Austin Ferrari of Provender Coffee is no slouch. At 24, he owns an ambitious coffee shop and is looking to the future. In this two-part interview, we discuss his beginnings in the service industry and the parallels between the restaurant and coffee worlds.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo by Erica Weiland.
In the current print issue of Barista Magazine, we feature cafés with ambitious food offerings. Austin Ferrari owns Provender Coffee and serves delicious food and pastries to the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. When he’s not making avocado toast or slinging shots at the café he co-owns with his brother, Tony, Austin’s drinking wine and suggesting pairings at his brother’s restaurant, Hillside Supper Club. Here we learn about his restaurant background and how he started working in coffee.
Ashley Rodriguez: Tell us about your earliest coffee experiences.
Austin Ferrari: I grew up with a super-huge Italian family—those are my roots. My nonna (Emilia) used to always make stove-top espresso at her apartment when I was younger. I had sips here and there, but it wasn’t until I had my first super-tasty latte until I fell in love. I was about 15 years old and I was visiting my brother in San Francisco. We spent the mornings together because he had to work at night (restaurant life), so we bounced around coffee shops and neighborhoods. I remember one morning he said, “Let’s go to Trouble Coffee,” which was right down the street from his room in the Sunset.
That morning we both got cinnamon toast (which we grew up on as kids) and lattes. I just remember thinking, “Man, this is so cool!” Having coffee in the early morning as the fog blows off the city and chatting with people. The best part was Giulietta [the owner]. She was behind the bar that morning with another barista named Ruben. I’ll never forget it. Giulietta would scream at the top of her lungs, “TOAST!” and I was like, “Damn, this woman created her own identity.” She didn’t allow phones in her coffee shop, and I loved it. It kept people away from the media and instead focused on what is in front of them and around them.
Giulietta inspired the hell out of me. I went back home and wrote her a letter to thank her for serving my brother and I. My brother taught me a lot and pushed me. It was emotional for me to tell her how I felt. I know it sounds weird, but I told her I would one day do a coffee shop and I told her I would never forget her and what she has built. I never forget where I came from, because it got me where I am today.
AR: You worked (and still work) in fine dining before you opened up your café. Tell us a little about how you got into the restaurant world.
AF: I started working when I was 10 at a family friend’s Italian restaurant in Cincinnati. It was called Biagios. Nothing fancy, but simple. My brother was working at the restaurant before myself, and I got a call from the owner one day asking if I wanted to come in and wash dishes because his other dishwasher didn’t show up. I told him, “Heck yeah I will, I’ll have my mom drop me off in a flash.” After that, my Friday and Saturday nights were in the back of an Italian restaurant listening to Luciano Pavarotti and scrubbing out bowls of Italian wedding soup and plates of fettuccine.
I worked my way up at this place. I became one of the line cooks and worked the pantry station. I then moved my way to front of house as a busboy. I was the lead busser, and everyone that walked through that front door knew who I was. I was 15 years old, seating guests, running food, making coffee, helping servers, etc.
After graduating high school, I didn’t have any plans for school. My brother was in San Francisco and was starting his pop-up restaurant and told me I should move there and help. I worked the pop-ups for maybe two months and eventually decided I needed to get my own place in the Bay Area and needed to get a full-time job. I moved to North Berkeley and worked at Chez Panisse as a back waiter. I lived in the same house as the Chez Panisse Wine Director, Jonathan Waters, and very quickly he became my mentor. He taught me so much about restaurant service I didn’t know and he taught me tons about wine. We cooked dinner and drank together pretty often.
During my years at Chez Panisse, I would wander the store of Kermit Lynch wine merchant, looking at labels and wines. I would seek out coffee shops in the East Bay to sit at and read my wine books at each morning. I just wanted to work all the time and read. I was also going to school at the City College of Berkeley for business. I kept busy for sure! This is pretty much all I did. Sounds pretty lonely, right? That’s because it was. But I did that for almost four years.
AR: What was your first coffee job?
AF: I’ve never had a full-time gig as a barista anywhere. My background isn’t actually being a barista, but I would try to work with coffee whenever I had the chance. I don’t tell many people this because I don’t want them to think I’m weak because I never worked as a full-time barista, but instead I learned it in restaurants. I would sling coffee drinks all the time at Chez Panisse for the kitchen staff and other servers. I loved it. I remember meeting Peter, who at the time was head of operations for Sightglass Coffee when Chez Panisse was changing their purveyor. I showed up early to the coffee lab that morning and chatted his head off. I was so inspired.
AR: How does your experience in restaurants inform the way you view and serve coffee?
AF: I treat my customers at the coffee shop as I would the restaurant. I want to give them an experience when they walk in. I want to make sure they’re fulfilled and have everything they need. I want to also bond with them and get to know them. For me, that’s service—when you can create a relationship with people and fulfill them and all around make them so satisfied they want to come back again and again to eventually becoming a regular. Provender isn’t just some shop people go to and order a coffee—we like to become friends with everyone. Create bonds!
Watch out for part two of this interview on Wednesday!