The first time I ate at Farm & Flour, last year, was by chance. I crossed the bridge to Benicia to meet a friend of mine who was in town for a wedding. We were strolling up First Street and randomly decided to step inside the white-walled cafe for coffee. We ordered one delicious thing, wandered down the block and then returned to buy sandwiches and a loaf of bread. If only they were close by, I thought. At the tail end of this annus horribilis, I was pleased to hear of their expansion into Berkeley and Oakland under the name States Coffee and Bread.
They opened their first Oakland location on Nov. 18, where Subrosa Coffee recently closed. I spoke with Keith Gehrke, who co-owns States with Brett Benzer, about the rebrand and the expansion. Gehrke's been in the coffee business since 2003. He started out as a barista, making lattes during the day and playing in a band at night. After working at Pacific Bay Coffee Company in Walnut Creek where he grew up, Gehrke ventured up north to Seattle and Portland. He learned more about roasting and fell in love with the art of coffee-making before moving back to the Bay Area to Martinez.
As Gehrke and Benzer's friendship and business has evolved over the years, so too has States Coffee and Bread. Gehrke's initial company, Able Brewing, opened in 2013. He came up with a design for a reusable coffee filter and worked with an engineer to produce the prototype. Two years later he and Benzer started roasting coffee beans and selling coffee and coffee drinks in Martinez under the moniker States Coffee. At that point, Benzer was still an employee, but they both wanted to change that arrangement.
"Brett's my best friend," Gehrke says. "I wanted to make sure that we were able to figure out a transition for him and his family." Farm & Flour provided Benzer with the perfect opportunity. He grew up eating his grandmother's freshly baked bread and he wanted to recreate and share that experience. As he developed recipes for baked goods, they hired a baking team. The new configuration had Benzer at the helm of the cafe, also selling States Coffee, but as a co-owner overseeing the menu and the kitchen staff.
By late 2018, the demand for Farm & Flour's breads and toasts and sandwiches had surpassed the Benicia store's production capacity. Surfing online, Gehrke noticed that the Country Cheese storefront on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley was up for sale in 2019. He and Benzer took a look and decided it would be the perfect spot to have a larger oven. The plan was to open a second Farm & Flour and to increase production for the original cafe in Benicia. Covid-19 delayed those plans.
Construction at the Berkeley store slowed down in 2020. Gehrke asked himself, "Are the current shops going to make it?" The two co-owners shifted their focus back to their Benicia and Martinez cafes. They started a delivery service and felt the support of the local clientele. "Being able to get through those challenging months is a testament to our community," he says. At this point, Gehrke's best estimate for the Berkeley opening will be this coming spring.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Catherine Macken decided that, after 11 years of running Subrosa Coffee, she wanted to sell her business. Gehrke got a call from a friend in real estate who suggested that he should buy both of Macken's Oakland cafes. His first response was, thanks but no thanks. We're in the middle of a pandemic. But he'd also been a fan of Subrosa and decided to just have a conversation with Macken. By early August, Gehrke had signed on the dotted line. Their modest, accidental empire, officially renamed States Coffee and Bread, is now up and running, fueled with good luck, good timing and an enduring friendship. The second Oakland branch, at 419 40th St., is due to open by early January, Gehrke says, if not by the end of the year.