The first Saturday I came to the Ferry Plaza farmers market as a vendor was December 13th, 2003. I got up at 3:45am, drove to the roastery in Oakland (which at the time was behind Restaurante Dona Tomas in the Temescal), loaded my station wagon, hitched up the espresso cart, stopped at the Thrifty Drugs across the street for ice and then white-knuckled it across the bridge, flooring my Peugeot trying to keep up with the flow of traffic. I’d been in business for a year and a half, but getting in this market was a long-held dream. I wanted to knock people's socks off with the best coffee they had ever tasted. The market was filled with people like me - strivers, second chancers, delvers - people willing to get up early and work hard to make something extraordinarily delicious without a lot of help or money. I was proud to be one of them. That Saturday was cold and gloomy, but the espresso tasted good and a lot of people walked away happy. Pleasantly surprised, really. Two o’clock came and trading four cappuccinos for a roast chicken seemed like the best deal I would ever negotiate. Everything was cleaned up and packed up by three thirty, and I pulled back into the roastery just as the sky was starting to darken. More unloading, of course, and more cleaning, but I got home by six and was asleep by seven thirty. It felt like the beginning of something, and it was.
I worked that market on Saturday, in more or less the same way, 54 times in a row. I got more help, the markets got busier, and in less than two years I was able to take the occasional Saturday off. The Ferry Plaza market was my graduate school, my gymnasium, my think tank, and my laboratory. It eventually felt like my home town. Dexter and Lulu ran it like it like it stood for something: that sustainable food made with love, care and the best local ingredients mattered. Even though the market was made up of the scrappiest and most undercapitalized farmers and food producers, each Saturday we were greater than the sum of our parts, punching far above our weight and showing much of the country what a high-quality and sustainable food system could look like.
The Saturdays added up. The lines grew longer. I hired more people. In 2005 we opened our kiosk in Hayes Valley, in 2008 our first cafe in Mint Plaza, and in 2009 (another dream) we opened inside the Ferry Building. We ratcheted up our preparation standards, our training standards, and started flying all over the world in search of great coffee. In 2010 we opened in New York, in 2014 we opened in Los Angeles, and this year, in culmination of yet another dream, we opened in Tokyo.
The farmers markets have been such a formative experience for me and Blue Bottle that I can’t adequately express the gratitude I feel to them. My gratitude goes out to the CUESA staff (especially Dexter, Lulu, and all the volunteers), to Ron at Urban Village, to the Berkeley Ecology Center, to all the Blue Bottle hands who have made great drinks outside under challenging circumstances, to all our fellow vendors who have taught us what hard work and dedication is, and to our guests who line up to buy coffee every single week.
I was shopping at the market with my family several months ago when I realized that Blue Bottle today was neither scrappy nor under-capitalized. It’s a great feeling, actually. To have a plan and be able to execute it with plenty of long range thinking and no compromises feels luxurious. But the incubator nature of the farmers market is not really about the luxury of ever-increasing preparation standards. It's not about scaling excellence. It's about taking a chance on an unknown doing great work and giving that person the opportunity to succeed (or fail) in front of some of the most astute and demanding customers in the country. Even though our drinks have never been more carefully prepared, and our coffee has never been more carefully sourced and roasted, we are at the point in our trajectory where our ambitions just don't fit outside the Ferry Building on Saturdays. I've seen some vendors get to this point without realizing it. I've seen a few of them them take being told they are at this point with a certain amount of bad grace. Fortunately, that's not our style. We are going to celebrate how lucky we are and how far we've come by donating the entirety of our revenues to all our Markets on our last day. I plan on getting up early and working one more Saturday at the Ferry Plaza on May 30. I'll be a little rusty but I hope you can join me.
- James Freeman