Trek On Over to Scarlet City Espresso Bar for Stellar Coffee and Sci-Fi Goodness

Jen & Susannah
Jen St. Hilaire and Susanna Handow, co-founders of Scarlet City Espresso

Once an empty storage unit that sat vacant for several years, Scarlet City Espresso Bar has transformed the dormant lot into a wonderful, whimsical new cafe now open in Emeryville at the corner of Adeline and Yerba Buena Avenue. Step into its doors and you'll walk into a sleek, spacious establishment with stunning Art Deco-meets-Asimov decor. The careful attention to its sci-fi themed design details is apparent in its futuristic furnishings that range from slick black leather tables, gleaming acrylic stools, planetary-esque light fixtures and miniature spaceship replicas dangling above the counter. Even the central counter's unique arrow shape was inspired by the Star Trek communicator badge. There's also plans to have outdoor seating along once they receive approval.

Its co-founder, Jen St. Hilaire, took a break from her hectic schedule of managing her flourishing business to chat about coffee, science fiction and launching her first retail spot that opened last month.

"My history with coffee started in 1995 when a friend told me about Espresso Vivace while I was living in Seattle," says St. Hilaire. "I actually didn't like espresso because my only experience with it was via Starbucks, and it was just so bitter, I wondered why people liked it -- especially having to pile on the sugar, it barely tasted like coffee! But when I tasted the espresso from Vivace, it blew my mind that coffee could actually taste so sweet, naturally, without any sugar, and it compelled me to pursue a job there.

I worked as a barback for about a year, then one of the owners, David Schomer, taught me how to roast, and they gave me the opportunity to become Vivace's first roasting and shipping manager. What we did at Espresso Vivace was pretty revolutionary in the coffee industry at the time, and our techniques are still used around the world today. Not many shops were doing a medium-roast style, tweaking espresso machines to hold a stable temperature during brewing, and nobody at that time was pouring latte art. People came from around the world to have the same experience that I'd had: coffee that tasted just as sweet and delicious as it smelled, and paired with milk in such a beautiful format."

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Scarlet City Espresso

"In 1999, I moved down to the Bay Area to pursue a career in rock music, but kept my toes in the industry -- consulting for Andy Barnett, a longtime Vivace wholesale customer of mine from Vivace, to help him open his own roasting business, Ecco Caffe (now a part of Intelligensia Coffee), in Santa Rosa. I roasted part-time for Andy until 2005, when my band broke up and I decided to start my own roasting company. I attended "Women's Initiative for Self-Employment" classes and began writing the business plan which would become the blueprint for the business moving forward. I finally opened Scarlet City in 2009, but kept my day job as manager of a zebrafish research facility at UC Berkeley, while I built the business.

In the beginning, I shopped my coffee around to various places around the Bay Area, but found that my roast style was not en vogue here in the Bay Area, even in high-end coffee shops that boasted a rotating selection of coffees from the newest local roasters. Most shops preferred either the less expensive, very darkly-roasted blends or the trendy lightly-roasted ones -- but nothing in the middle. It was at that point that I decided I needed to open my own retail venue if I wanted to be able to grow the business and serve my espresso here. I felt that my roast style and the emphasis on Northern-Italian-style espresso was something that was missing and that people would enjoy if they were introduced to it."

Scarlet City Espresso

"But I needed a business partner to do that. Someone who was familiar with and passionate about customer service. Enter Susanna Handow, who I'd met working at a local coffee shop near UCB in 2005 while she finished out her degree in social sciences. When Susanna tasted my coffee, she had the same eye-opening experience I'd had at Vivace all those years ago. Since that time, she supported and helped Scarlet City in various ways from the background, and in 2011, when I was looking for a business partner to head my retail operations, Susanna stepped up and decided to make a major career move from working at non-profits to partner with me and Scarlet City. And that's how Scarlet City Espresso Bar came into being."

The name of their venture was carefully chosen in order to "evoke a feminine, yet powerful, and perhaps a little rebellious, image of a city in the future, a city that had survived the apocalypse, a city that was poised to rebuild itself, and thrive in the midst of the destruction and rubble of the breakdown of systems which supported not only human life, but coffee."

Scarlet City Espresso

It also reflects her support for fellow women entrepreneurs. "Trying to forge a path in the coffee roasting industry while female has had its challenges. There aren't very many women who own their own roasting businesses and do everything themselves. I have met maybe one in person. It can be very intimidating for women. But it is women who do most of the labor in the production of green coffee, and they are the lowest paid workers in the industry. I specifically try to buy coffee from women-owned or supportive farms for that reason. I believe that when women are paid well, we give back to and invest in our communities, and everyone is better off. I also try to support local female vendors when I can."

Handow and St. Hilaire decided to settle in Emeryville as it was "a natural fit for the espresso bar. Both Susanna and I had been living there for a few years, and in walking around, noticed there weren't a lot of coffee options, and certainly nothing like what we wanted to build. I think our sci-fi theme and emphasis on high-quality coffee fits right in to Emeryville though -- with Pixar and lots of tech and biotech firms in the area. And the city of Emeryville has been great to work with, and for our first retail venture, it was a huge blessing. Plus, Emeryville is central to both Berkeley and Oakland, we have the Emery Go-Round, which makes it easy to get to from Bart, and 40th is a commuter pathway, so it just seemed to make a lot of sense that we'd do a retail venue there."

St. Hilaire's passion for games is also evident in the space. An avid pinball fanatic, she plays in local leagues when time permits and will run some tournaments at their space with her personal collection of sci-fi themed pinball machines. And once their beer license comes through, she plans to expand their hours, run board game and trivia nights, and hopefully host science cafes as well.

Pinball Machines

Pinball Machines

"Science fiction and I go back a long way," says St. Hilaire. "When I was a kid, I loved "The Twilight Zone," "Buck Rogers," and "Star Trek: The Original Series". I saw "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" in the theatre and they blew my tiny little mind, thinking of the vastness of space, the future, aliens and what could be out there. I love science fiction because, especially in worlds like "Star Trek," you can dream of a better future, where women sit alongside men in parity, and brutality and wars are things to be avoided at all cost. But even dystopian worlds are interesting -- to imagine all the differing paths that humanity might have taken and ways to correct mistakes. And of course, the cool futuristic technologies are fun, like warp drives, holodecks, transporters and replicators."

Scarlet City also serves up snacks from Starter Bakery, another local Emeryville business. "And we plan to build our menu as we grow, filling it with lots of delectables from around the planet. You never know when an alien might drop by and wonder what we humanoids eat here on Earth!"

Oat Milk Cappuccino & Ham & Cheese Croissant
An oat milk cappuccino with Starter Bakery ham & cheese croissant. St. Hilaire experimented with all of the commercially available vegan milks and found that oat milk produces the best results in regards to taste.

"Scarlet City Espresso Bar is a place that we built for the people to enjoy a delicious elixir created with love and passion, a place that will be a hub of the community, where worlds collide, intermingle and explode with joy over a beautiful, sustainable future imaginable in our minds and forged with our mutual excitement for what humanity can accomplish together," says St. Hilaire. "A place where humans could gather, after the apocalypse, where we will have all the best that Planet Earth can offer: great coffee, food, beer, and most of all, fun."

Scarlet City Espresso Bar
3960 Adeline Street (between 40th and Yerba Buena Avenue), Emeryville [map]
Ph: (510) 836-3920
Hours: Mon.-Fri.: 7-3PM; Sat.-Sun: 8-3PM
Facebook: Scarlet City Roasters
Twitter: @TheScarletCity

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This interview has been condensed and edited; photos by Jenny Oh.

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