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Why the Seattle coffee scene now lags Portland’s.

Sam Lewontin

The coffee scenes in Portland and Seattle differ more than you might think, especially considering that the two cities are less than three hours apart by train or car, and share similar demographics, climates, &  cultural attitudes.  Sam Lewontin touches on what the Seattle coffee scene could learn from Portland and what it might take to catch up.

The opening of Heart Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon has garnered a huge amount of buzz in the Northwest coffee community, and it’s easy to understand why: It’s clear that a great deal of money and attention to detail were lavished on building out the space. It’s a polarizing design, certainly (sparse seating, cool colors, cavernous ceilings, very industrial chic), but there’s no doubt that it’s a work of care and precision. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny that it’s audacious and interesting.

Thing is, it’s not particularly out of the ordinary in Portland. Beautiful, well thought-out spaces have been opening left and right in the past two years: Ristretto Roasters’ café on Williams, Barista in the Pearl district, Coffeehouse Five and the Red E in North Portland—to name just a few. There’s almost no part of Portland that’s without an ambitious, forward-thinking café. It’s little wonder that the coffee scene there is widely considered to have eclipsed the scene in Seattle, long considered the birthplace of modern specialty coffee.

What happened in Seattle? It certainly has its fair share of quality-oriented stalwarts (Caffé Vita, Victrola Coffee Roasters, the venerable Vivace) and some interesting relative newcomers (Trabant Coffee & Chai, Tougo Coffee, Herkimer, Neptune, and so on). There’s also no shortage of technical innovation and progressive thought going on in the city. It’s still the hub of the country’s espresso machine production, and projects like Visions Espresso’s Coffee Enhancement Lounge are catalyzing meetings and exchanges of ideas between progressively-minded baristas throughout the city. So, why aren’t there more groundbreaking cafés?

The common argument goes something like this: Seattle is a saturated market. Every neighborhood has more than its fair share of cafés, and many of them are well-established names with whom it will be difficult for new and audacious shop owners to compete. Seattle residents are so bombarded with choices that they are jaded about new cafés: “It’s just another coffee shop,” they’ll say. Seattle coffee consumers are already set in their ways, and won’t budge for new experiences, new shops or new models.

All of which is true, in a certain light. The trouble is this: Many prospective shop owners have a mistaken idea of who exactly they are competing with. Most shops in Seattle are based around the second-wave café model—the model of coffee beverage as commodity. In this model, volume of drink production is paramount. Any choice which might challenge the customer is avoided for fear of scaring away potential drink sales. Drink prices stay low, because low drink prices are easy to stomach. Sugar and large volumes of milk are the order of the day, because sugar and large volumes of milk appeal to the broadest range of palates. In order to keep profit margins up at relatively low price-points, cheap, low-quality ingredients become the norm. Training time is reduced, both because training time costs money, and because well-trained employees will demand higher wages. Automation is adopted to promote speed, efficiency and consistency. Quality is beside the point. Quantity is everything.

If this is who they feel they need to compete with, any new, quality-oriented shop owner is destined to fail. Shop owners focused on making great drinks, who carefully source the best ingredients, who hire and train expert baristas (and pay them what their work is worth), who build out their bars with exacting attention to detail and use the best equipment, cannot possibly compete on price, output volume, or marketing muscle with second-wave chains. They inherently lack the economies of scale necessary to do so.

Thankfully they don’t need to, because they’re not in the same business. Serious quality-oriented shops create fundamentally different products from volume-oriented ones . Second-wave shops are essentially fast food, and operate under all (or most) of the assumptions of the fast food industry. Expertly crafted coffee is a culinary art, and needs to operate under none of these assumptions. No one expects a restaurant of the caliber of, say, Volterra to compete on price or volume with McDonald’s. Despite selling ostensibly similar products, they are in entirely different worlds.

