A requiem for The Creamery

Editor’s note: Ryan Lawler is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. After working as a journalist for publications like TechCrunch and Gigaom, he currently leads content strategy for Samsung Next.

I don’t remember the first time I went to The Creamery, probably sometime in early 2012.

I don’t remember the last time, either, although undoubtedly it was sometime last year, on a day when I had an extra five minutes to spare before boarding the Caltrain for my morning commute.

And I barely remember any of the other hundreds of times I stopped in to grab a coffee, have lunch with a friend or meet a possible source during my years at TechCrunch, which conveniently had an office just over a block away.

The Creamery was not a place you went for the memories. It was located firmly at the apex of convenience and comfort — which is why, for a certain period of about five years from the early to mid-teens of the third millennium, it was the perfect place for the SF technorati to see and be seen.

It’s also why, after 12 years of operating from one global recession to another, it’s shutting its doors for good.

I learned of The Creamery’s imminent demise through a friend, who forwarded me a connection’s Facebook post. “Hey I’ve got some sad news,” wrote John S. Boyd, CEO of Monolith Technologies. “The Creamery is closing this weekend.”

I was a little less nostalgic in sharing the news via a screenshot to Twitter.

What followed was a little surprising, though it probably shouldn’t have been. Dozens of people replied or quote-tweeted with their own condolences, memories and anecdotes of their time at the little coffee shop on the corner of Fourth and Townsend.

“Ugh! Institution,” wrote Redpoint’s Ryan Sarver.

“Got my first SF angel backer over coffee there. Sad stuff,” wrote Haven Coliving’s Ben Katz.

“Oh no where will techcrunch writers get their stories,” wrote Breather founder Julien Smith.

As a former TechCrunch writer, it was this last point that resonated with me — although like most things, the legend of The Creamery as a place to get scoops far outpaced its actual utility.

From the perspective of someone who found himself visiting The Creamery several times a week (sometimes multiple times a day), those concerns were probably overblown. That’s not to say there weren’t deals happening at the cafe’s wobbly wooden tables, but just that there really wasn’t much worth overhearing if you actually sat there and listened.

For all the outpouring of condolences that The Creamery has received since the news of its closing, I don’t recall that many people who actually loved going there. The coffee was terrible, the food was just okay and, as one Twitter user wrote, it was “chock full of VC assholes constantly.”

And yet, for a period of time, it was its own little social club, a place where you could go and reliably see at least one or two people you knew (and often a person who said they knew you but you didn’t remember).

As fintech investor and Justin Bieber music video star Sheel Mohnot notes, “Right [across] from Caltrain, it was a legendary spot – for a time most startups were in the city but investors still down south, so The Creamery was a great spot to meet VC’s, increasingly less important as VC’s moved offices to SF.”

To understand how all that changed, it’s probably worth noting that The Creamery was unpretentious at its core.

It was the type of place where Alex could order two shots of espresso over ice and no one would bat an eye or where you could find a couple of dudes drinking beers on the front patio at 8:00 a.m. The cafe had food, but it was all counter service, and if you weren’t an asshole you would bus your own table.

The food was better at the attached Iron Cactus, and there was more room to spread out, particularly if you planned to meet more than one person. If you actually wanted to have a discreet conversation, you sat at the back patio, which was frequently empty, barring the occasional lunch rush.

But you didn’t go to The Creamery for the food. You didn’t go there to have quiet conversations that couldn’t be overheard. You went for the serendipity, for the chance of running into a friend or acquaintance and catching up for five minutes before promising to schedule a longer meeting that never happened.

COVID-19 might have killed The Creamery, but its long-term health was compromised long before the novel coronavirus came into our lives. Changing times, changing tastes and growing professionalism around the industry that made it a destination all meant The Creamery was not long for this world.

As multithousandaires became multimillionaires and billionaires, the same comfort, convenience and unpretentiousness that defined the young tech industry evolved. Many techies outgrew their T-shirts and hoodies, decided they wanted something better than terrible coffee, and were no longer constrained by having to meet at the coffee shop closest to Caltrain.

After all, most of the people they were meeting now also lived and worked in the city.

This was accelerated by growing competition as both Philz and Reveille opened cafes just a few blocks away from The Creamery, with better coffee — and in the case of Reveille, much better food. Meanwhile, the new hotspot for being seen talking to investors was the South Park Blue Bottle, which was attached to General Catalyst’s SF office and just a few steps away from VCs like Redpoint and Kleiner Perkins.

And for the folks who wanted the benefit of being able to have discreet conversations while also being seen among the tech elite, there was The Battery, which came to define the industry’s transition to excess.

At the same time, the idea of a one-story cafe sitting on a plot of mostly empty land seemed verboten in a city in desperate need of new housing. And building that housing across the street from the main access point to the South Bay made nothing but sense. As a result, developers had eyes on The Creamery lot as early as 2014, and plans to develop the corner of 4th & Townsend accelerated last summer.

Some have pointed out that before closing its doors, the owners were “partnering with Tishman Speyer to return to the new site.” But a Creamery with no front or back patio is no Creamery at all.

It’s a tale as old as time: Quaint neighborhood spot loved by locals gets swallowed up and destroyed as the city changes around it.

I’m not ready to say, “Bit by bit, the bohemian culture that has been the hallmark of the City by the Bay since 1945 is disappearing. San Francisco is becoming Manhattan West,” like some people are. After all, this sentiment ignores the fact that The Creamery was founded in 2008 and was fewer than five years old when the Chronicle named it “deal central.”

But I do think there’s something to the fact that, now that the industry has no need for it, the no-frills coffee shop will be bulldozed to make way for a gleaming high-rise.

Perhaps the best take I’ve seen on its closing comes from Can Durukwho wrote:

“Kind of emblematic of the time when the early stage VCs are frolicking in the froth, the one meatspace small business most associated with it is going under.”

I couldn’t have said it better.