It was a match made at the Berkeley Farmers Market — and not love at first site. James Freeman was trying to interest people in his Blue Bottle Coffee, then brand new and unknown, but all he had were bags of beans. Nothing for them to taste. Right next door at the market, Caitlin Williams was selling pastries, which spoke for themselves. She and her pastry business partner had a coffee cart so that they could serve coffee with their pastries. “But the coffee was a disaster. I didn’t know how to make it; how to do it right. I asked James to make the coffee. I begged him to buy the cart.”
“That was huge for me,” says Freeman. “It meant I could make cappuccino. I could prepare the coffee perfectly. I could show how good the beans could be.”
Both Freeman and Williams were in relationships at the time, but not with each other. “I admired Caitlin’s ferocious work ethic and her aesthetic,” says Freeman. Biting into one of her imaginative to-die-for pastries has been known to literally raise the hairs on his arms.
She in those early days was in business-building mode as co-founder of Meitte, the acclaimed patisserie and confiserie in San Francisco’s trendy food-filled Ferry Building. She was passionate about what she was doing, happy that Freeman had taken over the coffee making, but her interest stopped there.
“I thought he was too old (for me) and persnickety and stuffy,” she says.
My, how things have changed. Blue Bottle grew from Freeman’s oven (where he would roast coffee beans between clarinet gigs, which was how he earned his living back then); to a small roastery in Oakland’s Temescal district behind Doña Tomás (he had to stop roasting during dining hours because of the aroma, and continue when diners went home); to a larger roastery in Emeryville where you could go buy beans two afternoons a week; to the upstairs-downstairs state-of-the-art facility in a revamped produce warehouse at 300 Webster St. near Jack London Square, headquarters for what has grown to a staff of 100. This is also the location of one of four Blue Bottle Coffee bars (the others are in San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza and the SFMOMA sculpture garden, and Freeman recently opened a roastery and coffee shop in Brooklyn, N.Y.).
The new Oakland facility also has a pastry kitchen for Williams, who changed her name to Williams-Freeman in October 2008 when the pair married. She was in her wedding dress when she signed the papers selling her half of Miette, formally getting out of
the pastry business and into the business of being married.
By the time they tied the knot, both had long split with their former partners and been dating each other for four years.
Now, they can both look back with fondness on those early Berkeley Farmers Market days, so hectic at the time.
“Back then, we were both keeping crazy hours,” says Williams-Freeman. “We’d each have, like, two hours of spare time every two weeks.”
“It was comforting to be able to get together and not explain why we were working that hard,” recalls Freeman.
“We’d compare notes on the single life,” says Williams-Freeman. “It was nice not having someone putting pressure on me to go out.”
Enjoying the friendship that was developing, she took to hanging out at the Temescal roastery, sleeping on the coffee bags when she got tired. Her opinion of him as a persnickety person changed. They started having fun together. Enjoying each other. “It was someone to hang out with, without having to put a lot of work in.” Along the way, they fell in love.
How Williams-Freeman got into pastry making in the first place, same as how she got involved with her husband, involved chance and circumstance. She had left high school with dreams of being a photographer. A few months into her course at UC Santa Cruz, she saw a Wayne Thiebaud exhibition. Inspired by the work of the California artist famous for his luscious paintings of mouth-watering pastries and other sweet temptations, Freeman decided she wanted to learn to bake and decorate cakes so that she could photograph them. She found the baking so creative, she gave up on the photography.
Fast forward to 2009. Blue Bottle is scheduled to open a coffee bar on the SFMOMA roof garden. Williams-Freeman thinks she’ll give her husband a hand; help out and make a few pastries for the business. Little does she imagine that she will once again be inspired by the art of Thiebaud. This time, it leads her to develop her line of art cakes that have become almost as much of a draw at the SFMOMA sculpture garden as the art, giving gallery patrons a chance to see their art and eat it as she creates sweet edibles inspired by the museum’s permanent collection and visiting shows.
To date, the couple’s journey has been unexpected, delicious, entrepreneurial and successful. And a funny thing is, Williams-Freeman has never developed a taste for coffee. “James makes me tea each morning,” she laughs. Sounds like the match made at the Berkeley Farmers Market has turned into a marriage made in heaven.