How Farley’s Coffee became Potrero Hill’s ‘third place’

How Farley’s Coffee became Potrero Hill’s ‘third place’

In 1988, Roger Hillyard was making his morning coffee on San Francisco’s west side when the insert to his French press broke. He knew finding a new insert wasn’t going to be easy — it was the pre-internet days, after all — but he also didn’t think it would be impossible to find one in the whole city. 

After a frustrating, fruitless search, Hillyard decided he would fill a void he saw in the city and open a shop selling coffee merchandise and beans. Friends he told about the idea said the shop wouldn’t be complete without selling cups of coffee, so after some resistance, he finally decided he would do that, too. He settled on a place in Potrero Hill, in a central spot at 1315 18th Street and, after a bit of a hiccup prior to opening — there was a fire in the building while doing the build-out — the shop finally opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1989. Hillyard decided to name it after his grandfather Jack Farley, who had mysteriously disappeared in the Midwest in 1920, never to be seen again. 

But according to co-owner Amy Hillyard, who is Roger’s daughter-in-law, Farley’s did not find its identity as a community gathering space until the Loma Prieta earthquake. “Starbucks wasn’t a thing, Peets wasn’t a thing … coffee houses were not a morning ritual,” said Amy Hillyard. “… That started the deep connection of Farley’s as the third space for Potrero Hill.”

It was one of the few places that had running water and electricity after the quake, so Roger Hillyard opened up his shop to the neighborhood, letting everyone know they could commune at Farley’s to process the event and seek refuge if they needed. He also finally expanded the cafe’s hours (it usually opened at 2 p.m.).

Thirty-two years later, being the community gathering place is still the vision current owners Chris and Amy Hillyard are trying to fulfil. Entering the homey space on a recent Friday morning, it shows — friendly baristas kept the line moving as they called out customers’ names, sharing a jovial hello or asking what they planned to be for Halloween. A few leaned up against the magazine shelves waiting for their beverages as they flipped through the pages of the latest issue of Time or the New Yorker. Others took the time to scan community flyers pinned up on the wall or gaze at the merchandise for sale throughout the store, which still includes coffee supplies, as Roger had originally intended. 

Co-owners Chris and Amy Hillyard stand in the doorway at Farley's in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2021. Farley's has been a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1989.

Co-owners Chris and Amy Hillyard stand in the doorway at Farley’s in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2021. Farley’s has been a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1989.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Chris Hillyard took over for his father Roger when he was ready to retire in 2012 — Roger had been a zen practitioner for years and still works at the San Francisco Zen Center — but not until Chris already had a few years of practice in the business. 

He had helped his father out with the business whenever he could over the years, doing marketing work and accompanying his dad to business meetings in the 2000s. In 2009, when Chris and Amy moved to Oakland to start raising their young family, they wanted to open an East Bay version of Farley’s and found a location in downtown Oakland to open Farley’s East. The couple thought the community could use that neighborhood feel that the original Farley’s had in Potrero Hill. They eventually opened a Farley’s in Emeryville in 2010, though it shuttered in 2016. 


In 2021, they bought the business from Roger and decided to keep all the hallmarks of the space, focusing on a community-driven business and embracing “the quirkiness,” as they call it, whenever they could. They’re known for hosting events, such as the Saturday before Halloween when they co-host an annual pet parade and costume contest. They also host a “safe and sane” fireworks show on 18th Street on the 4th of July (though it was canceled in 2020 and toned down in 2021 because of COVID-19 and the drought). They’ve been following in Roger’s footsteps, who once offered free coffee to anyone who showed up in their bathrobe. 

Customer Robin Evans hangs out with her dog Emily at Farley's in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2021. Farley's has been a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1989.

Customer Robin Evans hangs out with her dog Emily at Farley’s in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2021. Farley’s has been a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1989.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

But as coffee shops became more than just a place to get a cup of joe, the couple had to grapple with whether or not to evolve with the changing nature of coffee shops — and grappling with the ultimate question of whether or not to offer free Wi-Fi. They eventually did, and the shop had a two-hour limit in place pre-pandemic, enforced by a lack of outlets in the shop. But now that business is getting back to normal, they don’t think they’ll turn the Wi-Fi back on at all.

