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You Can’t Even Get a Cup of Coffee at San Francisco’s Oldest Roastery

Written by Julie ZigorisPublished May 20, 2023 • 11:00am
Gregorio Díaz inspects freshly roasted beans. | Julie Zigoris/The Standard

In our world of ever-expanding choices, the menu at North Beach’s Graffeo Coffee makes a nice counterpoint: light roast, dark roast and decaf. There are no pour-overs, no flat white double ristrettos and no mobile orders. In fact, there are no beverages at all—only oversize gray bins of roasted beans that you can take home whole or ground. 

Keeping things simple is the recipe for success for Graffeo, which has been in business for almost nine decades, making it one of the oldest roasters still in operation in North America. 

For Gregorio Díaz, who has been working at the shop for 20 years, the beans themselves are what create this degree of longevity. 

“We only use arabica,” Díaz said. “It’s a harder bean and so it doesn’t burn when you roast it dark.” 

He compared that bean to the robusta, the cheaper alternative indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa.

Gregorio Díaz inspects freshly roasted beans at Graffeo Coffee. | Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Graffeo’s beans sell themselves when you walk in the door, their rich perfume lacing the air with a blend of dark chocolate and earth. Every customer who walks in has the same refrain: It smells so good in here

Inside the expansive storefront on Columbus Avenue hangs a black-and-white photograph of Giovanni Repetto, who took over the store in 1954 from a different Giovanni—the one the store is named after, Giovanni Graffeo. Repetto’s son, Luciano Repetto, still owns the store today. He’s now 78 with two daughters who aren’t interested in taking over the family business, meaning generations of coffee knowledge could be lost forever.

An antique coffee roaster sits in the window at Graffeo Coffee. | Julie Zigoris/The Standard

An ornate, gas-powered coffee roaster squats in the front window, which Luciano Repetto used for roasting at one point. Today, that vintage machine has been superseded by a computer the size of a clothes dresser, a powerhouse that can roast 180 pounds of coffee at a time. The beans travel through a pipe in the ceiling from a mixing bin into a stainless steel vat where they’re roasted. 

The coffee beans are always fresh at Graffeo, where the workers roast in the mornings and afternoons Monday through Friday, selling through what they have before doing another batch (the store moves around 300 to 450 pounds every day). The beans come through the Port of Oakland from New Guinea, Colombia and Costa Rica.

Graffeo Coffee in North Beach | Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Graffeo Coffee supplies beans for well-loved establishments throughout the city and as far as Daly City: Original Joe’s, North Beach Restaurant, House of Prime Rib, Harris’ steakhouse. It does a brisk online business for customers from Beverly Hills to Singapore and has a second location in San Rafael. 

At one point in history, if you were special enough, you could get an actual espresso at Graffeo from Luciano’s father, as food and wine writer Doris Muscatine recalled.

“If you were a steady customer or friend, he would offer you [a Giovanni Battista Repetto] espresso. He would pull out from under the counter a bottle of brandy and ask if you wanted a caffe corretto,” Muscatine said. “He would slosh the coffee with spirits, and it was a very happy occasion.” 

Do one thing, and do it well. It could be a zen koan—or the slogan for Graffeo, whose menu telegraphs simplicity from the moment you enter the door, and whose immaculate, sparsely decorated surroundings convince you of it. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the type of beans used by chain coffee shops including Starbucks and Peet’s.

Graffeo Coffee

📍 735 Columbus Ave.
🗓️ Monday-Saturday | 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 
🔗 graffeo.com

Julie Zigoris can be reached at jzigoris@sfstandard.com


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