Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
[Photos: Olivia Terenzio]
The very first day The Mill opened last February, people had already formed a line out the door—and a year later, the fanfare has only spread. A collaboration between Four Barrel Coffee and Josey Baker Bread, the café-bakery has become a hub for Nopa/Western Addition residents and visitors alike seeking single-origin espressos, thick slices of house-baked toast and a bright, open space to meet and eat. To mark their one-year anniversary, Eater sat down with Jeremy Tooker and Jodi Geren of Four Barrel and bread impresario Josey Baker to talk about pizza parties, milling grains, and the great $4 toast controversy.
It's been one year since you opened your doors. Reflections?
Josey: It's been a hell of a year.
Jeremy: The Josey Baker fame has been crazy to witness.
True. I, and a lot of other people, watched the documentary about the making of the bakery.
Jeremy: Watching that documentary was painful for Jodi and me.
Jodi: This build-out was really brutal for all of us. And then Josey had a bakery to run and we had this place to run, too, so it wasn't like it was just over. Things had just begun.
Jeremy: We realized when we were watching that documentary that we didn't have time to process afterwards. It slipped out of our memories a little bit. Then it all came flooding back.
What have the biggest challenges been since you finally did open?
Jeremy: From the Four Barrel standpoint, it's been a different thing altogether. There was a lot of focus on the toast and bread, so that's been fun—but not as successful as the Four Barrel model on the coffee side. People don't really think of it as Four Barrel, so they don't come here to buy beans. It's busier than we thought it would be, so that's fine. And we've tried to do this retail thing, which was just an excuse to work with some local folks who make stuff. Again, not as successful as I thought it might be, but it's still fun.
Jodi: Mostly, it's been really lovely to watch Josey and his business flourish. He's been milling his own flour. He could have rested on his laurels and just been a stoner baker guy…
Jeremy: Which we thought might happen. We were asking people, "Does Josey know how to work hard?"
Josey: [Laughs.] Awesome, wow. You should have told me that a while ago. I'm out of here!
Jodi: But he's just been pushing the envelope, and this whole year has been this process of watching his bread get better and better. And we just eat more and more of it. This space was such a labor of love to design and build, and we love hanging out here. It's so cozy. And the bread is so fucking good.
People seem to like it.
Josey: It's been amazing for me to focus on the bread and my business, which I didn't have in this form at all before. It was just me. The only reason I've been able to do that is because they [the Four Barrel owners] have been so generous and such amazing leaders in the creation of this space, of The Mill, and inviting me in to do my thing as part of it. I wish I could take more credit for The Mill space—I take credit for my bakery—but for the space, and the whole concept, it was something they brought to the table.
Jeremy: It was mostly Jodi.
Jodi: When Jeremy designed and built Four Barrel, it was really a solo project. This was the first project that we had really done collaboratively. That was the reason it almost killed us. Not really, but there was a huge learning curve on how to do that together.
Jeremy: Slowly, our visions have been merging, but finding out how to communicate that together was a little challenging.
Jodi: Four Barrel will be celebrating our fifth year this year, and the longer it's been around, it's been moving in more and more of a collaborative direction, which we're really excited about. But there were tears, there were arm-wrestling matches, there were all of those things about figuring out how to work together as business partners. We have to agree about everything we want to do. There are two businesses operating here.
Josey: I talk to people all the time who have no idea that The Mill isn't just a single business entity—that it's actually Four Barrel Coffee and Josey Baker Bread operating in the same space, holding hands.
Jeremy: There are even other coffee companies who will drop off samples to sell here.
Jodi: They're like, "You guys want to carry our coffee?" No, we definitely don't.
Jeremy: [Laughs.] Send a price list over and we'll take a look at it.
What have been some of the challenges on the bread side?
Josey: Learning how to run a business that's not just me, making it all up as I go. Being a leader of a team of people, learning how to do to bread on this scale, and how to operate in a space that is full of incredible energy. I am really fortunate to have not had to struggle with a lot of the things most people do when they open their first brick-and-mortar space, because I've had these guys, who are amazing at it already and led the charge on all that stuff. So we're both able to focus on what we're really good at and passionate about.
And the rewards?
Jodi: Our pizza parties.
Jeremy: Having amazing toast whenever we want.
Speaking of pizza, let's talk about the Monday night pizza you're starting.
Josey: Pizza is just a version of bread. Most times when we'd have a big party here, we'd make pizza. It's so fun. So we want to just do it regularly and invite folks in.
