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James Freeman on Blue Bottle's Pending LA Domination

Matthew Kang is the Lead Editor of Eater LA. He has covered dining, restaurants, food culture, and nightlife in Los Angeles since 2008. He's the host of K-Town, a YouTube series covering Korean food in America, and has been featured in Netflix's Street Food show.

[Photo: Clay McLachlan/]

If there's a coffee company on the move in Los Angeles right now, it's Blue Bottle. Though plans surfaced for the Oakland-based company to open two outlets on the Westside, Venice and Culver City, the venture capital-funded roastery made splashes earlier this year when they announced the acquisitions of Handsome Coffee and LA-based subscription service, Tonx. Since then, they've announced two additional locations in the city of Angels: one on Beverly Blvd and another in Echo Park. Eater sits down with James Freeman, founder of the burgeoning coffee company, to talk about how his company plans to impact coffee culture in Los Angeles.

What happened with the two major acquisitions? It was weird for me. We did Tonx and Handsome on the same day. I never expected that we would do acquisitions. The opportunity arose and these were companies that were very interested in being a part of what we're doing. It's an unfortunate legal reality that you can't talk about stuff like this until the ink is signed. All these lawyers are telling you what to do. That makes communication about the process difficult. We had to break the news to people who were part of Handsome and Tonx more suddently, but the future and present have been amazing. We've gained such insight from the Handsome team especially.

What kind of insights in particular? We've been having amazing meetings with Tonx and Michael Phillips, a co-founder of Handsome, and he's helping me to rethink design. Charlie Habeggar, the Handsome head of coffee, is getting ready to make a big impact with Blue Bottle in many locations, not just L.A. Just learning from them has been really great. It's kind of nice to shake things up for us sometimes. Handsome wasn't just about real estate; the important part was getting an influx of new ideas and a different kind of excitement.

You have five locations in the world around L.A. Tell me about them. We have five proposed locations. The former Handsome Coffee, Culver City, which is opening in Spring 2015. Beverly Blvd and Venice in Abbot Kinney, the latter of which should open by the end of summer. And then Echo Park. The Handsome team did a lot with only a little bit of money. They were very frugal, which I admire. We're going to make some modifications to the bar and add some simple things like window shades, air conditioning, infrastructure. The Abbot Kinney location is pretty tiny. It's right next to Junk Food, a retailer. It's only a 600 square foot little kiosk that will be pretty simple, but easy to reach.

Why did it take so long to open spots in L.A.? I knew New York City much more than I knew L.A., actually. I was there a long time ago and kept going back. I like New York a lot, so it took me a little longer to spend some more time in L.A., and I like it. I see how many opportunities there are, with all the wonderful pockets and amazing buildings. New York real estate will break your heart. It's hard to imagine building anything and paying your bills. L.A. has beautiful spaces with great architecture that are totally affordable.

What aspects of Handsome are you planning to keep? We're excited about the Handsome team quality-controlling the coffee. We're keeping the Dandy espresso because of that taste and espresso parameter. We want them to be the ones who QC and roast it.

What has Tonx added to your capabilities? The team is amazing. They've created what we think is the single best coffee subscription over the internet in the country. And that was an interesting opportunity because they were a subscription service without a roastery. We had a modestly successful growing Internet presence, but I didn't have the time or the team to do it as well as they did. That Tonx project, bi-weekly single origin coffee is great, and we've had customers that want that. We're going to keep that. Their team is going to work on amazing things for us. They're all about digital. Nik, a co-founder, hates transactions as much as I do. Transactions are so cumbersome. They're really smart and dedicated to having a digital shadow over our whole business.
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