Buffy is a true coffee connoisseur. She approaches her craft like an alchemist, traveling internationally to get the best beans and develop the best blends. Her inclusive, no-nonsense approach to roasting coupled with her infectious positivity truly sets her apart. We recently met up with Buffy in front of the iconic Painted Ladies in Alamo Square Park to discuss her deep SF roots and her road to creating Lady Falcon Coffee Club. And good thing we love to (over) caffeinate because we got a major lesson in coffee know-how too!
Melissa: Let’s start at the beginning. You have deep roots in San Francisco and a popular café as well. What was the impetus behind incubating and launching Lady Falcon?
Buffy: Actually, Lady Falcon might have launched me! I’ve been in coffee for a really long time. I had done a lot of other jobs, but when I became a mom, I needed a job that would let me do both. My husband had a café and I had been working with him a lot. I tend to hyper-focus, so I thought, if I’m going to do coffee, let me really figure out coffee. I started pulling back layers. The more I pulled back, the more I realized there was to know, which really hooked me. This wasn’t something I could figure out in a day or a week.
This was right around the time that the coffee industry started changing. It was a great time in San Francisco. Blue Bottle had that little alleyway kiosk in Hayes Valley and Ritual had opened too. There were all these great forerunners of third wave coffee. I started to go talk to them, but I didn’t really get a lot of warmth back. For instance, if someone approaches me about coffee, I’m an open book. Let’s talk about it! But I didn’t get that; I got a lot of snobbery. I felt like; this is coffee. Coffee is about hospitality. What’s with all the attitude? I didn’t think too much about it, but then I started wanting to learn how to roast. I would tell the guy who was helping us roast “I want it this way” or “I want it that way.” What I realized was that I wanted to do it myself. I cook a lot, so I thought, let me figure this out.
I bought a coffee roaster and I started to teach myself. There were really no classes at that time. The old school roasters (before the 3rd wave) were very secretive. They wouldn’t tell you any of their secrets, because there’s a certain alchemy to it. So, I bought the coffee roaster I wanted, and, over the years, I taught myself how to roast.
Meanwhile, we opened another café on the same block, Beachside Coffee Bar & Kitchen. What was so liberating about Beachside was, because I hadn’t founded Java Beach, this time, I was like oh, I can do what I want! The coffee at Java Beach is a little darker and it’s just different. I love it, but I realized this is what’s motivating me and keeping me interested. So, I started doing single-origin pour-overs which nobody on the West side was doing. I started to work with this group of baristas and cultivate and teach them. It’s been a real fun journey with these women. That was the beginning of Lady Falcon. It became very successful. We had lines out the door. We literally couldn’t close!
When my son got sick, I started examining what I wanted to do with my life. I realized that coffee really interested me. Although I enjoyed the restaurant lifestyle, I thought, life is short so I may as well do what I want to do. Lady Falcon was a daydream. I doodled and visualized breaking all the rules. It was sort of a manifesto of everything that doesn’t resonate as true for me with coffee—like the snobbery. We need to make really good coffee and to have fun doing it, and we need to be ourselves.
That’s the other thing—I didn’t see anyone like me in coffee. I didn’t see anyone wearing cute shoes. They all looked the same and dressed the same. If I don’t feel like I belong, then who else feels like they don’t belong? My idea was to open up the givens in coffee. There were a lot of givens, a lot of unspoken rules.
I love single-origin blends. That’s an oxymoron really.
Melissa: You pour your coffee with so much style! Tell us more about your signature libations!
Buffy: I love single-origin blends. That’s an oxymoron really. The only reason I say it like that is to distinguish that a) I roast them all separately, and I buy single-origin level specialty coffee, which many people don’t do. One of the reasons that blends have gotten a questionable name is that they would mix them with cheaper beans—it would be like the farmer’s market salad with Safeway lettuce. What I wanted to say was, okay, I understand that was a cost-saving measure, but what if we don’t worry about the cost, and we just worry about the taste? What was so appealing to me was that I could create something unique in coffee. There really isn’t much room to create something unique if we’re following the same rules over and over again.
I’m so grateful that single-origins are available to small roasters like myself. I have third wave professionals to thank for that, but I like to take the conversation a little further. The conversation was ‘how can we get good quality single-origin coffee?’ My thought is, we have that. What can I do now? I think single-origins, as lovely as they are, can be kinda one dimensional. In terms of sensory and palette, the blends can really have a full mouth feel.