In order to fully differentiate themselves, however, quality-oriented shop owners need to abandon a number of assumptions. Prevailing models of pricing, café build-out, menu composition, barista training, compensation and customer service are all still largely based in the second-wave. These models are easy to adopt—they are comfortable and known quantities for both shop-owners and customers—but they create the perception that a shop is serving the same product as the next shop down the street, regardless of whether or not this is true.

If shop owners actively choose not to participate in the Seattle second-wave market, they’ll see very quickly that there aren’t that many other shops with whom they are in competition. In fact, there’s really no reason for competition between quality-oriented Seattle shops in the first place. The only saturated coffee market in Seattle is the mediocre, volume-oriented market. The market for great coffee is still very small. It’s still at a stage where buzz for one shop is good for the whole scene: The more people talk about great coffee, the more people will try it; the more people try it, the more people will never be able to return to mediocre coffee—and the more business there is for all of us.

To galvanize the Seattle scene, then, coffee professionals need to throw it all out and start over again. We are not competing for the same small slice of the total coffee market, and we are not competing for the folks who have chosen fast food as a lifestyle. We are in this business to show people who have never known—or had any reason to know—what can be done with just two ingredients. We are here to challenge people’s assumptions about what coffee can and should be.

So, let’s throw out menu boards, linear café designs, wall-like preparation areas, front-ended registers, huge pastry cases, and big, under-priced drinks. Let’s start from scratch, ask ourselves what we really want to accomplish with our cafés and then design them thoughtfully and purposefully from the ground up, without assuming that our audience will be scared away by our choices. Let’s figure out what really works best. Let’s stop trying to take over the world; there’s plenty of room of all of us to make a comfortable living at this. Let’s make some great coffee and share it with people.

Posted by Sam Lewontin in Seattle

  • Well written, well conceived, article Sam. I really can’t add, or comment beyond what you said. You summed up my feeling on the entire scene north of the border as well.


    Robert Dall
    Vancouver Indy Coffee Scene

  • Nik Richards

    Excellent article Sam. Couldn’t agree more. You could be speaking about the UK scene there.
    Black Mountains Coffee Co

  • Jon

    Portland pffft, I am coming to Seattle for a week in March from Australia! Cannot wait to hit up the cafes!

  • Sam,

    Great write up, but another consideration that should be thought about are local rules and regulations. From having retail experience in both markets, the City of Seatte and King County Health Departments are giant pains in the ass, and corrupt.

    Many small businesses in Portland (coffee, food, etc.) have thrived by having the opportunity to start their businesses with a very small footprint (food cart, kiosk, farmers market etc.) and then being able to expand to a larger space as they generate a customer base. This is a fundamental step in starting a business, and Portland seems to actively promote this, while Seattle thwarts it.

    Plumbed water, three-compartment sinks, parking minimums, etc. are all things that add thousands of dollars to your start-up costs, and they don’t exist in Portland. The Portland Development Commission’s (PDC) goal is to promote local livability and sustainability as much as possible, while it seems Seattle only wants to help the big guys continue to do their big business. Why is is that the two most forward thinking cafes (with regards to design) in the Seattle area right now are owned by Starbucks?

    A friend of mine who owns a small cafe that has been in existence for years was even given money (a significant amount) by the PDC for cafe improvements because the city was installing a new MAX station in front of their cafe that would affect foot traffic for the time it was being constructed…very progressive.

    Another friend of mine in Seattle got passed a couple of bumps in his inspection by slipping the King County health inspector a c-note.

    Portland just goes about setting up these sort of rules and regulations with completely different goals in mind: one’s that keep local business and sustainability at the top of the priority list.

    Two similar cities with very different mentalities.


  • I especially like this line:

    “Let’s figure out what really works best. Let’s stop trying to take over the world; there’s plenty of room of all of us to make a comfortable living at this. Let’s make some great coffee and share it with people.”

    I feel like Seattle isn’t content with it’s size, that it (the city) always strives to be something bigger that it will never be (New York).

