In an industry that is arguably somewhat ageist, 50 years of independent professional existence is a remarkable feat, especially in a city like San Francisco that is blown by constant winds of growth and re-imagination.
On the eastern end of the Outer Sunset district between 23rd and 24th Ave. on Noriega St. sits Henry’s House of Coffee, which has quietly existed as a specialty food store and coffee roastery since 1965. Since 1983 is has been owned by native Armenian Henry Kalebjian, who came to San Francisco by way of Lebanon where he first tasted coffee at his father’s bakery-café and was tasked with roasting at age 12. To this day, you can find Kalebjian at the small shop that now bears his name, roasting on a 12kg San Franciscan unit in plain view of the shop’s devoted patrons.
“It was actually pretty tough for me when I was younger because I never saw my father,” Henry’s son Hrag recently told Daily Coffee News, adding that his father seemed to live beside the roaster.
That all changed in a big way when 37-year-old Hrag left a career in finance to join the family business, which he has been helping reshape — with some natural give-and-take from his father — over the past two years. For the first time in Henry’s HoC history, the company has completed a comprehensive re-branding, and secured major grocery accounts. Plans are also underway to refresh the roastery and café, which Hrag said has been virtually unchanged since its last makeover in the 1990s.
“We got some really good feedback from that re-branding,” said Hrag, who was recently certified as a Q Grader and has been helping with roasting in addition to marketing and other business operations. “But we’re not a national story, we’re a local story. If you didn’t live around here a mile or two away, you wouldn’t know who we were, even though we’ve been around for 50 years.” With that local approach, Henry’s coffees can now be found in approximately 20 retail stores within an approximate 5-mile radius, including a recent placement in Whole Foods.
The forthcoming store renovation will represent the company’s biggest investment in decades, a fact that has led to some understandable friction between father and son. “Working with family, you’re going to have some bumps in the road, and working with him for two years, I’ve learned better how to do some some of the give and take,” Hrag said. “It’s a fine balance between staying the same and also being updated with the times. That’s kind of where we are.”
Hrag said he hopes the renovation will bring about a slight but natural adjustment in how the shop is perceived. “We’re not trying to be uber-contemporary,” he said. “But I feel like people have seen us as a coffee shop that also happens to roast coffee on-site. I want to create something where we are thought of as a working roastery that also sells fresh-brewed coffee on site.”
Through his own formal coffee education, Hrag has come to appreciate the immense roasting and sensory analysis skills of his father, whose own coffee education was forged through the decades as a devoted pupil in the school of hard knocks. On becoming a Q Grader, Hrag said, “My dad told me, ‘Son, I need you to go get the basic training somewhere else, and then I can teach you.’ What he really meant was go get a contemporary education in specialty coffee, understand the foundations of coffee, then come back here and we can tweak your new knowledge for the business. One of the things I really respect out of my dad is he doesn’t have the typical cupping education, but he’s been cupping for so long, he can just pick up a cup of coffee and say what’s wrong with it.”
A stipulation in the 1983 real estate deal was that Henry had to buy the building in which the shop has since resided. Asked whether the family considers simply cashing in on the investment, Hrag said, “It’s not about the money. My father is a humble man. He was able to pay for our college educations. It’s never really been about the business. It’s always been about the coffee for my dad. It’s been about old-school, product-centric, ‘take care of my baby and my customers and everything will be alright.'”
There’s something to be said about a third-generation coffee roaster in one of the coffee world’s epicenters. “You can have latte art, you can have a really amazing Geisha from Colombia — but guess what, so does the person down the street,” said Hrag. “But when you come to our shop, you’re going to see me and my dad roasting coffee. You’re walking into our house. Other places don’t have that. I’m just honored that I’m part of the business. Everything I’m doing is to make my father proud.”