Rich Lee spent a decade pulling hundreds of espresso shots for lattes and cappuccinos at iconic Bay Area coffee brands like Blue Bottle, Sightglass and Peet’s. At some point, he felt starved for creativity.

He fantasized about opening a cafe that served drinks as composed and thought-provoking as a restaurant dish or a high-end cocktail — longing to play with ingredients and techniques he learned as a fine-dining cook in San Francisco.

Now, Lee is putting that dream in action at Spro Coffee Lab, which he opened in San Francisco with his wife, Liza Otanes, in July. At the Church Street cafe, you’ll see baristas pouring drinks that challenge the coffee purist status quo. There’s the citrusy Pixie Dust (a shot of espresso with oat milk and grated orange peels, topped with freeze-dried yuzu powder and sansho pepper) or the Smoke and Mirrors (espresso on the rocks with liquid agave smoke that’s meant to evoke the flavor of mezcal).

“We like being different. For far too long, myself and other baristas have been told people don’t like this; people like traditional drinks,” Lee said. “And that’s unfortunate, but that’s why we exist.”

Co-owner Liza Otanes zests an orange onto a vanilla latte at Spro.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle

Lee and Ozanes started Spro in 2017 as a trailer at the Spark Social food truck park in Mission Bay. They say it was a proof of concept for Lee’s experimental creations, which drew a following successful enough that they were able to expand with the cafe.

The Spro menu is split into three categories: “fancy” (espresso and milk-based), “over the top” (inspired by out-of-the-box drinks that baristas create at competitions, highlighting aromatics and bitters) and seasonal drinks that incorporate atypical ingredients such as black currant syrup and activated charcoal.

By Harmony