Jeremy Bled, owner of Berkeley-based Souvenir Coffee, is on the brink of opening his fourth location. In March, he’ll take over the former Coloso Coffee at Swan’s Market in Old Oakland, which has been out of commission since the lockdown in March 2020. But before that, on Feb. 1, Bled will celebrate a grand opening at his third Souvenir Coffee outpost in San Francisco, which he softly launched in August.
Given this rapid expansion, especially in the midst of a pandemic, you’d think that Souvenir must be doing brisk business. But Bled said his company — like most other food retailers — is not doing better than before COVID-19 hit — and that’s part of why he’s expanding.
“I want to give people jobs!” Bled said emphatically. “If you care about people right now, you want to get as many people employed as possible.”
Bled said Souvenir Coffee, which debuted on Claremont Avenue in Berkeley in October 2017 and added a second cafe on Solano Avenue in Albany in January 2019, has been sustainable and able to grow thanks to each cafe’s community of regulars.
“Every type of food retail business is different. By and large, if you’re a coffee shop and you have a good following, a good group of people before the pandemic, you can survive and do OK,” Bled said. “No one I know in coffee is doing better than before the pandemic, but a number of us are able to hold on because of our regulars.”
During the pandemic, Bled has been able to “fine tune” Souvenir’s offerings. The Claremont Avenue cafe started serving more food, like breakfast and lunch sandwiches, and making its own syrups and baked goods. Perhaps even having more impact, though, has been stabilizing its coffee supply with its coops and farmers.
“We now have more stable offerings that we can source year and after year,” Bled said.
Although the number of sales has gone down at all of Souvenir’s locations, more customers are purchasing bags of beans to take home. Souvenir roasts its own blends and single-origin beans at Bay Area Co-Roasters, or CoRo, in West Berkeley. Bled feels fortunate to run a business that has other revenue options and isn’t tied to an on-site experience that restaurants and bars depend upon.
“People just can’t experience what they normally want to experience at restaurants. We’re very lucky,” he said.
While Bled, a Berkeley native, didn’t plan to open a cafe in San Francisco, he decided to take over the former Native Twins Coffee spot on the corner of Divisadero and Haight streets, because Souvenir’s general manager now lives in the SF. Bled says it’s his goal to have local people who live the shops work there.
“There’s no community coffee shop without the community,” he said. “You need to have people of the community working for the community, and be a reflection of the community.”
Now that Souvenir has multiple locations, Bled’s long-term goal is to offer part-ownership to some Souvenir employees. But that will only happen once the company has proven to be “demonstrably profitable for a period of time,” he said.
Collaboration and community building has always been something Bled has built into his business. He takes customer feedback seriously, so much so that each Souvenir location has its own drip coffee blend based on the general neighborhood’s taste. On Claremont Avenue, Souvenir pours a more traditional dark roast, that’s smokier in flavor. On Solano Avenue, Bled said the locals prefer a medium roast that has a chocolatey profile. And on Divisadero Street, he said the cafe offers a more fruit-forward, light roast. When it opens, Souvenir in Old Oakland will serve drip suited to the taste of locals who visit the Washington Street cafe.
In Old Oakland, Bled is fortunate to have two coffee experts on board who know the area and local preferences. Coloso co-owners Jose Posadas and Renzo Gianella will help Souvenir transition to the space and share their vast coffee knowledge. Bled is excited about the collaboration, as he’s been a longtime fan of Coloso Coffee.
“I love what they did, they’re the main reason I wanted to go into specialty coffee,” Bled said. “When I was unhappy at my previous job, I would go into their shop and it would make me happy. Their quality is second to none.”
Posadas will manage the new Souvenir cafe when it softly opens on March 1, but he will eventually transition out of the role once a new barista learns the ropes. Bled said the Old Oakland cafe will likely be in soft-open mode for at least two months.
Another thing Bled is excited about at the new space — “It has a great sidewalk presence,” he said. “The plan is to do outside seating, and beer and wine, and have a little bit of food.” But don’t expect much of a makeover. “We’re not going to change the look or feel — they did a great job over there. We’re just trying to build on what they did.”
Bled is the first to admit that expanding the business during this time of uncertainty might seem reckless.
“Pretty much anybody who kind of knows what this is all about thinks I’m totally crazy, which is true,” he said. But, Bled feels confident that his employees and the new partnership with Renzo and Gianella are worth the risk.
“I wouldn’t be doing this without having amazing people. The secret to this kind of work is amazing people and you have to start there.”
Souvenir Coffee Co.’s upcoming Swan’s Market cafe will be at 917 Washington St. (between Ninth and 10th streets), Oakland