Ramblings of the Blue Bottle Coffee Cart
How it rolled here, there, and back to where it started
at the Temescal Farmers’ Market
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler
Summer 2006: Rockridge and Temescal residents are in a swoon as Urban Village Farmers’ Market Association brings them their own neighborhood farmers’ market. There in Oakland’s DMV parking lot at the corner of Claremont Avenue and Cavour Street, James Freeman sets up his Blue Bottle Coffee cart among the vendors. Market patrons are heard muttering, “I can’t believe I’m standing in this long line for a cup of coffee.” They do it for the exceptional brew and the conviviality. On reaching the front of the line, they get to marvel at Freeman’s patented “brew bar,” which helps his baristas execute multiple pour-overs at once to keep the line moving.
2012: Ruth “Ruthie” Knudsen and James Parrish become friends while serving as Blue Bottle baristas at the markets and at the company’s Jack London Square roastery, headquarters, and café. Parrish works his way into a production role in the Blue Bottle roastery, where, among other things, he learns from Freeman about the value in treating people right. “The hospitality a coffee company offers its customers should extend through the work environment to staff as well as the various vendors we interact with,” says Parrish.
June 2014: Overcome by an entrepreneurial urge, Parrish goes to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to seek wisdom from maverick businessman Ari Weinzweig, founder of Zingerman’s Delicatessen. He then visits 26 independent coffee roasters on an epic journey home. “I called Ruthie, and she told me to stay at her mom’s house in North Dakota,” he says. That’s when the two find themselves discussing more ways they might work together toward realizing their independent coffee business dreams. Parrish launches Rhetoric Coffee, a roasting business he operates out of CoRo, a collaborative workspace in Berkeley. He retails his beans by subscription, and, strangely, finds his customer base in the Midwest.
May 2015: The Blue Bottle Coffee cart has its final day at the Temescal Farmers’ Market. Barista Cate Maxon purchases the main cart, but the espresso apparatus is sold off to a third party. Knudsen says to Maxon, “I want first dibs if you ever decide to sell the cart.” Maxon hauls it to Reno, Nevada, where she runs a farmers’ market coffee service through the summer. She then tows it to Portland, Oregon, and stores it for a year as she pursues her education.
Fall 2016: Hearing from Maxon that she wants to sell the cart, Knudsen scrapes together the funds to buy it and tows it to Nevada City, California. Knudsen later locates the cart’s original espresso apparatus, also in Portland, and by some miracle, it’s available for purchase.
May through November 2017: Knudsen serves coffee from the reassembled cart at the Nevada City Farmers’ Market, calling her business Outside Coffee.
2018: Knudsen runs Outside Coffee through a second season in Nevada City, but she hears the sirens calling her back to the East Bay. The lure is greater economic opportunity, but she realizes she also misses the camaraderie and mutual support with fellow coffee professionals like her friend James Parrish. In their conversations, she and Parrish learn each has something the other is missing from their coffee business equation: Knudsen needs good roasts to serve from her cart, and Parrish seeks a venue for showcasing Rhetoric Coffee to local customers.
January 21, 2019: Knudsen hitches up the old cart and hauls it back to Oakland.
February 3, 2019: Knudsen and Parrish have the cart all polished up and ready for their first day of service as Rhetoric Outside at the Temescal Farmers’ Market. Those in the know recognize James Freeman’s original Blue Bottle cart, now serving newly inspired roasts brewed with the latest in mobile coffee-making equipment. Nobody complains about standing in a long line for a cup of coffee. ♦
Publisher, editor, and designer Cheryl Angelina Koehler launched this magazine in 2005 in conjunction with Edible Communities co-founders Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian. She is the author of Touring the Sierra Nevada, published by University of Nevada Press in 2007.