me a cup of coffee. She suggests Silken Splendor, her favorite, and the lightest of the blends. Phil comes up with all the names for the coffees, like Code 33 and Jacob’s Wonderbar Brew, mostly names related to his family or the fire and police departments, of which he is a huge fan. Katie makes my drink with cream, no sugar, just the way I like it. “Phil says his worst cup of coffee is someone else’s best cup of coffee,” she says.
And, as if on cue, Phil walks through the door. He grabs a coffee made from the excess of a recent pour. “My worst cup of coffee is someone else’s best,” he says, in a thick Middle Eastern accent, gesturing at the half-filled cup. It’s hard not to laugh at the echoing of this statement, but he says it with such sincerity, that I can’t help but believe him. I ask him what he’s drinking. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “All of my coffee is delicious. My coffee’s so good, it makes medicine sick.”
He’s writing a book about these ideas, perhaps called Where’s the Human Feeling? or maybe Under the Canopy of Heaven , a title I suggest after I ask where he’s from. Phil doesn’t really answer the questions when I ask them, but like the line that forms haphazardly around us, I eventually get what I’m after.
Phil is like the mayor of 24th Street, a claim he makes himself: “I’m like the cop on my own corner. I feel like I own this city.” He’s been on this corner of 24th and Folsom for 35 years. And he doesn’t even own the building; he still leases it from people he refers to as his “grandparents.”
Philz used to be a corner grocery store (Katie’s office was the beer cooler) where making coffee was only part of the business. Over time Phil grew more interested in blending coffee and slowly transitioned the grocery store into a coffee shop.
He says he worked 25 years on blending coffee before he sold a single cup. It’s hard to know what’s hyperbole and what’s real, but it’s clear that Phil believes in his product in a way that you don’t see very often. He’s not doing this because he sees a hole in the market. He’s doing it because he’s driven and obsessed and attached to every aspect of it, including the dusty trinkets that sit on top of the drinks cooler.
It’s only when Phil starts to talk about his family that the hyperbole and one-liners stop and I see Phil for who he really is, not the caricatured version of himself. “Jacob is a country by himself. I love him so much,” he says. And tears begin to swell in his eyes. “It makes me sad to see these kids,” he gestures at the baristas, “who come here and rent rooms in houses. What happened to family? We’re all getting so far from our family.”
And I finally understand what it really means for Phil to be making coffee the old-world way. It’s not just about machine versus hand. It’s about an old way of doing business –with your family, passing your secrets down to the next generation. Only Phil and Jacob know the recipes for the coffee blends they serve. And I understand the décor, which hasn’t changed in 20 years.
It’s like your grandmother’s house, where there’s comfort in the flowered upholstery and the couches that look like the ones you jumped up and down on as a kid. And when Phil walks out the door, coffee in hand, I call my mom and tell her I’m coming home to Seattle for Thanksgiving.
Want to try Philz yourself? Head to any of the San Francisco shops (24th and Folsom, 18th and Noe, 4th and Berry in SOMA, and near the Civic Center on Van Ness). Phil recommends the Tesora for first-time drinkers and the Philharmonic with cardamom for the more experienced. Katie likes the Silken Splendor. Phil visits most of his shops every day, though it’s clear the 24th Street one is his home base. Look for the guy in the fedora (he designs them himself) and chat with him on one of the comfortable couches.