San Francisco Chronicle
Blue Bottle, Tartine seek gourmet synergy
Tartine has the bread and the croissants.
Blue Bottle has the coffee — and an infrastructure that has spawned nearly 20 outposts across four cities and two continents.
Now, in a deal that marks the latest small food business exploding into the national mainstream, two of the Bay Area’s top artisan food companies have merged.
The merger of the bakery and coffee roaster is anticipated to provide mutual benefits to two trend- setting local companies known for their highquality goods and attention to detail, not to mention their famously long lines — as they continue to scale their operations to new locations and new markets.
The partnership represents
another move in the proliferation of the artisanal movement, as food companies that pride themselves on wellcrafted, quality, locally sourced and planet- sensitive foods continue to look for ways to not only thrive — but also to reach more people.
Tartine Bakery will serve Blue Bottle coffee at its flagship Mission store, and Blue Bottle, which raised $ 25.75 million last year, will begin to offer Tartine bread, croissants, pastries and savory items at its locations.
“Tartine is joining the company of Blue Bottle. We’re part of Blue Bottle,” said Tartine baker Chad Robertson, who will become CEO of Tartine. His wife, Elisabeth Prueitt, will remain executive pastry chef.
Blueprint for growth
The appeal from Tartine’s end, in addition to the platform that the Blue Bottle shops can provide, is the infrastructure that Blue Bottle founder/ CEO James Freeman and company have built. Blue Bottle has provided a blueprint for growth that Tartine hopes to emulate: scaling up and evolving with technology while maintaining, as Robertson puts it, “extreme artisanship.”
However, the rise of “foodie culture” and increased consumer awareness have sparked increased demand for quality — and upscale — food and drink, a trend reflected in growing companies like Stumptown Coffee in Portland, Ore., Chico’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and New York burger chain Shake Shack, which raised $ 105 million in its initial public offering in January. Meanwhile, 2014 was one of McDonald’s worst sales years in decades.
“It’s a natural evolution when people have tasted and have had access to good food, they’re going to want more of it,” Freeman said.
Another San Francisco food entrepreneur, Pascal Rigo, is proof of the demand for more quality food in the mainstream.
Rigo founded Bay Bread in San Francisco nearly two decades ago. In subsequent years, he built a small empire of La Boulange neighborhood shops throughout the Bay Area; in 2013, he sold the company to Starbucks for $ 100 million.
‘ More conscious’ consumers
“People are more and more conscious of what they want to eat,” said Rigo, who is now the senior vice president of Starbucks North America’s food category. “It’s all about the best ingredients, and bringing them to as many customers as you can.”
The realization that he could bring his scones and macarons to millions of new consumers was one of the appeals for Rigo in making the Starbucks deal. And though Tartine and Blue Bottle are much smaller, the attraction is much the same.
Standing in line for 45 minutes at a single location will no longer be the only way to access the artisan goods.
“What I like about Tartine these days is that they really are understanding that they have a great product, but now they realized they have to share it. It’s not elitist any more,” said Rigo, pointing out that Tartine and Blue Bottle are a very logical fit. “When you look at those two companies together, they are made for each other.”
Neither Robertson nor Freeman would disclose the monetary details surrounding the deal. Freeman says this deal is different from Blue Bottle’s 2014 acquisitions of companies like Tonx and Handsome, largely because Tartine will remain its own entity under the Blue Bottle umbrella.
For his part, Robertson says it is not a finance- driven transaction.
“Thankfully, Tartine has never had any trouble raising money,” Robertson said. This deal “is much more of a transaction driven by a team that I believe in. I believe in the attention to details and the obsessive nature of James and Blue Bottle. It’s never been a challenge to get money. It’s about finding the right people to grow the company.”
And grow they will. Tartine’s first growth spurt will take place in Tokyo, where a new bakery is opening this spring. Closer to home, Tartine’s new project in San Francisco’s Heath building is under construction and scheduled to open this fall; early next year, Robertson plans to remodel the 18th and Guerrero bakery. Looking ahead, Los Angeles is likely the next target for Tartine expansion, later this year.
Not part of the deal is the Valencia Street restaurant Bar Tartine, which Robertson and Prueitt will sell to its chefs, Nick Balla and Cortney Burns, within the next six weeks. “They have such a strong vision. I want them to have it for themselves,” Robertson said, adding that they will continue to collaborate although the restaurant’s name will change.
Meanwhile, Blue Bottle is working on two new San Francisco locations: one in the 115 Sansome building in the Financial District, and another in the Twitter building at 1355 Market St.
Though Robertson and Freeman have known each other for more than a decade, their new partnership came together rather recently — and with a bit of serendipity.
The seeds were planted in fall 2014, when Robertson gave an interview with a New York media outlet about plans for a Tokyo bakery. The story incorrectly quoted him as saying it was a collaboration with Blue Bottle. Robertson quickly wrote to Freeman to clarify the statement. Freeman, in turn, replied that there were no problems, adding that Robertson should let him know if he actually wanted to discuss the partnership possibility.
“That’s literally how the conversation started,” said Robertson. “That was the catalyst: a text, and a text back.”
The conversation continued, including while the two waited in line at Blue Bottle’s outpost at the Mission’s Heath factory, where Tartine is opening a new restaurant later this year. With Robertson’s desires to expand Tartine into the same markets that Blue Bottle already has — New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo — the union became more obvious.
“Chad, as long I’ve known him, can be delightfully elliptical,” said Freeman. “But it sounded like he really wanted someone to work with, and to start making bread in more than one place.”
“What Chad has done, and what he has created, is super impressive and interesting, but what’s more impressive and valuable is what he’s about to do,” said Freeman.
“It’s been a pretty intense few months of planning and dreaming. Now we’re excited to not be in the transaction business, and be in the coffee and bread business.”