Smaller coffee shops find success in Seattle
By Allison Linn
By Allison Linn
SEATTLE — It's hard to find a bad cup of coffee in Seattle, and that's not just because it seems like there's a Starbucks — or two or three — on every corner.
Although more than 100 of the ubiquitous green awnings dot the big coffee corporation's hometown, local favorites like Zoka Coffee, Diva Espresso and Caffe Ladro are proving it's possible to survive and even thrive in the shadow of their much larger corporate competitor.
As other towns worry that Starbucks Corp. will run their local favorites out of business and rob their streets of quirky charm, the owners of several of Seattle's most beloved independent coffee houses say they have found success by making a selling point of being small.
"We try to stay a little more neighborhood, we try not to be too corporate," said Steve Barker, co-owner of Diva Espresso. "We don't upsell. ... We're not mega-merchandise stores. We just try to sell coffee and pastry."
But while Barker and others may toss small barbs at their bigger competitor, they also are the first to note that Starbucks pioneered the idea of paying up to $5 for a cup of joe, paving the way for them to follow. "Starbucks is the best thing that ever happened to coffee," Barker said. "Without Starbucks, I don't think any of us would've survived."
The coffee giant also provides a convenient foil for companies such as Diva and Zoka, who point to it as the antithesis of the artisan coffee and quirky feel they seek with the scruffy floors, mismatched furniture and local artists' work that typify the smaller chains — and, in some ways, feed their success.
For its part, Starbucks says that it doesn't do anything to discourage smaller coffee stores.
"Starbucks has kind of raised the coffee awareness in the United States," spokesman Andy Fouche said.
Indeed, Zoka owner Jeff Babcock said he was inspired to get into the coffee business after coming across Starbucks while he was a student in Seattle in the late 1970s. At that time, Starbucks was still a tiny company, mainly known to local residents who frequented its landmark store in Seattle's Pike Place Market.
"They had something that was special," Babcock remembered.
But by the time Babcock opened Zoka in 1997, after a stint in the coffee business in Florida, Starbucks had grown more institutional. He wanted Zoka to have that something special that he remembered from Starbucks' early days. "I wanted to be the Porsche, not the Ford," he said.
For some smaller coffee purveyors, perks like free Internet connections, dog treats and the occasional complimentary cup of coffee go a long way to keeping customers from straying to the big-chain competitor.
Others stress the importance of getting to know the customer, and learning not just what drink they prefer, but how they like it made — not too hot, with extra foam, or light on the chocolate.
That's been a mantra for Jack Kelly, who opened his first Caffe Ladro in Seattle's Upper Queen Anne neighborhood just two doors down from a Starbucks.
"We said, 'We're going to steal all their business,' " Kelly remembered.
On a recent weekday morning, the narrow, funky space was bustling. Barista Natalie Bardsley estimated that as many as 90 percent of her customers are regulars.
Jud Hendricks has been getting his caffeine fix here at least once a day for about six years.
"The staff is awesome, and I like the idea of supporting a locally owned business," he said.
Starbucks cultivated the idea of being a so-called "third place" between work and home, but some who frequent Seattle's other coffee houses say it still can't offer the individuality of a smaller company.
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon at Zoka in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood, Cezanne Ezekial, a nursing student, was taking advantage of the free Internet access and sipping iced tea in the back corner of the sprawling store. Ezekial said she's come every day for the last month because she likes the atmosphere, it's a good place to study and "it's not Starbucks."
Julia Larsen, another Zoka regular, said the coffeehouse and its familiar faces became her connection to the outside world as she's grappled with raising a disabled son. And she said Zoka sells a better cup of coffee.
Many of Seattle's better-known coffeehouses have become minichains of their own, finding that the scale of several stores helps keep costs down. But several say they would hesitate to try to follow in Starbucks footsteps.
Kelly now operates 10 Caffe Ladro stores in the Seattle area, and he won't rule out adding five more. But after that, he said, the company would have to start adding things, like a human resources department, that wouldn't make economic sense.