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Regional Interests

With Its Fancy New Coffee Machine, Milk SF Wants to Help Revolutionize the Service Industry

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]haron Ratton was metalcasting in the Bayview when the world stopped. She stepped back, tried to turn COVID into an opportunity to develop new skills. Maybe furniture making. That’s when she met Katey “Scoots” McKee, known affectionately as such by her many friends in the queer community. The two met three days after Ratton’s birthday in September 2019.

Ratton says the date turned out to be her real birthday present. 

“I put on my best shoes to take her out to a fancy dinner,” the longtime metalworker says. “It must have worked because we’re still together.” 

Once the pandemic hit, the couple stayed in each other’s pods before they uhauled, a term in the queer community for lesbians moving in together. Then came a new kind of proposal. “We got engaged first,” McKee says. “But instead of planning an engagement we decided to plan a business.”

That business, a new coffee shop in the Mission called Milk SF, will open on Saturday, June 26 at Mission and 14th. The cafe will serve nice pastries and nitro coffee. But it’s also touting a new piece of coffee technology from West Oakland’s Ground Control Coffee that the business claims will revolutionize the coffee world—if it hasn’t already.  

 A Fancy New Coffee Machine

“We make bold claims,” Eli Salomon, owner and founder of Ground Control Coffee, says. “But they’re backed with data. It’s better than any pour-over a barista can make on a repeatable basis.”

That’s a bold claim indeed, considering how ubiquitous the pour-over approach has been in the Bay Area’s high-end coffee scene, each individual cup meticulously hand-brewed by a barista wielding a small copper kettle. Ground Control’s brewer, on the other hand, is the first new batch brewing technology—wherein a machine quickly brews a large quantity of coffee—since the 1950s. The Forbidden Planet–looking device uses a patented vacuum technology to extract coffee from the grounds two or three times, drying the coffee grounds between takes to prevent bitterness. Your typical drip coffee brewer uses gravity to bring water through the grounds. The Ground Control machine fully immerses the coffee grounds in water, more like a French press.

Close-up view of the Ground Control Coffee brewer’s patented vacuum brewing mechanism in action at Merchant Coffee in Prescott, Arizona. (Sean Marin/Merchant Coffee)

The coffee industry has always been dynamic, even if classic diners are still making their coffee with old-fashioned Bunn brewers. More recently, FETCO coffee brewers added important innovations like customizable settings for brew time, temperature and volume. And “smart” brewing, as practiced by companies like Ground Control, is a quantum leap.

Salomon says his machine has passed every hurdle. It even manages to earn green points by using ⅔ the amount of coffee beans to produce the same cup as other brewers. Salomon says there was a lot of skepticism when Ground Control launched in Salomon’s San Francisco kitchen eight years ago. “Now,” he says, “folks have had a chance to try the cup, and most of our critics have joined our side.” 

Count Umeko Motoyoshi among those who are fully convinced. They are the host of coffee podcast A Better Table and are high-key famous in the coffee world. The Q grader and former barista spent an entire week solely focused on learning how the Ground Control machine works. 

“With a batch brewer, baristas don’t have to live in fight-or-flight mode just to keep up,” Motoyoshi writes in an email to KQED. “And Ground Control’s extraction technology is such that it’s not just consistent, it’s consistently excellent.”

The labor-saving aspect of the machine, which can produce 11 12-ounce cups of freshly brewed coffee at the touch of a button, is especially appealing to Motoyoshi. They say that the expectations that customers have of a cafe can never really be fulfilled by the baristas, and that any technology that can support the work experience is a godsend.  

“This would have saved so much stress, hassle, and bodily wear and tear,” Motoyoshi writes of their time working the bar. “Moreover, it would have sent a message that the owner cared about my health and happiness.”

The machine also impressed Helen Russell, co-owner and founder of Equator Coffees and Tea, who says the difference is “like propeller planes to jets.” Russell used to drill extra holes into the baskets of her Bunn batch brewer in order to coax more flavor out of the beans. Now that she’s installed the Ground Control brewer in her Fort Mason shop, making Equator Salomon’s first Bay Area customer, those extra steps are no longer necessary. 

“For us to be putting it in our stores says something about the product,” Russell says. “It was a huge risk.”

Now, Equator’s Proof Lab in Mill Valley and its new location in Culver City also use Ground Control machines. The Michelin three-starred chef Dominique Crenn even asked about the machine during a visit to Equator. Now she’s got one in her new Salesforce Tower bakery. 

Throughout the world the company has placed a little over 200 of their machines. In the Bay Area, they’ve installed about 30. But in the coffee shop–laden Mission, the technology is still catching on. While Dandelion Chocolate sports a Ground Control brewer, Milk SF is the only business exclusively using the rig.

In part, that decision was the result of a personal connection between the two businesses. Long before Salomon launched Ground Control, he would get his hair cut by McKee at Glama-rama!, the venerable Mission District hair salon she now owns, every few weeks for the better part of a decade. Knowing McKee loved coffee, he invited her for tastings in his living room once he’d developed a prototype. At the time, McKee joked that she would buy a machine from Salomon one day. “I have a friend who is going to change coffee,” she  says. “And now I have the opportunity to be a part of it.”

