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EXOTIC ROASTS

Blue Bottle’s plan to become your coffee-snob friend wherever you are

In this photo taken Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee holds a container of Panama Geisha coffee beans at his roastery in Oakland, Calif.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
In stores, and soon, in your mailbox.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

How does a specialty coffee roaster with just 14 cafes in two cities get to national scale in a country in the size of the US, without losing its reputation for quality?

Blue Bottle has an answer for that question. The coffee chain that garnered $25.7 million in new venture-capital funding in January (we wrote then about why coffee can be as good an investment as tech for venture capitalists), has acquired Tonx, a Los Angeles-based coffee-by-mail service that delivers hand-picked beans all over the US and to several other countries.

I should have been paying attention more when Blue Bottle’s CFO, David Bowman, told Quartz in January that he saw coffee “subscriptions” as a growth area where the company might use the money it raised, and said he admired Tonx. ”Coffee is one of the only categories where I think subscriptions make total sense,” Bowman said at the time. “Coffee, if you can do it well, creates a long-term relationship with the customer.”

Blue Bottle already had an e-commerce platform, but the company’s main focus was on roasting coffee and opening more stores, which takes time. The company also needed to learn more about its customers. ”We don’t know much about our customers right now, we don’t know how they consume at home, don’t know how much they need,” Bowman said. “[T]here is opportunity in subscriptions to make sure you’re meeting them where they’re at and growing the relationship over time.”

Tonx, meanwhile, was reaching a straining point: Its founders were renting a coffee roaster on weekends and had been unable to raise a new funding round. Pairing up with Blue Bottle, which has firmer finances and is better known, seems good for both companies.

Still, some Tonx fans fear that it might lose its low-key quirkiness and its goal of educating people about coffee. A similar fear could apply to Blue Bottle: As it expands, it risks becoming just another big coffee chain, especially if the quality of the coffee doesn’t keep up. But being a regular part of people’s coffee consumption at home—and a constant guide to coffee connoisseurship—could keep the company from being dismissed as a hipster Starbucks.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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