The story of coffee at Specialty’s Café & Bakery reflects the story of San Francisco’s consumer tastes for retail coffee.

In the beginning, there was Faema + Prebica — and it was weak

A decade ago, Specialty’s ran a small chain of bakery/cafés with coffee service areas. Some locations, like this one on Pine St., even dedicated a coffee bar area for customers during their morning caffeine rush. Using older Faema machines and Prebica beans (one of “The Big Four” as part of Sara Lee), they pulled espresso as double-shot defaults that, while not terrible, weren’t good either.

Outside Specialty's Café & Bakery on Pine St., overlooking the side patio Inside Specialty's Café & Bakery on Pine St.

Then something weird and unexpected happened. In the Fall of 2003 — years before Blue Bottle even existed in San Francisco, other than as the coffee force behind Frog Hollow Farm at the just-then-opened Ferry Building Marketplace — Specialty’s replaced their Prebica supplies with Intelligentsia coffee. As longtime fans of the then-Chicago-only roaster, we were rather ecstatic. We saw the introduction of Intelligentsia as the first real escalation of what we then coined “the SF coffee wars“. This despite the fact that virtually no one in San Francisco knew anything about Intelligentsia at the time.

Specialty’s got their bean sourcing right. These were, after all, the same guys who were providing beans to Canadian national barista champions at Caffè Artigiano in Vancouver at the time. But they shot themselves in the foot, quality-wise, by replacing all their semi-automatic Faema machines for push-button, super-automatic Franke machines. While this gave Specialty’s greater consistency and allowed unskilled employees to operate their espresso machines, it completely dumbed down their coffee service and squandered any quality advantages they had using Intelligentsia coffee in the first place. We experienced one anomaly where they produced “Top 20″-level espresso, but revisits proved that to be a fluke.

The coffee service area inside Specialty's Café & Bakery today on Pine St. Bold Intelligentsia signage dwarfs any Specialty's branding

Intelligentsia S.F.?

As San Francisco coffee snobbery has been on the rise, most recently Specialty’s opted to up their game another level. At this sort of “mothership” of the local Specialty’s chains, they’ve gone all-out with a full-service, manually crafted coffee bar. How often do you see places weaned off super-automatic machines and back on to “big pants” espresso machines? Not often enough, as today this location sports not only a shiny red, dual-group La Marzocco FB/70 machine and a Hario V-60 pour-over bar (plus various Intelligentsia Coffee offerings for retail sale), but they also brandish glowing Intelligentsia signage where even the Specialty’s brand name takes a back seat. It’s as if Specialty’s became more serious about coffee the more their customers became more serious about coffee.

Unlike when this location first opened with a dark interior and nice floors that looked of cherry wood, they have since brightened up the space with lighting and a more modern layout. Still, there are long lines at lunch, and paying for a coffee sometimes may require you to wind through the whole line (instead of short-cutting to a dedicated coffee service line). Inside, there’s counter window seating — with one side overlooking the sidewalk and the other overlooking courtyard seating on its Century St. side (formerly home to a Starbucks hutch and then Abigails).

Coffee menu and Specialty's La Marzocco FB/70 and pour-over bar The Specialty's Café & Bakery espresso, on Pine St.

Their switch from their Faema machines to Frankes made them dull (all that factory-produced sameness and uniformity) but more consistent: a mellow espresso with a moderately rich, medium brown crema, plus an herbal/spice flavor. The new, semi-automatic FB/70 has raised their game, but the consistency isn’t there yet. They’re still not maximizing the result, given all the pedigree going into the cup. It lacks some flavor potency and breadth: largely centering around an earthy pungency, despite the fresh-looking, medium brown mottled crema and white ACF Intelligentsia-branded cups (formerly paper only).

They have come so far, and yet still have much to go. Given the trendlines and directions for one of the more forward-thinking small chains in the area, you have to place bets on the coffee getting better more than it is likely to decline. Even so, with the occasional rumor of Intelligentsia opening an owned-and-operated location in S.F., what are the odds that Intelligentsia would do to Specialty’s what Blue Bottle Coffee did to Frog Hollow Farm several years ago?

Read the updated review of Specialty’s Café & Bakery on Pine St.