Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Re-Post: Beacon Coffee + Pantry

///  I originally created this post for Fancy French Cologne. Now that the shop is closed and the blog is down, I plan to re-blog a selection of interviews and posts from time to time that I think are interesting and applicable to Corporate Neon. Enjoy!  ///

We are so excited to introduce you to Alexis Liu, a recent San Francisco transplant by way of New York. Alexis has built up quite the fashion and design pedigree, coming from a professional background that includes work with Comme de Garcons and Ralph Lauren, as well as a background in industrial design. She recently moved to San Francisco to help open a small business in North Beach, and we’ve been intrigued to know how the transition has been – not only between cities, but professionally and of course fashion-wise. It’s inspiring to see how she’s applied her various skills to the business and brought a unique point of view to San Francisco’s coffee culture.

I caught up with her recently at Beacon’s opening party to catch up with her and see how life in San Francisco is treating her!

Tell us about Beacon Coffee & Pantry!

We are a coffee shop and specialty market located in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Our goal is to highlight and support the best artisan producers from the Bay Area and beyond. We serve Sightglass coffee, and in our pantry we have a selection of jams, pickles, pastas, grains, sauces, oils, salts, candy, chocolate, and snacks. In the coming months, I'm going to focus on bringing more unique, "cream of the crop" items, and also expand the selection with some interesting lifestyle and kitchen items as well.

What was the most rewarding part of the process?
It's been an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience to build something from the ground up. None of this—the brand, identity, or space—existed a year ago, and now it’s a growing business. Christian is my cousin, co-owner, the one who spearheaded the project, and brought me on to work on it. He comes from an architecture and real estate background, and I come from a fashion/product design background, so it was great to collaborate and design the space together. It's been incredibly rewarding to see my ideas come to fruition, for an audience that changes every day. We started with a totally raw space, so it was pretty amazing to see it all come together—we made every little decision, in every inch of the space, every step of the way. This has been a career change for me, but it has been a project that combines all my work experience: design, marketing/PR, and customer service.

To add to that, on a day to day basis, it’s rewarding to really get to know our customers. Even though we are at the convergence of so many San Francisco tourist destinations, most of our customers are regulars. A lot of them have expressed how happy they are we opened, and that something like our shop was needed in the neighborhood, so it’s great to have that kind of validation. As a small gesture of our appreciation, we post "customer of the day" (on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook), which shares a little about our awesome customers.

The most challenging?
The most challenging thing has probably been changing gears from working as a designer (at a desk, with regular hours) to opening and running a new small business (never not working/thinking about work). There are always unexpected issues that pop up every day, and serving coffee is just one part of the juggling act. It’s all been great though, coming into it I knew it was going to be a big challenge, which is why I decided to move out here and do it. I've learned more than I ever would have in the past year about creating a brand, building a space, and running a shop, and managing personalities.

Tell us about the succulent installation you designed—it’s truly amazing.It’s over 1,300 succulent plants. When we were deciding what type of art to install, we took the same approach as we did to our interiors - we wanted some that would appeal to everyone, but be striking and unique. You typically see living walls outdoors, but I did a lot of research on how I could make it work indoors, I spoke to a few experts, and chose varieties that typically could do well in low light. I mapped it all out in Photoshop first, then made a couple trips to Succulent Gardens in Castroville (which is an awesome succulent nursery, check it out if you're ever in the area). The planting was just the first part, we then had to figure out how to waterproof the wall, frame and support the whole thing, which weighs at least 600 pounds, and more after watering. The whole process took a couple months.  But it was so fun, and definitely one of my most rewarding projects. Not a day goes by where someone doesn't comment on it.

(People always ask how we water it. There is a drip irrigation system built in, so we hook up a hose, and it drips from the top down into the gutter installed at the bottom. Sometimes I also take off the wooden frame, which comes off in pieces, and spray the whole thing down.)

Your favorite thing about the shop / item in the shop?
That's hard. I obviously love Sightglass coffee, and all our pastries are really good. We are the first shop to start serving Worthy Granola, which is 100% organic and handmade in North Beach (www.worthygranola.com), and it’s probably my favorite way to start the day. Some other favorites are: Dandelion Venezuelan chocolate, Baia Pasta, Dry Soda, our smoked sea salt, flageolet beans, and Have'a Chips. I made a batch of candles inspired by SF neighborhoods, but those sold out in the first few weeks we were open, and I haven't had a chance to make more. But there are some very exciting things are coming in the next few months, so stay tuned.

Do you think a shop like this could succeed New York?

I think this could succeed in New York, but rents are insanely high for spaces that are much smaller, so obviously the concept/experience would have to be tweaked a bit. People are generally people are more rushed and impatient, but there is a rapidly growing appreciation, awareness, and demand for specialty coffee. People do sit in cafes for hours, especially in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. I think the pantry concept could definitely be carried over— there are so many food-related cottage industries, especially in Brooklyn. There is an energy in New York that is unlike anywhere else. I really miss it, and daydream about opening something like this there one day. Maybe it’s in the cards, who knows!

How has the move affected your wardrobe choices? What do you wear to work now vs. before?
I've always been somewhat driven by comfort. I used to work for Comme des Garcons, I'll always love it, and have tons of that stuff tucked away, but I rarely wear any of it anymore. Right before I moved here I worked at Ralph Lauren, so I still wear a lot of that, but my style has definitely gotten a lot more casual. Lots of denim, cotton, and stuff I can wash easily, cause I'm spilling coffee and doing dishes. I've kind of reverted to how I dressed as a teenager. Pretty much all the shopping I do in San Francisco is vintage/thrift—it’s awesome here! Maybe I have a different aesthetic/style sensibility, cause I find a lot of gems that no one here seems to want.

Anything else you want to mention?
If anyone out there has any awesome products they think could be a good fit for us, I'm always open to hearing any suggestions. The same goes for artists too—we always wanted the shop to be a platform for rotating artwork, and we have a lot of prime wall space and the front display window (aka the "driveby gallery"). Come by and say hi!

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