Bay Area Power Couples: James & Caitlin Freeman of Blue Bottle


It's hard to start a business in the Bay Area. And even harder to make it successful. We're inspired by the couples who have done it together and have decided to highlight them every week in our new "Bay Area Power Couples" blog series. Check back on Fridays for Q&A's with the couples who run some of our favorite local businesses.

James Freeman started Blue Bottle Coffee in 2002 and has since helped lead the West Coast coffee movement. His wife, Caitlin Williams Freeman, left her pastry company Miette (whose ginger snaps are on our Big Eat) in 2008 around the same time she married James. When James was asked to open a rooftop cafe at the SF MoMA, Caitlin hatched the idea of creating beautiful pastries based on works of art in the museum's collection.

Not long ago, you and James didn't even work at the same company. How did you end up meeting?

Caitlin: It was 2002, I believe. James had just started Blue Bottle and, in his one great marketing effort, he delivered a few bags of coffee to his favorite vendors at the Saturday Ferry Building Farmer's Market. Luckily my ex-business partner (at Miette, which I co-owned until 2008) was one of them. I tended the booth at the Saturday Berkeley Farmer's Market where we (for a short while) owned this coffee cart with a pink canopy that I would haul to the Berkeley market every Saturday. I made dreadful coffee and cheerily asked 'Would you like some cookies with that?!'. Anyways, when I saw how darling the packaging was on the Blue Bottle Coffee, we became his second wholesale account. I was soon begging James to come run the espresso machine on Saturdays and then finally convinced him to just buy the whole cart from us (which is still the cart they use for the South Side Ferry Plaza market, Tuesday Berkeley market and Sunday Temescal markets). For about a year we spent Saturdays listening to the street musicians sing the same songs they still sing at that market.

How did Caitlin then get involved with Blue Bottle?

James: Well, we're speaking professionally, I assume. . .We started seeing eachother and she was in the thick of things at Miette. She decided to sell her share at Miette right around the time we were thinking of getting married. So she had a glorious three months of retirement, but she likes to keep busy.

Caitlin: I sold Miette on October 29, 2008, coincidentally the same day we were married. The economy was in the dumps and I couldn't fathom starting another business right away. James really wanted an in-house pastry department and I had intended to just come aboard to create a few pastry items and then leave to do something on my own. My father hated the idea that I would rely on my husband for a job! But then James was asked to open a cafe in the Rooftop Sculpture Garden at the SF MoMA and I was able to create my dream job! I had been an art student at UCSC and learned to be a baker because of a love of Wayne Thiebaud's paintings (particularly "Display Cakes" at the SFMOMA). I hatched the idea that I could make Thiebaud cakes inside the museum at the Blue Bottle cafe, which has turned into a project where I make desserts inspired by any art on display at the museum.

What difference does she make at Blue Bottle?

James: We figured, coffee is the reason we exist, but why can't everything that surrounds it be just as great? She's been very inspiring in terms of how things look, like paint colors, textures, and surfaces. It's nice to sit across the table at a meeting from her in her chef's coat and hear her speak, hear her professionalism. It's impressive.

What's the best and worst thing about working with your spouse?

Caitlin: Oh, the good thing is that James is my boss's boss, so we don't really have to work together in a very professional way. We don't actually see each other very much during the day, we're both running around all day and are really like ships passing in the night. I can only think of one time where we were able to coordinate carpooling to work. Which is probably good because I keep finding myself adjusting his shirt collar or fussing about and reminding him of something inane about our home life in front of everyone. I don't think that's very good for the CEO's image.

James: I have to make sure that the pastry department doesn't get too much attention because of who I'm married to. I try to be very professional about that.

Caitlin: The best thing is that I get to hear all of the exciting upcoming details and figure out how to make the pastry department a very important part of any upcoming projects (job security!). The worst thing is that I'm always joking (or maybe not) about how much I want to retire. Which would be all fun and games except that, ultimately, he's my boss and I think he gets annoyed at my constant hinting. 

Worst fight you've had over business-related issues?

Caitlin: I learned my first day on the job that I can't come home and complain about my co-workers. Because it's no longer just idle gossip, it's something that he probably has to deal with. So, I try to leave those things at work.

What do you guys do to get away from the business?

Caitlin: We're both so accustomed to work being a 24 hour-a-day thing that you don't really expect to get away from it. We have some really great support staff, so we don't have to be on duty 24 hours-a-day, but we actually enjoy having Blue Bottle be a big part of our lives. It is nice, however, to get away somewhere where there isn't phone or internet, so we've really begun to love vacations to non-cities. We were just in Northern Michigan for a wedding this spring and loved being a bit off the grid!

James: That's the hard part. I have a 7-year-old boy, and his mom lives in the Inner Sunset. Caitlin is a great stepmom and we take care of him everyday or every other day. There are times when I have to work very hard, but there are times when I have to say 'No, I have to spend time with my son'. That's our real family time. We ride bikes in Golden Gate Park. Yesterday we rode to the Mint Plaza cafe and had a little bit to eat and then went to see Toy Story 3.

Do you have any advice for couples who own a business, or want to start one?

Caitlin: Try to have very different jobs and very different responsibilities. That way you can really admire how great your partner is at what they do.

James: I feel like I'm not very good at giving advice, but I've seen it blow up in peoples' faces. If you're going to be trapped in the same room all day, you're asking for trouble.

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