RICHMOND -- The city's favorite little coffee shop has gone big time, at least within the world of fine bean connoisseurs.
Since opening in 2008, Catahoula Coffee on San Pablo Avenue has not only built a loyal, lively local following, but its beans are now in some of the Bay Area's top grocers, including Andronico's, Monterey Market, Miki's in Palo Alto and, most recently, the iconic culinary hotspot Berkeley Bowl.
These stores "cracked open the door a bit, and we want to go in and kick it wide open," said Catahoula's owner, Tim "Timber" Manhart. "We think that at the (Berkeley) Bowl, we can be the second-biggest seller eventually behind Peet's Coffee."
Monterey Market in Berkeley started stocking its shelves with Catahoula beans last year, and it's been a big hit.
"It's a local company with competitive prices and a quality product," said David Chu, a purchasing manager at Monterey. "It's done really well here, against some quality competition."
Chu said Catahoula beans sold well from the start, and sales have climbed since.
"A lot of customers were already familiar with the company, even though they are in Richmond."
Before its beans gained a regional foothold, Catahoula built a diverse customer-base -- Manhart affectionately calls them the "Catahouligans" -- in Richmond's North & East neighborhood. Customers are drawn to the "warm campiness" of the little shop, he said, along with camaraderie and mellow coffee. The shop's Facebook page has nearly 500 friends, and Manhart says he sends out email blasts to more than 1,000 locals.
Police Chief Chris Magnus and City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles are two of the shop's biggest fans.
Catahoula hosts neighborhood events such as farmers markets, car shows, art fairs, musical performances and donates coffee for fundraising auctions to help schools and local charities.
"The community is into it," Manhart said on a recent morning, the small shop abuzz with customers. "They see Catahoula as being a part of something larger."
With the growing distribution list, it's bringing its trademark beans to more customers in a wider range, but with a distinct eye toward quality.
"I am not into being at all places at all times," Manhart said. "Berkeley Bowl fits well, it's small, local and high-quality, like us."
Cheap land first lured Manhart to Richmond, but the challenge was that the city lacked the cultural affinity for gourmet foods so apparent in places like Berkeley or San Francisco. Rival cafes in Catahoula's neighborhood are nonexistent, and San Pablo Avenue, the main drag, is dotted with auto repair shops, gas stations, discount retailers and liquor stores.
"The community was starved for this kind of cafe, I think," Manhart said. "Early on, people would ask me, kind of skeptical, how things were going in Richmond. I don't get that much anymore because we've done really well."
On a recent morning, behind the shop's caterpillar-yellow and rich brown facade, the mélange of business and success was on full display.
"The San Franciscan," the shop's "little workhorse" of a drum roaster, gnarled and heated 25-pound batches of beans, emitting aromatic blasts before raking the hot beans in a circular, cooling motion. The beans require tender care -- not too hot, not for too long -- before packaging.
Meanwhile, six blond-wood tables were packed with about 15 guests, laptop computers aglow and softball-sized hanging lights swaying overhead. Two popular fiction books involving the city, "Child Left Behind" and "Richmond Tales," were on sales display next to the encased pastries. The front window was bolstered with 170-pound burlap sacks of beans, stacked several feet high.
Manhart, a towering 6 feet 6, hovered over the bar, demonstrating the preparation of a french press for customers with the élan of a rookie science teacher.
"I like to say coffee is science, art and a little bit of gut feeling," Manhart laughed.
Also, perhaps, the ability to sink roots in Richmond while branching out to the competitive world of high-quality distributors in the Bay Area
On Jan. 8, Manhart alerted his Catahouligans via Facebook of the new frontiers to which they'd laid claim.
"Monterey Market and Berkeley Bowl-West are all stocked up with Fresh Catahoula Coffee," he wrote. "Come on down ... and get your coffee."