A Better Post-Pandemic Service Industry

Does the coffee itself live up to the hype? A few weeks ago, I had the chance to sit outside Ground Control’s retrofitted garage warehouse in West Oakland, sipping coffee prepared on the machine as a generous East Bay sun beamed down. And I, too, was convinced: The coffee was really, really good. It reminded me of the first time I tried coffee at a Bay Area coffee shop back in 2018 and my small-town Washington mind was fully blown. Clean, fruity, sweet and tasty—words I had never associated with coffee. The Ground Control coffee felt similarly new.

But cafes are about more than just the taste of their coffee: They’re about the time, labor and money that go into their drinks, too. According to Salomon, Ground Control aims to make a positive difference in those aspects as well.

“Service folks should live without fear that they won’t be able to pay their student loans,” Salomon says. “To make ends meet, cafe owners sometimes take money from their staff in the form of permanent below-living wages, and that isn’t ethical. If you can’t pay your team in a way that they can live in their community without fear of a deep financial burden, that’s a doomed scenario.”

A Ground Control Machine in the wild at 392 Caffe in Davenport, Iowa. (Matt Umland)

The Ground Control system runs about four times the cost of a typical drip machine, but to Salomon, the high price point of the machine is an investment in community betterment. The machine is easy to use, which means there’s less of a barrier to entry for someone to become a skilled barista. And because the coffee produced by the Ground Control machines is popular, in theory they allow business owners to pay their employees better, too. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, Ground Control customer Cirque Coffee went from selling five gallons of iced latte a day to 30 gallons, earning an estimated additional revenue of $40,000 a month. It’s unsurprising, then, that Ground Control’s business septupled during the pandemic. 

It’s true, however, that a coffee shop owner might simply choose to pocket any additional profits rather than hire back COVID-furloughed employees. The relative simplicity of the Ground Control machines might even allow a cafe to reduce its workforce even further. Salomon, for his part, says he doesn’t want Ground Control to replace employees. 

“One of the great tragedies of COVID has been that many members of the coffee community have lost their jobs,” he says. “And many of them being those at the most financially vulnerable members of the coffee community, in entry-level roles.” 

But Salomon says proper implementation should keep income high and staff turnover low. And for baristas at Ground Control–equipped shops, the tech also has the potential to improve the quality of their work life. Salomon says his brewer frees up baristas so they have time to build the meaningful customer relationships that allow local businesses to thrive. For instance, the machine makes a batch of cold brew in just eight minutes (instead of overnight), so cafe workers never have to scramble to make more of the increasingly popular drink. According to Russell at Equator, those time savings allow baristas to learn more about coffee and machine repair without having to constantly whip out drinks.

Replacing pour-over might also be a step toward making the job of a barista more sustainable. “In my opinion, the belief that baristas should hand-pour each coffee borders on a fetishization of service labor,” Motoyoshi writes. “It’s just not possible to execute that level of quality again and again, flawlessly, for hours.”

A Healthier Place to Work

The bright pink walls of Glama-Rama! let you know you’ve arrived at one of the Mission’s most venerable hair salons. It’s been around almost 25 years and has about 10,000 clients. McKee purchased the famous business from its founder in December 2016. 

“Queers on the East Coast know about us,” McKee says. “Working there is where I had my own self-discovery.”

With Milk SF, she and Ratton wanted to create a daytime space that would be accessible to the queer community—and to create jobs for that community in the same way as the salon.

“When we opened the business, Scoots says to me, ‘Put your labor where your mouth is,’” Ratton says. To get the business off the ground, they’ve opted to DIY everywhere they can.

“It’s COVID, so budgets are tight,” Ratton says. “Luckily I have a lot of friends who are carpenters and metalsmiths.”

It’s not lost on them that they are across the street from Four Barrel, a coffee company that has faced accusations of sexual harassment and of being a toxic workplace. McKee takes a nuanced approach to her neighbors:“I’ve worked on the block the entire time. What happened was wrong, but I don’t know what their culture and values are now.”

McKee chose Ground Control in part because she doesn’t want to compete directly with the established shops nearby. She’s hoping it’ll be a magnet for deep coffee nerds, too. And, as another way to distinguish themselves, they plan to use the machine to batch-make tea.

“Having the machine in our space lets us do something a little different than everyone else on that block,” McKee says.

The machine’s reliability is also a big sell. The folks at Glama-Rama! have gone through many defunct Mr. Coffee machines, McKee laments. 

McKee and Ratton also want to bring Salomon’s vision of a better service industry to fruition at their shop. McKee notes that in her work as a hairstylist, and during a stint working at a Peet’s, she has suffered from tendinitis.

In fact, many baristas experience wrist and elbow injuries in the long term, and panic attacks behind the bar are also quite common, Motoyoshi confirms.

“Most folks don’t realize the specialty coffee industry chronically overworks baristas,” Motoyoshi writes. “Considering all this, it’s amazing how good baristas are at producing consistent coffee.”

What McKee and Ratton are hoping is that Ground Control will help them to create a healthier work environment. For a small, bootstrapped cafe like Milk SF, the machine’s ease of use also means they’ll be able to get their business up and running more quickly than they would otherwise.

“We’re in our thirties. We don’t have time to waste,” Ratton says.

Copyright 2021 KQED