Jeremy: I had such a good time that first time we made pizza.
When was that?
Josey: Probably May of last year, after I smashed my face. That was the first big party. There were a lot of people there.
Jeremy: It was all free. We finally realized, months in, that we'd never had an opening party!
Any plans to do more savory stuff?
Josey: We're chewing on it. We've got to take on one thing at a time. I wrote a very passionate email a few weeks ago about starting a soup program, which since then I've realized is a little too much to take on right now.
You mentioned your bike accident. You've made a full recovery?
Josey: I think I'm more handsome than I was before the bike accident. [Laughs]. I fell on my face in Golden Gate Park about two months after we opened and, amazingly enough, everything went really well. I took a step back—I was out of here for a week and a half—and things didn't really skip a beat.
Jodi: The bike accident was really terrifying. Sully [Jodi's son] and his dad were riding through the park and they were the ones to find Josey—it had just happened. We were all at the emergency room, waiting to hear if he had a broken neck. Looking at you, we were both like, there's no way that there's not something that's all fucked up. It felt like we were blessed in so many ways after that happened.
Jeremy: It made you [Josey] step back and approach things a little differently.
Josey: I was trying to do more than I could. When that option was taken away, it made me reevaluate and have a more realistic approach about how things were going to have to happen going forward. But we assembled a really amazing group of people. They totally rallied.
You must have been thrilled with the response after you opened.
Jodi: Before, customers would come and there was shit everywhere and people were leaning against bags of concrete, drinking their coffee. And Josey's like, "Yeah, we're going to be open in a couple of months!" It would be so funny to see people peer around the corner of the tent [we were operating in] and just...
Jeremy: Shake their heads…nah.
Jodi: Now, it's really nice to see it so busy. We really wanted to build a place that the neighborhood would embrace and feel was theirs. We had a lot of neighborhood meetings, and we pissed off a lot of our neighbors during construction. It's been kind of an ongoing thing, so it's nice when it feels like the neighborhood is here.
Josey: We see a lot of the same people day after day, week after week.
How has it been being on Divisadero, versus the Mission?
Jeremy: It's good—it's a different pace and clientele. It's a lot more of a diverse demographic than the Mission.
Jodi: This neighborhood has become a lot more livable, in terms of being able to walk to get whatever it is you need. It's nice to know your neighbors and see them out and about. We had a little one-year party, and so many of our neighbors were here—that was really cute.
Tell me about the party.
Josey: We celebrated our first birthday. We decorated this place with balloons and streamers.
Jodi: And brought back the tent.
Josey: We had pizza and drinks and a band playing, and it was all free and open to everybody. I can't tell you how good it felt to have person after person come up to me, who I'd seen in various capacities throughout the last year, and express gratitude for helping to create a space that people who live around here can gather in.
What else did you do?
Josey: There was a piñata. It had some pictures of my face on it. I introduced it as, like, smashing my face once made it prettier than it was before, so we're just going to try it again. Several people took their whacks at it and it wasn't spilling the candy all over the floor. So I ran up to Jer and said, "Get on my shoulders," because it was a little bit high for him to reach. So he climbed up on my shoulders, and…
Jeremy: During smashing your face, we almost smashed your real face.
Josey: I felt like I was holding a bull on my shoulders. But he smashed it open. He smashed my piñata face without smashing my real face. [Laughs.] We've had a few parties since then, and it's been so nice. People come out and they're just in a great mood and it's always incredible.
Back to the crowds. Do you feel like you're keeping up with demand?
Josey: It's nuts on the weekends.
Jeremy: We're still improving. We're figuring out how to make it more efficient and easier to manage.
Jodi: We're building a parklet.
Jeremy: We're going to redo the menus at some point so you can read them from further back in line and make your decision before you get to the register. Little things like that will help.
How has the menu evolved over the past year?
Jodi: The coffee menu stayed the same, but the toast menu is more diverse than what we started with. We started really simple—we weren't sure how it was going to go.
Josey: We have a special that changes every week.
Jeremy: It took a while for people to understand the changing menu. People would get really mad at first.
Josey: They get really attached, oh my God. But people are getting used to it. We just changed all the breads and the spreads again. We're contemplating some bigger changes to the way we make the toast in order to make it faster on the weekends, because people really want that toast!
Jeremy: The $4 toast has been an amazing thing.
What's your take on the whole $4 toast controversy?
Jeremy: At first, [Josey] got really upset. I was like, "Watch what's going to happen—it's going to spin in a good way." Since then, four of our staff went to LA for some coffee thing and they came back and said there was $8 toast, $5 toast. It's actually a pretty good deal.
