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San Francisco Is All Abuzz About Philz Coffee Passion

Inside Bay Area

Catherine Price
August 8, 2005

Inside Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO — "You need to play with it more," says Phil Jabar, 49, showing a new barista how to brew the best cup of coffee in the world. First, he says, you ask customers what they want. If they don't know (or even, sometimes, if they do), you prescribe a blend for them, depending on the feeling you get when they walk in the door. Ask if they like cream and sugar. Cinnamon optional, cardamom if you like.

Pour the water from at least shoulder height so a long stream cascades into the waiting filter, impressing customers as it pummels the beans and releases their rich, nutty scent. As the coffee drips, "enhance" the cream.

"I touch it with love and passion," Phil says with a sly smile as he clamps a carton of heavy whipping cream closed with his fingers and shakes it back and forth in front of his chest.

If coffee were a prescription drug, Phil Jabar would be a doctor.

He's owner of Gateway Market, better known as Phil's, an addictive blend of caffeine and conversation at 24th and Folsom streets, where getting a cup of coffee is a quintessential San Francisco experience.

In a community that takes pride in individuality, even the drinks are personalized, brewed by hand in one of eight single-serving filters behind the counter.

For lucky customers, he pours a sample of the cream into a teaspoon, holding it in front of their mouths so that they can taste his concoction, sweet and light on the tongue.

The perfect cup of coffee should be the same shade as a brown paper bag, Phil says or, depending on the brew and the amount of cream, "the color of the desert." Only then do you add a sprig of mint, flip the coffee again, hand it to the customer and wait for the inevitable praise.

There are other baristas, but people come for Phil. Mustached, bespectacled, he wears a gray jacket and Fedora and greets customers by name, shaking their hands as they walk in the door. People perk up when they chat with Phil even before he serves them coffee. One customer even performs yo-yo tricks.

With Louis Armstrong and Rosemary Clooney tunes playing in the background, Phil's shop is a throwback to days when neighborhoods were made up of neighbors, and even morning coffee was a community experience. But his influence transcends time — somewhere out in cyberspace, there's a 39-person discussion group on devoted to his store.

And the coffee?

"There's nothing like it," says Pattie Gerrie, 52, an aesthetician who is helping Phil to redecorate the store to make it "homier." "I feel bad if I can't come here. Once you have your first cup, God, forget it — you can never go back."

Sometimes spelled Phil's, sometimes Philz, sometimes Phil'z, the shop has a bit of a split personality. "I just go with it," Phil says, explaining his daughter, who works in marketing, told him to include the "z" on the sign outside "to make it different."

Part coffee shop, part bodega, part general store and part living room, it has a middle aisle of Cheetos and potato chips and a side wall packed with bins of dried goods. A table at the front of the store, topped with plants and a chessboard, is surrounded by mismatched chairs, and a marble countertop holds a haphazard library of books.

Phil stopped selling liquor and cigarettes about a month ago — except for caffeine, he doesn't want to feed people's addictions. But the Budweiser sign above the deli case? That's just decoration.

Despite these diversions, there's no question where Phil's devotion lies. Coffee, he claims, is in his blood. "I was born to make coffee," he says. "I have love and passion for it."

Born and raised in Ramallah, he started working in a coffee shop when he was 8 years old, buying leftover grounds at the end of the day and selling them by the spoonful on the street because "people were so broke."

He left the Middle East shortly before the 1967 Six-Day War and spent time in Amsterdam, Canada and Texas before coming to California, where he opened Gateway Market 32 years ago. He started getting "seriously into coffee" sometime around 1996.

"I went to 1,100 coffee shops in the Bay Area," Phil says, describing his learning process. When a close friend died and left him money with the instruction "Use it for your coffee," he started taking seminars about the beverage, and for a brief period, experimented with roasting his own beans.

Now he buys them from a wholesaler, but still creates his own blends. For his favorite, Tesora, he used to count the beans by hand.

Today, Phil's confidence is as strong as his coffee.

"I like competition," he says, relaxing at the front table with a steaming cup of Tesora, black (he only takes cream in the afternoons). "It brings me business."

His customers prove his point. Ben Bordon, 21, flew in from Colorado but stopped by Phil's before going home. Emily Liechty, 27, brought her parents in from Ohio.

"She says you serve the best coffee in town," says her father. Phil smiles. "She's right."

Jaime Martinez, 54, has been coming to Phil's for a quarter of a century. "I've known Phil for 25 years," he says, taking a sip. "He's the best guy."

"Don't believe him! I'm a crook, liar and cheater!" Phil shouts back on his way out for a smoke, pausing on the way to hug a customer hello.