San Francisco Mint

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San Francisco has had an awesome few weeks of 75th anniversary celebrations. The Golden Gate bridge celebration was pretty obvious, as there was a lot of fanfare with fireworks etc., but another celebration went on rather quietly and TechCrunch was fortunate enough to be part of it.

The 75th anniversary of the Herman Street US San Francisco Mint.

One of the most mysterious buildings in San Francisco, The Mint is located behind a Safeway on Market Street, nestled between the Mission, Castro and Lower Haight communities. I pass by the ominous building all the time and I see the guards, but I’ve never seen anyone go in or out. I guess I just haven’t been there at the right time, because there are well over 300 employees that work there creating limited edition uncirculated collector sets, proof coins and will soon launch quarters you could (but shouldn’t, they are valuable) circulate with the famous S stamp.

Tours at the Mint are incredibly rare. They have family days where employees can bring their children and a few one off affairs, but they haven’t allowed press in for quite some time.

In order for TCTV producer Ashley Pagán and I to tour the Mint, we had to hand over a bunch of personal information, presumably for a quick background check to make sure we weren’t known bandits. We were sent some documents to read about what we were allowed to do and not do, and admittedly, I was so excited and just didn’t read them and broke two of pieces of advice. I wore open toe shoes and I brought coins. Ashley was smarter than I was and had safe footwear and zero coins, but she drove a vehicle, so we both got to experience what it was like to not sail smoothly into a government building. While digging the coins out of my mess of a purse, I watched Ashley driving into the lot and having her car checked completely by a man who inspected it with a mirror on a stick. He was very thorough.

We were told that the security going in wasn’t as bad as the security going out. It was like the TSA going in where they looked for large pieces of metal, but going out we’d have to go through a whole different set of machines that could pick up the tiniest pieces of metal, so they knew we weren’t trying to jack anything.

Once inside, the fun began. There was a really serious ceremony that actually made me well up a bit. Any time I see someone in uniform giving reverence to our flag ceremoniously, I turn to mush. There were plaques handed out and then our tours began. We were broken up into a few groups and we got paired with a news man who blew our minds. He was his own camera guy and everything. Like a genuine TV news guy. It was fascinating watching him and the benefit of him doing his own TV segments is that he slowed us all down and we got to get a lot of extra pictures and footage. Thanks TV dude!

We were allowed to pretty much record and take photographs of anything but the windows and security systems. I’m guessing they don’t want people learning how to get in or out of that place.

So, what does this have to do with tech? I admit, when I first found out about the Mint, I was dying to go and I would do anything to turn it into a tech story, but as it turns out, there’s a whole lot of tech in the Mint. Also, there’s an incredible employee culture that prides itself on being startup-like. I kid you not.

Police officer presenting the colors

The San Francisco Mint is one of the few government institutions in the United States that is profitable. That’s right – profitable. That means they don’t take any of our tax dollars and they actually give back to all of us here in the US. Every single employee, when asked, attributes it to their incredible robotic efficiency. I asked employees how many technical people they had and the standard response was that they were all technical in one area or another and many have trained themselves on the job to operate, program and fix much of the robotic equipment there. They obviously have their hard core engineers and we got to interview one of them, but I was blown away by the numbers and wasn’t expecting what I saw.

The Mint had to be one of the most diverse working environments I’ve ever seen, with women, men, and people of different ethnic backgrounds and levels of ability working up and down the chain of command. I know it was game face day and they don’t normally have visitors, but you could tell, genuinely tell, that people absolutely loved working there. They all took such great pride in everything they did and made sure every coin was perfect for their customers. It was almost like walking into Zappos for the government. I felt happiness even after I left, a feeling I never get when going to the post office, Social Security office or DMV.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary, we got to see the pressing of a commemorative coin. Not only did we get to see it, but we personally, with our own hands pressed one of the first 20. I wish we got to keep one so we could give it away, but alas, we could not. If the Mint ever opens up its doors again to tours, we highly suggest you go, as there is major geek factor going on in there and despite what a lot of people think, there’s a lot happening in that mysterious building.

Here’s a short video of our tour with some gratuitous robot action and an interview with an incredibly awesome Mint employee:

SF Mint exterior photo by Seth Golub