Josey: I was sad and insulted at first. Jer did advise me to just sit with it, and it's been totally amazing.
Jeremy: Take it with a sense of humor, and then people will dig and they'll get over it. They'll start asking the right questions. When we did Four Barrel it was the same thing—ours was probably the first café people knew about without nonfat milk and options for sizes and syrups and whatever. And we got a lot of questions and a lot of flak for it. And people got used to it. It takes people a while to understand what you're doing, but once they do, it's even better. Everyone we've talked to who complained about the $4 toast—they eat it and they're like, "It's totally worth it."
What's been the most popular toast combination to date?
Josey: People really like cinnamon sugar. The Dark Mountain Rye, our rye bread—we almost didn't even bother to make it when we opened. I was like, no one's going to eat this weird, super-dense bread.
Jodi: And I was like, "No, I'll eat it!"
Josey: A few people who I really trusted and respected were like, "You need to make that bread." And so we started making it, and that's been way more popular than I would have expected.
Jodi: It helps that there's cream cheese on it.
Josey: I've got high hopes for a couple of new ones. We're making a Nutella now and putting it on a country bread. We're making a lemon curd; we were making pumpkin butter for a long time. When fruit is in season, we'll make various fruit preserves.
How's the flour-milling process going?
Josey: We are really finding our stride. It was very challenging at first—we kind of fucked everything up.
Josey: Well, we didn't know how to mill. [Laughs.] There's nobody else doing this here. Honestly, the mill as a piece of equipment was not a part of this concept until half a year in. Our mill room was going to be a walk-in fridge. So we didn't know how to mill, and we didn't know how to work with fresh-milled flour. We were just making it up as we went. It's been getting better and better. Just now, over the past week, I'm really excited about what we're making.
Josey, you've got a book coming out. What made you want to write it?
Josey: I started writing the book about two and a half years ago. It's a beginner's bread baking cookbook that's coming out very soon, in the middle of April. I had a hell of a summer—I was approached by an editor when I was baking bread at Mission Pie. Then one day, I got an email from Jeremy saying he had a space and an idea and he wanted to know if I wanted to work together. At that point, I was not at all thinking about trying to have a space of my own. Immediately, I think my exact words were "Fuck yes." I really felt like I'd won the lottery.
How has the writing process been?
Josey: My previous job involved a lot of writing. I was writing teacher's guides and children's books, so I was able to take that and apply it to this new topic that I fell in love with.
You've all got a lot going on. How have you been juggling everything?
Jeremy: Better than ever, now that we've forgotten the first year. [Laughs.] I'm personally working 40 hours a week for the first time in a long time. For us, as business partners, quality of life is very important. It's really nice to come into The Mill, and we have enough staff in place that we can be mostly hands-off with things and just enjoy it. I didn't think I'd ever be able to do that.
Josey: We're at cruising altitude in the bakery, so I'm on the same page in terms of quality of life. It's theoretically possible to make more bread, but at least for now, it's not worth the sacrifice and the compromises that would need to be made. I've got a very busy summer ahead with the book coming out. I'm getting married. We got the bright idea to plan two weddings, so we're going to do a California one and a Vermont one. So I'll be traveling around for the book and for the weddings, and I feel totally comfortable and confident about taking some space from the bakery because we have this amazing group of people that kick ass. For the book, we're going to be doing a few rad events around the city: a book release and bake sale at State Bird Provisions, where they're not going to be accepting reservations—it's going to be walk-in only. We're doing an event at Nopa, and a party here, and something at Penrose over in Oakland. Something at Marlow & Sons in New York.
In your documentary, you asked yourself how long you were going to want to be doing this. Do you feel like you've answered that question?
Josey: More than ever, I feel like I want to be doing it for a long time. The deeper you get into something that's really rich, you realize how much there is to learn. I'm in for the long haul.
Any new projects on the horizon?
Josey: The book is a big project, and I'm doing another one at some point. But for the time being, I'm really interested in doing work here. There are a lot of parallels between bread and coffee: We mill our own flour; they roast their own beans. One area where Four Barrel is way ahead of my business is in the sourcing. Starting in June, I'll be sourcing, theoretically, all of our wheat from a farm that's just 100 miles south of here, which would be a really big step for us. You can expect some new breads made with various grains, some of them perhaps even ancient and/or heritage and/or heirloom. [Laughs.] And/or locally foraged by fairies and gypsies.