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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