“From a values perspective, Farley’s has been the third place and it’s kind of killed me for years to see people behind a screen and not speaking to their neighbor in their community,” Amy said. “Now is the time to take that stance. We want to maintain Farleys as that special place where you come to be in community. Farley’s is a place to know your neighbors and have conversations. You can work at home.”

A magazine rack is packed with periodicals at Farley's in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2021. Farley's has been a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1989.

A magazine rack is packed with periodicals at Farley’s in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2021. Farley’s has been a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1989.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

If you’ve visited Farley’s, you also may know it from its extensive magazine collection in the shop’s back right corner. The business still sells about three to four magazines each day, Chris said, though that’s way down from what it used to be when the shop was known for having one of the best magazine selections in the city. “People used to drive across town to stock up,” he said. “It’s part of the Farley’s experience.”

Even when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, they tried hard to maintain that experience. When the city shut down, they initially closed the shop for four to six weeks, Chris estimates, unsure of how they could safely operate. They papered the windows with butcher paper and wrote down some questions and encouraged the neighborhood to write messages to one another. “We tried to stay a community and a gathering place despite the pandemic,” he said. 

They eventually got a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the government, and their landlord of 22 years gave them some rent relief. They also opened up a virtual tip jar for their baristas, hoping to bridge the gap while they got unemployment.

When they did reopen, they said they felt fortunate to already have a public parklet in front of their space — one of the first the city granted when the program started 11 years ago. Now, they host live music on it, something they used to do inside during later hours. 

But it’s not easy to be a “third space” these days. The couple said they have to stay creative to keep revenue up. “I think it will be really hard to open [third spaces],” Amy said. “We really have to support third spaces in a way that is accessible for all. … I think it will continue to be a challenge. We have to get creative.”

The interior of Farley's in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2021. Farley's has been a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1989.

The interior of Farley’s in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2021. Farley’s has been a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1989.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

They’re also trying something they never thought they’d try — a Farley’s location at the San Francisco International Airport. They were approached a few years ago when businesses were bidding to become part of SFO’s new desire to include more local businesses. Chris and Amy had seen the success of Klein’s Deli, a sandwich shop that originally had a location on 20th and Connecticut in Potrero Hill, that opened an airport location that did so well they shuttered the original location and now have two thriving restaurants in SFO. 

They took a leap and signed on at SFO and helped open a Farley’s in Terminal 3 in April 2021. It is operated by a third party, but the Hillyards are involved and want to ensure the Farley’s name and spirit is carried on at the airport. “We’re not a franchise where we are able to just hand over the manual. It’s definitely a bit of work. And we’re protective of the Farley’s name,” he said. “We want the experience at the airports to be close to what they are on the streets. We’re trying to keep the brand integrity alive.”

Plus, it’s a good way to diversify their revenue. “This is still an experiment for us, but we feel lucky that we get the experiment and get the potential of getting revenue that we don’t have to work as hard at getting.”

Chris said the shop is doing well at SFO, but he doesn’t think they’ll really know its potential until air travel comes back to pre-pandemic levels. They’re also planning to add a location at the Oakland Airport sometime soon, but the home base will always be the original Farley’s in Potrero Hill, where people come to gather. 

“Despite being in a large city, [Potrero Hill] is almost a small city in itself,” Chris said. “People feel connected to one another there.”

It’s Potrero Hill Month at SFGATE. We’ll be diving deep into the neighborhood for the entirety of October as part of a series where we’ll be highlighting a different corner of San Francisco every month this year.

Dr. Jennifer Labit reaches for a bag of coffee beans brewed at Farley's in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2021. Farley's has been a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1989.

Dr. Jennifer Labit reaches for a bag of coffee beans brewed at Farley’s in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2021. Farley’s has been a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1989.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

A message welcomes customers entering Farley's in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2021. Farley's has been a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1989.

A message welcomes customers entering Farley’s in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2021. Farley’s has been a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1989.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


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