Irish coffee miracle: An American company comes through

Before I had kids, I worked for Libbey Inc., as Libbey Glass Co.’s food service product manager for glassware. It was a great job and Libbey was a great company.  The past eight years I kept up on the goings on at Libbey as best I could and was thrilled to read on Libbey’s Facebook page about the role the company played in bringing back the iconic Irish coffee glass to San Franscisco:

Now a city legend has itself been resurrected; after an intervention so unexpected as to be deemed miraculous, San Francisco’s famed Irish coffee is back from the valley of the shadow of death.

Irish coffee had been all but down the drain for want of the special glass in which to make it, without which the drink becomes airport cocktail lounge swill.

The glass had been stamped “obsolete” and discontinued by its manufacturer. It was going to cost 250,000 bucks to resuscitate it, and nobody had the money.

But when the Midwest company that owns the patent read a front-page story in The Chronicle about nostalgic citizens caring enough to mourn a glass, it swallowed the startup costs, dusted off the mold and went back into production.

It is so rare for a city tradition to be rescued after having last rites read over it that Mayor Ed Lee has declared San Francisco Irish Coffee Day on July 28 to celebrate. San Francisco will use any excuse for a party, but it has never had a party for a glass.

Re-education camps for bartenders

Old Town San Francisco is defined not by longitude and latitude, but by bars on a path well traveled – Liverpool Lil’s hard by the Presidio wall; the Marina Lounge on Chestnut; the Double Play on 16th and Bryant, across the street from the ghost of Seals Stadium; the 3300 Club at 29th and Mission; Lefty O’Doul’s and Bing Crosby’s old joint, the Gold Dust Lounge, by Union Square; Caesar’s and Pier 23 along the waterfront; Mission Rock by AT&T Park; Gino & Carlo, La Rocca’s and Capp’s Corner in North Beach; and Sam Jordan’s in Butchertown.

In the Old Town last week, bars were ordering cases of the spanking new “obsolete” glass. In some joints, there were re-education camps for rookie bartenders: Never make an Irish coffee in a mug or a wineglass, and no tooth fairy cups from a Walmart ceramic six-pack. Use the Glass.

It would be appropriate here to say a Hail Mary full of thanks for the uncommon grace and good sense of the Libbey Glass Co. of Toledo, Ohio. Libbey stopped making San Francisco Irish coffee glasses five years ago once its biggest customer, the Buena Vista, stopped reordering and took its glass business to China.

This is a story out of a Frank Capra movie. An unassuming, traditional Rust Belt manufacturing company swallows a nickel to make a special glass for a romantic city bewailing the loss of a sentimental drink.

If you listened only to President Obama the past three years, you’d think America’s corporations are being run by a bunch of old, greedy Henry Potters who are out looking to make a buck no matter what the cost.  Of course, all businesses must make  a profit, but today that means getting to know their customers and making connections. That’s precisely what Libbey did here. They saw their customers’ needs and they responded. Good on them.

Be sure to read the entire article. It’s a great American story.

Update:  Some may wonder what the significance is about this particular Libbey glass. This article in the SF Chronicle explains:

The Irish coffee for which this town is so well known is made in a 6-ounce glass, demanding precision to recipe and rewarding the success of the pour with an experience that has been likened to rapture.

“The love is at the top where the cream sits,” says Seamus Coyle, the battle-scarred veteran of many shifts behind many planks from the Opera House to the avenues, describing the engineering of the drink.

The essential ingredient is the 6-ounce glass, which the Buena Vista once used to make gin fizzes. It possesses miraculous properties of heat retention and its relatively small size – most bar glasses are 8 ounces or more – creates the perfect balance of whipping cream, Irish whiskey (1 1/2 shots) and coffee (not too much).

Making San Francisco Irish coffee in any other vessel would be like making sourdough bread without the starter. “If we ever run out of those glasses, it would be the end of Irish coffee in San Francisco,” Buena Vista accountant Ron Davis told me.

Now the Buena Vista faces the real possibility of running out of the very glasses it has made other bars do without. How San Francisco Irish coffee has ended up an endangered species is a tale of plain old greed and a management miscalculation. There are no winners, but the big loser is San Francisco.

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