  • Sara B

    Nice work Sam! I couldn’t agree with you more. Good to see someone putting this out there for the community to chew on. We all spend a lot of time complaining about what’s wrong Seattle cafe culture, while forgetting it’s ours to change. This is a well thought out and loving challenge to do better. Let’s go!

  • Dantzler

    Stephen Vick’s comments = touché

  • Thanks for sharing such a constructive critique!

    Your post, and Stephen Vick’s comments on sustainability, regulations and support for local business, remind me of an article by Aimee Curl in Seattle Weekly a while back about “When in Doubt, Copy Portland:Streetcars, publicly funded campaigns, and sidewalk cafes”.

    One of the things I noticed during a recent period in which I was spending a lot of time talking with owners, managers and baristas at Seattle area coffeehouses was the the cultural differences between independent coffeehouses and microchains. Attitudes in coffeehouses that were one-of-a-kind, or even one of a pair owned by the same proprietor, seemed different than those in coffeehouses that were part of a chain of three or more shops, where it was not uncommon to hear of a barista talk about “corporate”. The quality of coffee is often very high at these microchain shops, but I do wonder what the intangible costs of such expansions are.

  • Nick

    Stephen Vick: “the City of Seatte and King County Health Departments are giant pains in the ass, and corrupt…Another friend of mine in Seattle got passed a couple of bumps in his inspection by slipping the King County health inspector a c-note.”

    Isn’t your friend a rather major part of the problem? I’d rather read, “My friend Honest Herb, who owns Cafe Noname in Fremont, reported Joe Schmoe of the Health Department for soliciting a bribe to bypass Health Dept regulations.” In this case, your friend apparently was able to bypass requirements by paying a $100 bribe to an official, probably for far less than it would have cost to meet the requirements. Who’s “more corrupt” here? That said, it’s unclear if the the health inspector asked for the bribe, or your friend offered it to the inspector.

    Regarding Portland assisting a small business when affected by construction, Seattle (and related transit authorities; KC Metro, etc.) does this too. I live in Southeast Seattle, and many small businesses along our new light rail corridor were given assistance to make it through the chaotic construction period.

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  • Dantzler

    Nick–and many other Seattle businesses were ruined when the monorail project bought up land and then resold it to the highest bidder (instead of the entity they originally stole it from) when the monorail died.

  • Nick

    This is a wonderful posting. I feel that many of your points are very valid and we need more people in the Seattle scene saying these things. I do find that the biggest issues in Seattle is the dogmatic view that people have on coffee. There is an aversion to change what has been done since the early 90’s. The amount of americanos that people drink vs single origin drip coffee is shocking. I find it hard to say Seattle (despite all of its coffee faults) is really that far behind Portland.

    Recently I have taken a few trips to Portland to check out the cafe scene and there is some very interesting stuff going on; Heart, Barista, and Coffee House 5 just to name a few. You mentioned the holding onto 2nd wave ideas in Seattle, but it can be seen just as much in Portland. The main area that this is found is in pricing. Sustainability is an enormous issue that the industry faces. We want to pay farmers for the amazing coffee that they are growing. For this to happen we need to educate the public that coffee should cost more then $.80 for a bottomless cup. Much like all fine, hand crafted products, great coffee costs more. With this in mind I was amazed at how low the prices were in Portland. There was one “cutting edge” cafe that was selling 8oz drip coffee for $1.00! This wasn’t the only location selling their coffee for less then $2 a cup. The espresso based drinks were also priced lower then the majority of cafes in Seattle.

    For all the talk we here about small roasters popping up in Portland, I was amazed that out of the eleven or so shops I went to, that only a small handful served there coffee in methods other then french press into an airpot. Some cafes are trying to offer more brewing methods, but the execution is lacking. At one shop I was amazed to see Chemex as an option on the menu, and for less then $3 none the less. I ordered one and was amazed to watch as the barista behind the counter brewed my coffee in a beehouse dripper only to turn around a say “here is the chemex of the Kenya”. Upon further inspection I didn’t see a single Chemex in the shop. This coupled with an earlier experience with a syphon pot that tasted baggy due to the barista using a fresh filter without it being seasoned first. Amazing ideas, just with poor results.

