December 19, 2020

Design Q&A with Tom: Café Bags

A sketch of the Cafe Bag.

Pour a glass of wine or tea, get cozy, and sit with us for a quick interview with Tom all about our classic Café Bags....

TOM BIHN Cafe Bag sketch circa 1990's.

A sketch of a version of a Café Bag — possibly the Café Computer Case, a precursor to the Ristretto — produced for a TOM BIHN print catalog. 1990's.

Tom, how long have the Café Bags been around?

Circa 1991. The first size — the Small Café Bag — was designed for a friend. His wife is a pianist, and one of her gigs was to play at the Nordstrom department store. My friend would often go with his wife and sit and listen to her play, and he wanted a bag that’d be able to carry a New York Times Best Seller and a few other items.

Tom in the TOM BIHN Santa Cruz shop in the 1990's.

Tom in his original one-man Santa Cruz Shop. Circa 1990's.

Were there always multiple sizes or did it start with just one?

The Small Café Bag was popular in the original Santa Cruz Shop and folks asked me to make a bigger one — which ended up being the Medium Café Bag. Eventually, I designed an even bigger one — the Large Café Bag. I was never really happy with the Large — too floppy at that scale IMHO. We retired that size, but we do get folks who ask us to make one more production run of them.

Special edition Medium Cafe Bag for Birds & Beans Coffee.

A special edition Medium Cafe Bag made for Birds & Beans Bird-Friendly Coffee.

Photo of a rare Mini Cafe Bag produced especially for birding. This photo was shared by @audubon_coffee on Instagram.

Photo of a rare Mini Cafe Bag produced especially for birding. This photo was shared by @audubon_coffee on Instagram.

How has the design changed over the years?

Features added over the years include more O-rings, the soft shoulder pad, changes in the shoulder strap webbing and various styles of side release buckles on the front flap. I think the very first one lacked the open top back pocket, but that was added pretty early on. All sizes originally featured 1” closures on the front flap, but some customers found that the small side release buckle required more dexterity than they had; I switched to the 38mm side release and there was much rejoicing.

The Café Bags were originally made in 500d Cordura, but someone thankfully talked me into making one in 1000d Cordura and I realized it looked even better. Of course, I love it in our 525 ballistic nylon most of all, and the 210d ballistic version is pretty nice too. It’d be extremely difficult to sew a Café Bag in 1050d ballistic — not fun for our sewing crew — the 525d allows us to make a ballistic nylon version.

We also updated the “male” half of the buckle so that it's easily replaced by the customer — it was originally sewn in. That front side release buckle is now 1/2 acetal and 1/2 nylon. Nylon is softer and requires less hand strength to open, but it can absorb water and then cause the part to freeze and break in sub-zero temperatures. Really, though, even the best quality “male” buckles can break over time, especially if exposed to very cold temperatures and then warmed up quickly (going out on a winter’s day walk and then back into your toasty house!)

If you look inside the Café Bag (I think the Maker’s Bag as well — ask Nik about the Maker’s Bag, that’s his design), you’ll see no taped or bound edges of fabric. All cut edges are hidden between the lining panels and the exterior panels in a clever (IMHO) shingled construction technique. Just bragging at this point.

Family crossing the street; mom is wearing a Medium Cafe Bag in Cloud 525d.

The Medium Cafe Bag in Cloud 525d. Note: the Medium Cafe Bag is currently in-stock; the Small Cafe Bag is scheduled for production in 2021; the Large Cafe Bag is retired but you can sign up to be notified if/when we make it again.



Paul Henry - February 26, 2024

I have a very old tired-looking but still fully functional Ristretto but fancied a new one, so I was pleased to see a very recent one for sale on eBay in as-new condition – happily, my bid won the day!

megan - September 21, 2023

I just purchased a large cafe bag to use as a school bag and it’s great – I want another one for my other kid. I can’t get the notify me link on the product page to work though.

Bill T - June 28, 2023

Which bag is the best size to carry an iPad?
TOM BIHN replied:
Either our Medium or Large :)

Sandy - May 11, 2023

I’d love to see a MINI Cafe Bag available again! Please do re-release!
1-1.5L would be perfect!

Rob Krasnick - March 4, 2023

The Ristretto was “retired” The best bag they’ve made. That makes sense, Those who purchased it wish they could purchase another and those who’ve never handled one will never know what they are missing out on. Disgusted with TB and similar companies doing the same in the name of “progress.”

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We're the TOM BIHN crew: we design bags, make bags, ship bags, and answer questions about bags. Oh, and we collaborate on blog posts, too.