Melissa: What’s your favorite coffee overall?
Buffy: It kinda depends on my mood. We had our team meeting last night and everyone went around and told me their favorites. One woman said she loves Epic—which is three different Ehitopias—so I took the single-origin and I moved it a little further. The three Ethiopias are from different regions and I blend them. My point is to make it very clear that there are 3 different elevations, and more than 3 different bean types. In order to do that, I do a lot of sample roasting and taste tests to check for quality and to see how it will work with other blends. Right now, I’m in the middle of looking for 3 different distinct Mexicos because it’s Mexico season. I love going to Mexico and their coffees have traditionally been undervalued. They had a hard market in the late 90s, but they’ve really had a resurgence—and they are our neighbors!
Melissa: What area do you go to?
Buffy: I love going to Oaxaca. We’ve gotten some really good coffee from Oaxaca and Chiapas, which is right near Guatemala. Guatemalan coffees are always really loved. They’re a slam dunk. But I would argue that Mexicos are similar in terms of being very crowd pleasing.
Melissa: When you travel, are there particular things you always have to bring?
Buffy: I bring a lot of hats. I like to bring my San Francisco hat because I feel like I’m representing. It’s so versatile because when I’m going on an origins trip, I’m going in a small vehicle, at different elevations, driving for like 5 hours on a bumpy road. So, I try to travel as light as I can. I often just bring my purse with a baseball hat, sunglasses, and a fancy scarf that I just love. It’s always in my purse. I feel like with a hat, sunglasses and a scarf, I’m good.
Melissa: What are some of your favorite particulars and pieces that you never take off?
Buffy: My son’s necklace. It’s an antique. It was a special gift and it meant a lot to him, so it’s the only thing I don’t take off.
Melissa: What do you wear when you’re roasting?
Buffy: It sounds like I wear baseball hats a lot—I don’t. But I try to wear my hair up. Obviously, because I’m around food, but also because my hair starts to smell like coffee and I’m sensitive to smells. I always wear sneakers. My sons are 9 and 12 and they bought me my baseball hat and Air Jordans.
Melissa: How did the truck come about?
Buffy: In 2011, there was a surf contest at Ocean Beach. It was huge and they invited us to do the coffee. We set up and finally got it all flowing. Then, they lost electricity. I could see the potential of the event in the moment, but I learned a lot and I thought, if I do this again, I want to be self-sufficient.
Melissa: The Lady Falcon truck is the ultimate accessory herself! How do you adorn the truck and make sure she’s always looking so fine?
Buffy: I bought the truck for $1,800 and I don’t even want to tell you how much I spent on it. I sawed off the roof and re-welded it. We paid homage to the VW with the windows. It was a process! The logo was part of a daydream. I worked with a graphic artist communicating back and forth on the design.
Melissa: Favorite summertime coffee drink?
Buffy: It depends on the time of day. I’m always tasting all of our coffees. My kitchen counter looks like a big experiment because I’m always jotting down notes and putting things in jars. Right now, I’m drinking all the Mexicos because I’m testing to find out which ones I want to use. In the afternoon, I’m really into our cascara. It’s from the husks of the coffee bean, similar to a loose-leaf tea. We’re about to launch some of these blends soon: rosehip cinnamon, cascara hibiscus, and cascara chai. What’s cool about the cascara is that it’s a mellow caffeine. In the summer, iced cascara is great. It’s clean and actually a bit hydrating.
Melissa: Do you mix anything in there?
Buffy: I always take the first sips black. I don’t do sugar, but I do like a little cream in there. It’s decadent, ya know? I also really like iced coffee in the afternoon with oat milk. I’m really impressed with oat milk and how it doesn’t overpower the flavor.
Melissa: So, the truck does tons of events around San Francisco. How do you choose the events you work with and the incredible people like Freda Salvador and Mother Magazine?
Buffy: With Katie’s events (from Mother), she launched her company right when we did, so we didn’t know what it would be like. I thought, moms? All women entrepreneurs? I found my tribe! I didn’t know women who were entrepreneurs when my kids were little and that would have made my life a lot easier. It’s kind of ironic that I found it 10 or 15 years later. These women are all doing similar, really exciting stuff.