Sparkroot serves the acclaimed Blue Bottle Coffee

July 28, 2011

by Teya Vitu


Specialty coffee, served quite exclusively in a few San Francisco spots and in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, will come to Downtown Tucson as the signature beverage at Sparkroot, Ari Shapiro’s newest coffee house venture two doors down from his Xoom Juice, both at 245 E. Congress St.

Shapiro hopes to open Sparkroot on Aug.8.

Shapiro hooked up with Blue Bottle Coffee Co. in Oakland, Calif., to introduce Arizona to a coffee that is the rage of the Bay Area, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times magazines, and deemed one of the best coffees in America in GQ magazine.

Shapiro’s not arguing that proclamation.

He got his first Blue Bottle taste a year ago at the company’s coffee bar in the Ferry Building on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

“I was floored,” Shapiro said. “The execution. The taste. Blue Bottle is very robust and rich without any bitterness.”

Blue Bottle has five company coffee bars and Shapiro is one of their 135 wholesalers. Only 10 are outside California and Sparkroot will be the first Arizona purveyor of the Blue Bottle coffee.

Shapiro, himself from San Francisco, is not at all the reticent type, but he was hesitant to approach Blue Bottle.

“When Sparkroot was coming to fruition, I didn’t contact them because I didn’t think they would work with me,” he said. “It was the bottom of the ninth and two outs, and I decided to go for it. One morning I woke up and wrote an email but didn’t hear back right away. Finally I heard back. We set up a meeting. Truly, I knew this would be a good relationship. I’ll give you one word: simpatico.”

Ends up Shapiro and Blue Bottle wholesale director Luisa Alberto were quite simpatico.

“Ari and I share the same values,” Alberto said. “He came out here and spent a few days with us. Not every wholesaler does that.”

What Alberto means is very few wholesalers gather up their baristas and head up to Blue Bottle’s Oakland roastery to learn the fine art of grinding and brewing, even serving, Blue Bottle coffee.

“It was easy to feel early on that he was committed to be a partner of something different,” Alberto said. “We look for someone willing to go above and beyond.”

Sparkroot is an Ari Shapiro vision, but the Blue Bottle Coffee element is an equal player at Sparkroot.

“They are not just a vendor. They are a partner,” Shapiro said.

Alberto concurs: “There is always a very direct connection to us as a company. He wanted to find someone who will support him.”

Blue Bottle Coffee is part of what Shapiro describes as the Third Wave of Coffee after the “cup of Joe” of old and Starbucks of the past 20 years.

“The Third Wave is a very large emphasis on the artisan specialty aspect of coffee through the critical steps of procurement, roasting and they are very particular about the equipment they use,” Shapiro said. “Everything we’re doing here is manual. The fourth step is execution and service. There’s a lot of training. We spent three whole days at their roastery.”

Blue Bottle was launched nine years ago and is the rare coffeemaker to pay prominent homage to the 1683 siege of Vienna, which introduced the coffeehouse concept to Central Europe. The Turks laid siege to Vienna and left behind coffee beans in their hurried retreat, and immediately the first coffeehouse sprouted in Vienna: the Blue Bottle.

What all this will add up to at Sparkroot is a coffee house in Downtown Tucson that will reflect a European and Bay Area ethos.

The European coffee house – especially the tradition of the Viennese coffee house – follows the ideal that a coffee house is a hang out, where you can lounge for hours, if you wish, and turning tables is not the goal.

“A common gathering spot is particularly important for Downtown,” Shapiro said. “Downtown needs to reflect an urban sensibility. It hopefully adds greatly to the other side of the scale. The last few years have been great for development. We need people to partake. The more opportunities there are to feel comfortable in the urban environment, that’s the fulfillment of the equation.”

Anyone familiar with Shapiro and his Xoom Juice operation knows he is zealous about fruit and healthy eating. How does he square that with a coffee house?

“Coffee is a fruit,” he proclaims. “It flowers. It’s harvested as a fruit. Then it’s roasted. They say it’s not healthy because people become addicted to caffeine. What’s unhealthy is when you drink six cups a day and load it up with sugar, cream and whipped cream.

“Sparkroot is a complete health twist on a coffee shop. You’re going to get a purist cup of coffee. We will have natural sugar, a brown sugar; a good quality milk, a soy milk and almond milk. Nothing with high fructose corn syrup.”

No artificial sweeteners. Sorry.

Sparkroot will offer espresso, two standard choices of coffee plus a rotating single origin variety.

“On the food side, we aren’t going to have any of the heavy butter based pastry [The Viennese author of this article protests],” Shapiro said. “We have whole food bars. We are making our own granola bars. We have a yogurt selection. We call it light fare. Everything’s going to be small plates. You can have bruschetta at night, a nut butter sandwich at lunch, and a granola bar for breakfast.”

Sparkroot’s corner spot in the One North Fifth Apartments commercial strip has a 24-foot ceiling, allowing Shapiro to build a small mezzanine level. Black hot rolled steel dominates, contrasted with light colored furniture, all made from scratch or vintage.

“I call it rough around the cutting edge,” Shapiro said.

Sparkroot can seat 70 people.

Shapiro launched Xoom Juice 10 years ago in October and now has three stores, including the Downtown store he opened in October 2009 two doors down from Sparkroot. Xoom Juice fills his day plenty. He had no need to expand into another concept.

“It’s part of my DNA,” he said about his serial entrepreneurship. “This idea took root in my mind a couple years ago and I couldn’t shake it. As it evolved in my mind, the opportunity presented itself to lease that space. Xoom Juice is turning 10. I felt I was ready for a new chapter.”

Shapiro did not have a grand plan to have Xoom Juice and Sparkroot in the same commercial strip at the foot of the One North Fifth Apartment, a built-in customer base.

“The idea centered around warehouse places with open areas,” he said. “I made myself an offer I couldn’t refuse to make this happen, to go for it.”

Shapiro has watched the Downtown renaissance unfold outside his door the past 18 months. That’s what sold him on bringing Sparkroot to Congress and Fifth Avenue.

“The pivot point,” he called it. “The changing of the guard. The turning of the leaf. This city was getting past the Rio Nuevo debacle and looking at another way to revitalize Downtown. The recovery was relying less on civic enterprise and more on private enterprise. I think seeing both those things align really solidified my belief that something is and will continue to happen Downtown.

“Being Downtown has given me a front row seat for the change afoot. I sensed this burgeoning community needed a community coffee shop.”