What’s in a Name?
We are often asked, “Who is Frank? Are you Frank?” I still receive emails and am called by this name after 6 years and while Frank is not my name, it's Kevin, and I do not carry the title of a “saint” I don’t mind the confusion. We all miss things right in front of us all the time ... and I love telling stories. This is the story of Saint Frank.
Saint Frank : San Francisco : Saint Francis
Saint Frank is very simply “San Francisco”, the Spanish form of Saint Francis. San Francisco was founded in 1776 when Spanish Franciscan Friars or “Little Brothers” built a community in what is now the Mission District of San Francisco. The Mission de San Francisco de Assis was named for the original inspiration and founder of the Franciscan movement more than 500 years earlier, Saint Francis of Assisi. Most people today think of Francis as the cute patron saint of animals in bird bath statues and pet blessings. But the real Francis was a peculiar and inspiring person whose influence and draw has been timeless never going in or out of fashion, universally attractive and confounding all at once.
The Real Francis
Francis Bernadone was the son of a successful cloth merchant in Assisi, Italy at the turn of the 13th century when a feudal and medieval society was experiencing the emergence of a rising elite merchant class. Francis enjoyed his privileged position in society indulging in the games of power and luxury going out to battle rival cities and holding court with his friends as a kind of polite playboy.
One day young Francis fell in battle and was taken captive and a series of downward events left him hospitalized, depressed and alone. He experienced a powerful transformation in his worldview that dramatically changed his perceived relationships to everyone and everything around him. What was once a fascination with the courtly manners of knights and nobles became a genuine courtesy of grace and kindness among the poor and forgotten alongside the rich and powerful. What was once an obsession with personal consumption and excess became an obsession with joy and simplicity, stripping away the meaningless to find the meaningful.
The Story of Francis
Francis dramatically gave away all of his clothes and possessions to the poor wanting to pursue a life of simplicity. From there he voluntarily left his place of privilege to live and love among the poor and outcast in a lifestyle free of possessions and attachment toward giving and selflessness. His dramatic humility and generosity to his own hurt appeared ludicrous but his undeniable joy and freedom was captivating, all behind the experience of a universally charming courtesy to all creatures no matter how great or small.
He quickly gained a following where people from all walks of life joined in a movement he never meant to start searching for freedom in his counter-intuitive ways. They called themselves the “Friars Minor” or “Little Brothers”, a community that still exists throughout the world today.
Of course this story takes place in the 13th century when all of society was integrated with an indulgent and corrupt period of Catholicism. But this should not deter us from seeing Francis who in his own nonviolent and gentle way and was very much a rebel and reformer. A rebel leading an alternative way rather than throwing words of judgement and condemnation. In a time when Christian rulers waged wars in numerous Crusades, Francis was one so bold to travel humbly into Syria to make peace through friendship with a Sultan. This ruler was so inspired that he not only spared the life of Francis but did indeed befriend him and shower him with gifts the little poor man politely refused. Gandhi even considered Francis a great European Yogi as so many others have been captivated by Francis outside of the institutional religious world in which Francis found himself. Donna Tart, in her forward to St. Bonaventure’s work The Life of Saint Francis remarks,
“His message is far wider than the institutional Christianity of his day or our own: a faith so radiantly inclusive that it hails the birds as sisters, and addresses a cricket with as much reverence and courtesy as a bishop; a compassionate love that extends not only to all sentient beings, but to flowers and trees and the inanimate elements of heavenly creation: water and fire, sun moon and stars.”
The Story of Saint Frank
I did not grow up with any awareness of Francis but in college I experienced my own season of being hospitalized near death, depressed and alone. In that time I also experienced a kind of transformation and was captivated by the stories of the little poor man of Assisi. A decade later I found myself in the city of Saint Francis, one of the greatest culinary destinations in the world and with that is also one of the wealthiest and costliest places in the world, always evolving in gold rushes with merchant classes not unlike the Assisi of Francis’ day.
I began planning a coffee bar that would shine in the beauty of San Francisco collaborating with brilliant and talented friends to create something no one had ever seen before. We received praise from coffee professionals and chefs alike drawing notions of being a “Michelin Starred Coffee Bar” with our minimalist aesthetic and unique bar and service experience. In 2013 the world had never seen anything like what we were creating for a coffee bar. We would be right at home with Francis and his friends living the good life in Assisi.
But I didn’t just want to be excellent, I wanted to lead from the kind of simplicity and intentionality that Francis inspired in me. I wanted to elevate coffee as a culinary treasure while connecting our shared privilege as coffee consumers with the poor and outcast places of small coffee producers. Could it be that a seemingly poor and insignificant Honduran coffee farmer in a village without electricity could have a story filled with as much meaning and deserving as much connection as a Facebook executive? Could the simplicity of their living and a commitment to their value and empowerment bring joy and meaning into our own hurried and anxious lives here in San Francisco? These are the Francis inspired questions I want to pursue at Saint Frank.
The Ways of Saint Frank
Our mission, inspired by the life of Francis, is to inspire joy, connection, and meaning in coffee with simplicity and courtesy.
We source coffee with a driven intentionally toward developing relationships in isolated and disconnected communities full of unrealized potential. This means taking risks and making choices and commitments that confront the games of competition, production and consumption. Francis intentionally lived free from these traps in a way that challenges and inspires us to be collaborative, generous, and open sourced. Our mission in sourcing is not about us, so the gains and connections we make are not ours to guard. We want our impact and influence to exceed our production and consumption.
We create spaces and experiences with simplicity and courtesy that can make room for peace and connection amidst struggle and anxiety. I’ll never forget a comment from a successful restaurateur in our opening days who remarked that “walking into Saint Frank is like taking an antidepressant.” I love this and I hope that it's always true. We want to reconnect you with your humanity and remind you that we don’t just run races of consumption in a meaningless world, that even our choices and habits of consumption can be part of a selfless and generous way of connected living.
This kind of work is not easy, in fact it is quite costly and requires a fierce Franciscan like intentionality but the kind of joy and freedom it can bring can be as addicting as great coffee. Francis lived an austere “saintly” life but make no mistake, in all his suffering, the pure joy with which he lived is what drew so many to follow him.
We love coffee, it brings so much joy to our lives, the kind of joy that is worth taking roads less traveled and more challenging to follow. Moving forward I’m looking forward to sharing more about what we are doing and the ways we are pursuing this joy in coffee among our producers and here among our neighbors and partners. We hope you’ll let us share our coffees and stories with you, nothing would make us happier.
-Kevin Bohlin, Saint Frank Founder & Owner