Howard, meet Arnaud

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, famously said: “Starbucks doesn’t just sell coffee, it sells a superior experience”. When it entered California in early 90’s, Starbucks introduced us to a new kind of coffee experience that was not just about coffee. Announcing itself in green boldface, each STARBUCKS coffee shop stood out for consistent and superior customer experience — swanky interior design, good music, baristas greeting their customers and introducing us to a new coffee vocabulary: grande, venti, frappe. Everything was designed to ensure customers enjoyed the experience. I recall standing in mid-town Manhattan one time and slowly turning 360 degrees to spot Starbucks all around. It was astonishing. The Mermaid ruled the waves.

Last week I was visiting a friend at her office on 9th and Howard in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood. This area abuts Inner Mission district that still retains it’s No glitz immigrant vibe, a bit of grime even.

It was 8:30 am when I got down from Caltrain on 4th and King and I hadn’t had my coffee yet. I decided to walk to her office. Now, if you’re walking towards financial district, as I’ve done for last few years, there are many excellent speciality coffee shops along the way. But this morning as I started walking south on Howard, absence of a coffee shop — any coffee shop- was surprising. After walking few blocks, I could feel that anxiety attack creeping up as I reconciled to #NoCaffeineWednesday. On the corner of 7th and Howard I spotted Tony Baloney’s Cafe and Deli. Perhaps this is a good time to confess that I’m somewhat of a coffee snob. I stood there and stared at Tony’s across the street for few minutes — wondering if I should grab a cup or take a chance of finding a Peet’s or god-forbid, the Mermaid herself further down. Almost as soon as I started walking again I admonished myself for my caffeine snobbery and not grabbing a cup.

And then I saw it.

VIVE LA TARTE. This has to be some kind of bakery I thought as I jay-walked right across the street and stood in front of the large glass window. Inside I could see few people in white coats moving about to the diktat of morning’s urgency. The door opened into a large warehouse with interiors that created a unique spatial-visual experience. At this stage you need to imagine stepping into a large empty warehouse. Except in this case there were large bleachers style seating on the left. On the other side many smaller tables, seating six to each — accentuated the geometrically-straight spatial experience. The large open space was bisected by a low ship-like wooden cabinet that housed and showcased the wares. Pastries to the left, quiches to the right. On the other side of this ship carrying baked treasures was the open bakery where few Sous-Chefs were going about the next batch. The size of the warehouse made the large interiors look magically minimalist.

“Orange blossom & frangipane croissant, and a soy cappuccino, please”.

Couple of hipster geeks peeking into their Macs. The Barista gently coaxing coffee out of glistening chrome of an espresso machine.

The musical waft emanating out of four wall-mounted wooden musical speakers was filling the room. I let it pass through Shazam on my phone to unmask Sinead Harnett.

It felt I was inside a performance theater and every object was a prop with a well defined role.

Meanwhile, my soy cappuccino and orange perfumed croissant arrived.

Each sip bliss, Each bite pleaure gastronomique .

The only thing missing was my wife, so I picked up a ‘Romanesco, kale, pecorino (gluten free)’ quiche which I knew she’d surely enjoy.

The gastronomic trance lasted about twenty minutes before two legs on my watch shook me out of my stupor and I headed out to my meeting with a new vigor.

Howard, might as well go home.

Note: Viva La Tarte is the creation of Belgian couple Arnaud Goethals @tarte and Julie Vandermeersch. You can read more about them here