James Freeman and Blue Bottle Have Designs on New York

With a new above-ground location, San Francisco’s smallest big brand is coming out of the shadows.
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With a new above-ground location, San Francisco’s smallest big brand is coming out of the shadows.
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James Freeman is looking at the shelves behind the counter of the new Blue Bottle Coffee outpost on Bryant Park. His coffee chain’s other Manhattan location, beneath Rockefeller Center, is, as he puts it, “a bit subterranean,” which is precisely what this bright space opposite the Public Library isn’t. He’s chatting with one of his new staffers, asking if an empty shelf can’t be filled with Chemex pour-over pots. It looks better that way. He wants everything in order for tomorrow’s big opening.

Blue Bottle is a big business in the offing. With a war chest of millions and investments from Twitter founder Evan Williams, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom, and business/skateboard powerhouse Tony Hawk, the brand has spent the last few years opening locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York - not to mention a new subscription service. Still, Blue Bottle is a small enough operation that Freeman can come to each opening. The idea (his idea) is to expand slowly and responsibly, with an eye to building a loyal clientele. To this end, he likes to meet the people who work in his shops and look around them and make sure that shelves aren’t empty.

And the spot on Bryant Park is a big deal, something he’s been working on for a while. The location is both a real estate win and a statement: We’re getting good at this. The ever-busy Freeman shared his vision and a bit of his philosophy with Maxim.

What’s your go-to order? 

My drink of choice is an espresso.

Blue Bottle is a Bay Area company. How has tech culture affected your growth strategy?

I'm not sure. Perhaps it has amplified word of mouth. It certainly has brought more scrutiny. 

Specifically, how has working with social media tycoons affected the way you think about growth?

Tycoon is a pretty loaded word. I do know some very successful people in the tech world. Some of them are our investors. I like their positivity and sense of gratitude about their good fortune. They also are good at thinking big, which is a trait I don't naturally possess. That is less about the world of tech, I happily suspect, and more about the particular people I know. 

There is a lot of competition in the high-end coffee space from places like Stumptown and Four Barrel. Given that, what does the ceiling look like?

We have 15 shops. Starbucks has 23,000. There is a lot of room.  

Quality control is, on some level, what sets Blue Bottle and its ilk apart. Was that a reaction to an over-saturated market?

I usually like to follow my enthusiasms. But, I think we can see the reaction to better shops: People tend to like things which aren't too much more expensive and are palpably more delicious. 

You no longer have a controlling interest in the company. How do you balance being a founder with being an employee?

It's all about the partners. I feel more invested and freer to follow my inclinations than I ever did.