Still Crazy About Seattle

Still Crazy About Seattle

Despite the rain, and the blustery breezes. Despite the strep throat, and bronchitis. Despite the fact it would appear the city of my birth might see me catch my death, I love Seattle, still. Seattle remains a guiding star for coffee. From Vivace to Zoka, Trabant to Victrola, Tully’s to Caffe Vita, and — of course — the omnipresent Starbucks and hundreds of happy, independent retailers, coffee houses, espresso carts and hole-in-the-wall walk-ups, the city teems with caffeinated masses, most of ’em tanked up on some damn fine coffees served by folks who know their way round the business end of a portafilter. I’m impressed as I can be with places like Stumptown that hold daily cupping events so folks just walkin’ in off the street can sample a flight of coffees from all over the world, and compare and contrast flavors and aromas, body and balance, while elbow to elbow with the pros. I hope I can stay longer next time… provided the place doesn’t kill me,...
Can Howie Get His Groove Back?

Can Howie Get His Groove Back?

If you’re a Wall Street analyst, you might note that year over year, Starbucks’ valuation has slipped about 40%. If you’re one of several thousand Starbucks employees you may soon find a pink slip in your pay envelope, as the company moves to close 600 stores, eliminating some 12,000 jobs. If you’re an independent coffee house owner, you may be sitting there with your jaw hanging slack, just trying to wrap your head around the idea that, when Starbucks closes 600 frickin’ coffee shops, the move shrinks its overall footprint by a mere 8 points. And maybe if you’re a Starbucks customer you’re just so over that whole Starbucks thing. Sure, Starbucks was the epitome of hip for a while, but then they became, well… McDonalds: Twenty years ago, it was love at first sip. Like every prisoner of love, I went from downing one cup a day to three or more. How, I wondered, had I gone more than 40 years without a midafternoon break or even a “for no reason” indulgence? Today those memories are like bitter, stale grounds. These days the breaks aren’t fewer but are often enjoyed somewhere else. That early Starbucks mojo is no more. My disillusionment set in about three years ago, but the company’s ballyhooed “Starbucks experience” died even earlier, killed by a growing bureaucratic culture. Ouch. Maybe it *is* about the bureaucracy. There is, of course, a very real danger when you grow to the scale of Starbucks — or McDonalds — and your stores light up every other street corner, shopping mall and airport concourse. At some ill-defined point on...
Green Up Your Coffee House!

Green Up Your Coffee House!

It’s Earth Day 2008. The climate crisis is accelerating, vast sheets of ice are collapsing, islands in the Pacific have been drowned in rising seas, and weather the world over is growing increasingly violent. If we don’t take immediate action — all of us, and right now — we face a future unlike anything we’ve known. But let’s be honest… running a successful and (ideally) profitable coffee house is something of a high-wire act at the best of times. And — economically-speaking — these aren’t the best of times. You’ve got a budget to watch; a creeping expense column can throw things out of kilter. Fast. It’s not going to do you or your environmentally-minded customers any good for you to bankrupt yourself in the name of ecology. That said, there are savings to be found in running a more efficient and sustainable coffee house, coffee shop or espresso bar. Some of these savings can be realized pretty quickly, others require a longer view. If you can, don’t just consider today’s bottom line, but tomorrow’s. And next year’s. And — for goodness sake — don’t lose sight of the ultimate bottom line here… the planet’s climate is in crisis. And it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the viability of specialty coffee is at the forefront of that crisis. In greening up your coffee house, there are (at least) three distinct areas where you can bring your efforts to bear: reducing energy, increasing sustainability, and making it easier for your customers to go green, too. We’ll look at each in turn. There’s a lot to slog through here, so...
The Coffee Scene, Pittsburgh Edition

The Coffee Scene, Pittsburgh Edition

In the wake of the Starbucks’ public makeover, and with the SCAA show rapidly approaching, there’s a bevy of coffee-centric ink (‘lectronic and otherwise) flowing at the moment. Lots of publications are taking a look at their local coffee scene, trying to figure out who the players are — and discovering that the coffee shop just ain’t what it used to be. (Hoorah.) Here’s a take on the Pittsburgh coffee scene (featuring the fine folks at Aldo Coffee, among others.) “Our goal,” offers Rich Westerfield, genial co-owner with wife Melanie Westerfield, of Aldo Coffee on Mt. Lebanon’s Washington Road, “is to raise the level of conversation and appreciation of what coffee can be.” You go, Rich! Locally, upper-end coffee shops “have become a central place,” Westerfield says, for many the magical Third Place – after home and work. Priming the French press, Aldo, for example, brings in ska bands and steel drums. One church actually meets there monthly. “Coffee houses bring people together,” he says. “They’re oases of community in a city.” Ska, steel drums and church groups....
Starbucks’ Shiny New Shamrock

Starbucks’ Shiny New Shamrock

Listen… Hear that? . . . . . . That’s the sound of thousands of coffee retailers gasping for air, reeling from a sucker-punch. These are folks who’d aspired to get themselves a Clover… the commercial, cup-at-a-time coffee brewer that’s been described as the signal development to usher in the age of brewed coffee, the way to change how we think about brewed coffee, and — most earnestly — as a major point of differentiation between independent coffee shops and the behemoth that is Starbucks. These are folks who’ve just found out that Starbucks has decided to acquire the company that makes the Clover brewer. That’s right… Goliath just bought David’s slingshot. And that odd tap-tappity-tap noise you hear? That’s the sound of every single coffee retailer who has a Clover on order speed-dialing Seattle to see if they’ll still get theirs. But honestly, how could Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz resist? After all, it was Howard who issued the much-leaked clarion call that railed against the commoditization of the “Starbucks experience.” Howard wanted romance; Howard wanted theatre; Howard wanted the smell of ground coffee to once again permeate Starbucks stores. And most recently, Howard showed us all he wanted a consistent experience, by shuttering every single retail Starbucks for a day to retrain its barista staff. The Clover brewer delivers all that — and most importantly — it delivers a really, really great cup of brewed coffee. Provided, that is, that you start with really great coffee beans. So far, the couple hundred Clover brewers in the market today can be found at boutique (call ’em Third...

The Coffee Klatch Anti-Bad-Coffee Movement

Remember that note a few days back where Starbucks was closing up shop for a few hours to retrain its staff? The good folks at Coffee Klatch (Hi, Mike! Hi, Heather!) cleverly decided to offer free coffee while their neighborhood Starbucks shops were closed for a remedial course in coffeeology… and in so doing accidentally started a movement. “First our announcement started circulating on coffee discussion websites and blogs, then our phones started ringing and email messages of support poured in from coast-to-coast,” says Mike Perry, Coffee Klatch president. “I was shocked to see that our local promotion to demonstrate how much better our coffee is than Starbucks had turned into a nationwide uprising of independent coffeehouses.” So walk right on in to Coffee Klatch, or a fine, independent coffee house near you, order yourself a cappuccino, and hum a few bars of Alice’s Restaurant. With...
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