Papa November: The Coffee Cart Where Everyone Knows Your Name
Najla Turczyn and Paul Yoon
"What's up dude? Cappuccino to go?"
"Does Soybean want a doggie treat today?"
These are the familiar greetings I hear while waiting for my macchiato at Papa November, the unassuming, black and silver truck parked on the corner of 15th and Kansas in Potrero Hill. It's my new local coffee spot for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it happens to be the Cheers! of San Francisco coffee establishments: where everybody knows your name.
"Everybody" may just be owners Paul Yoon and Najla Turczyn, but Papa November (named for Paul's and Najla's first initials in the NATO phonetic alphabet) is that place where 80 or 90 percent of the clientele are regulars, and even if you aren't, you're treated like one. It's that place where majority of visits are more than just people passing through. It's that place where customers return day after day not only for the perfectly pulled shots and tasty baked goods, but also for the experience of being referred to by name -- an art form too often taken for granted but more often eliminated from service entirely.
The duo met nearly a decade ago working together at Whole Foods Market. From there, they ventured to Cento to hone their coffee skills and eventually concluded that they wanted a business of their own. So, they saved up some money and discussed their options.
"We wanted something where we could do a really good job at a handful of things and coffee kind of fit the bill for that, and we both had a fair amount of experience," Yoon says. "Coffee seemed really sensible: we didn't want to take on too much at once."
After a few visits to Portland with some friends, they stumbled across Stumptown Coffee and were immediately enamored. At the time, no one in San Francisco was serving the brand, in part because Stumptown hadn't found "the right people" to represent the company. That is, until Yoon and Turczyn came along.
"We wanted a fresh start and something that not everyone was familiar with," says Najla. "I really like the holistic approach that Stumptown has to the whole line of coffee from grower to retailer: a balance between providing a really good product and working with their farmers to make a better product, as well as supporting retailers without being too invasive. They've got it right."
Next, they figured out which neighborhood they wanted to be in and the types of customers they wanted to serve, talk to, and just be around on a consistent basis: a place where they could engage with the community on a meaningful, intimate level.
"It's nice to be around people who are doing interesting things, and who geek out about coffee. The fact that there weren't a zillion other coffee shops really kind of sealed the deal on Potrero Hill," says Yoon.
The rest of the pieces soon began falling into place, and the two eventually came upon a
concession trailer formerly owned and outfitted by Blue Bottle, complete with the propane heated, completely manual Astoria AL three-group espresso machine that is currently being used and allows them to be, in Najla's words, "Really connected to what you're doing."
Monday mornings are my favorite, when Papa November features scones so flaky and airy that they nearly fall in the biscuit category, and on Tuesdays the scones turn savory with a one-two punch of cheddar and chive. Wednesday is coffee cake day, Thursday offers seasonal fruit studded muffins, but Fridays are when Najla, a mostly self-taught baker, really gets to play around with flavors she loves. Mini grapefruit cakes with Campari frosting, malasadas, and her specialty pound cake with a Nutella ribbon and espresso glaze all make the rounds. On most days, you can also find granola as well as the crowd-favorite breakfast cookies (oatmeal, almond and chocolate chip) that are so studded with mix-ins that you quickly forget they're held together by any sort of dough.
The mindset of Paul and Najla isn't of building an empire, exponential growth, or massive expansion (though they do hope to one day have a small storefront). Instead, "anything past being able to pay rent and feed our cats is pretty much gravy," says Yoon. Turczyn agrees, adding, "I think we've been super lucky, and we're really grateful to our customer base."
These are the people I want serving my coffee: the ones who know my name.