    Portland also has the advantage of a greater D.I.Y. ethic, one that Seattle is sorely lacking. This ethic helps newer shops from having to be top level professionals right out of the gate. There can be a homey/ second hand feel to the shops, that customers in Seattle just wouldn’t stand for.

    The elements that you call for are all elements that think both coffee scenes need. Every level of this industry is advancing with amazing leaps and bounds. From farmers, to sourcing, to roaster, to technology. The failure is at the retail level. I think both cities have a long way to go.

    Even the “cutting edge” Portland shops still use menu boards.

  • Sam

    Thank you for the thoughtful and insightful commentary, everybody! It’s awesome to hear so many complementary perspectives on this issue. There seem to be a lot of interesting ideas floating around about ways to improve on the current state of the coffee industry. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of model they coalesce in to.

    More soon!

  • Sam

    Hm. I seem to have used the word “interesting” twice in quick succession there. Whoops!

  • Kudos on your thoughtful post. I’ve spent a lot of time in both cities as a consumer and your observations resonate with me. Your call to action really points at the fact that Seattle in itself has developed to a larger market over the last 15 years and this second wave as you describe is a big fork in the road for the character of the city. In some ways it’s a testament to the growth of the market, but success breeds challenges and I think your critique encapsulates the philosophical question a growing market must always go through. Keep’m comin.

  • We extend our thanks for your post. The detailed tale of two cities has provided some of the research required in planning our upcoming trip from Australia. We are working hard to down here to educate our market into a greater appreciation of the single origin bean. It is disheartening to read that Seattle, and even Portland may not the the Meccas which we seek – but we are looking forward to the North Western field trip one cup at a time.

  • Bre

    Well done. That has often been a big issue for me, the lack of knowledge being passed on to customer. It seemed as if barista’s and roasters had all this amazingly interesting information, but it’s been these little shiny nuggets that we’ve kept secret. It’s time to educate. You educate the customers on what coffee is, where coffee comes from (it’s not this magic little bean that appears randomly in your cup, a lot of hard work goes into coffee production, from some of the poorest countries), and education leads to more wide spread appreciation of what coffee is, which is turn can mean better prices for green bean (in favor of the farms) that focus on quality. Anyway, I really liked the article. Cheers from Portland!

  • alana

    Hey Sam,

    I’m writing as an outsider to what we would call here in the Mid-West the whole ‘West Coast coffee scene.’ So maybe my question will seem silly to those of you who are more immersed in that culture and are working with more baseline information.

    In Chicago, coffee shops that actually source, roast, and serve their own beans are greatly in the minority. In fact, off the top of my head there are fewer than ten of us. There are shops that take great care in their coffee preparation that do not roast their own beans, but it seems that the division in terms of coffee quality and care breaks more along the line of in-house roasting than anywhere else. I’m wondering how that fits into what you’re describing as the difference between Portland and Seattle. Your description of Seattle’s quantity-focused mode of production sounds a lot like what we experience in most coffee shops out here. But most of our coffee shops have little to no relationship to the roasting process. Do you see that divide out West as well? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this question.

    Thanks for the great article.

  • Alana,

    In my experience, I’ve found that there is definitely a difference between the cafes that do their own roasting and those that don’t. Even more important, however, is the difference between cafes focused on the coffee itself and the cafe experience. In Portland we are fortunate enough to have cafes like Barista, Red e or Coffeehouse Northwest that do not roast their own beans, but they still take as much care as any roaster to make sure you get the best coffee. We are definitely spoiled out here!

  • That was clever. I’ll be stopping back.