A few weeks ago, I heard a This American Life segment about a San Francisco coffee shop called Trouble Coffee. It’s not unusual for San Francisco, with all of its creative people and innovators, to be featured in news stories, but what I loved in this case, what was so refreshing, was that this story wasn’t about someone who’d founded a hot new start-up or created a cool app. In fact, the opposite was true. This was a story about a place that was sort of off the beaten path, about a person who wasn’t particularly cutting edge. In fact, this seemed to be a story about a person who was barely holding on, but who’d found a way to secure a place for herself in spite of all the odds stacked against her. I won’t rob you of the pleasure of hearing for yourself, so you can click here if you’re interested. What I will say is that after hearing the story, I was, understandably, curious to see this place for myself.
The first time I stopped by, last Sunday morning, the place was packed. The line was out the door, and people–mostly young parents with kids and a few surfer-types–were lounging all over the little parklet* out front. I was short on time so I didn’t stop, vowing instead to come back during the week when the place would surely be less crowded. Today was the day.
Trouble Coffee isn’t big, which probably explains why the line was so long. There’s a narrow counter made of what looked like stained drift wood, and few seat seats in the window. Most of the space is taken up by the work area–the espresso machine, the racks packed with unsliced Pullman loaves, the small counter where they make the cinnamon toast, and the cold case where they keep the coconuts. That’s it.
The weather these last couple days has been unseasonably warm. Today’s high was ninety-one degrees–not exactly ideal conditions for a small latte and a slice of warm, buttery cinnamon toast, but that’s what the place is known for, so that’s what I ordered. I don’t like coconut so that wasn’t an option. I placed my order and watched the guy behind the counter drop an inch-thick slice of white bread into the toaster. By the time he fixed my latte, the toast was ready. I’m a 1970s latch-key kid, and due mostly to my limited culinary skills, I’ve had a lot of experience with cinnamon toast. I spent plenty of after-school hours snacking on cinnamon toast while watching “Simba The White Lion” and “Speed Racer.” Aside from being slightly singed, the cinnamon toast at Trouble Coffee looked, not surprisingly, pretty good: a generous slathering of butter and just enough cinnamon sugar sprinkled on top to form a nice crust.
“That’ll be seven dollars,” said the guy behind the counter.
Seven dollars. Really?
There’s no menu at Trouble Coffee, at least not that I saw, so I did a quick calculation in my head. Any way I sliced it (no pun intended) that was either a cheap piece of toast and very expensive cup of coffee, or a cheap coffee and a very expensive piece of toast. I handed the guy my money and took my snack outside.
I bet you’re wondering if Julietta, the woman who owns Trouble Coffee was there today. She was. When I walked up, she was sitting outside in the parklette, talking to a guy in jeans and a nicely-ironed checkered shirt. He looked like a reporter . . . or a hipster interested in helping her start a franchise. At first I wasn’t sure if it was her. In the This American Life piece, she says she wears the same outfit every day–sleeveless crop top and jeans–but today she’d ditched the jeans for a black miniskirt, which, given how hot it was, was a good fashion choice. Her head was wrapped in a striped scarf and her arms and legs were covered with tattoos. She looked pretty friendly but I didn’t think it would be too cool if I tried to take her picture. Anyway, as I walked by I caught a bit of their conversation. Yep–the same gravely voice from the radio. By the time I got my coffee and my toast and found a seat, she’d issued some final instructions to the guy behind the counter and walked up the street. It was about 5:30, so I guess she was going home. Either that, or she was going to buy more cups.
I don’t mean to sound Pollyanna, but one of the things I love most about San Francisco is the people. We really have all types, and you get the sense, walking about, that everyone has an interesting story. Will I visit Trouble Coffee again soon? Probably not. There’s a perfectly good coffee shop a couple blocks from my house and I’m not eager to pay $3.50 for a piece of cinnamon toast not matter how thick and buttery. If I have that strong a craving, I’ll make my own. But am I glad I stopped by? You bet. I like knowing that not everything about San Francisco involves technology. It’s comforting to see that it’s still possible to be a regular joe; that a person can carve out a place for herself and find community, no matter how rocky the road has been.
* the parklet: a move, in urban areas, to increase the number of pedestrian-friendly zones by allowing businesses to colonize parking spaces in front of their establishments and convert them into seating areas. Click here for visuals.