When I first saw the front page of the Seattle Times, I knew it was going to be a long day. Being a barista who opens, it’s an advantage to be one of the first people to get the paper, especially when you share the property with the Seattle Times. An Undercover Starbucks coming to a neighborhood near me?! Oi. Customers couldn’t stop talking about it. Everyone wanted to know what every barista thought. So we all went through the same conversations that entire week. The monotony of repeated conversations with customers makes the day go ridiculously slow. Twitter was flooded with tweet after tweet, and blog after blog. All in all, this is just another one of those small views on a very large concept.
Before I get into what’s the heck is going on in that cafe, I want to define the who’s who.
Starbucks: A rapidly growing corporation that mainstreamed the latte. A company that is one of the largest specialty coffee buyers in the world. Coffee purchased is then blended away into darker profile roasts that mask the beauties of the coffee. A company, that until recently, was rapidly losing brand value and in need of a serious rescue from it’s own consumer-created culture.
“Us”: A specialized “branch” of an industry devoted to sustainable practices, socially responsible cause-related buying practices, and always seeking the next challenge.
Speaking from the “us” side of this, it’s really easy to make us the heroes of this story. However, its not easy to befriend your enemy. The way I understand it, developing Third Wave cafes have had many bottom-line standards that were based on being higher quality than a Starbucks. This not being true with everyone, we have a progressive culture who’s mindset also intertwines with protecting the farmers from being exploited. Specialty coffee baristas have battled the Frapuccino(tm), the Caramel Machiatto, and the 20 oz “Venti” beverages. It’s a constant frustration to quality focused baristas.
July 24th was the opening day. Lines of people with tons of questions, and an overall media frenzy. It seemed to attract more non-purchasing critics than open-minded tasters. I visited twice. 2 weeks later, I was tallying up visits, 15 already. Now, 22. I have sat, watched, observed, conversed, interviewed and laughed in that cafe. I’ve actually been going there more than the closer coffee establishment that is far more “specialty focused” and reputable. It just happens to be that I live 5 blocks from 15th Ave, so I felt I had a unique opportunity to accurately review it’s performance to our standards. I won’t say anything about the interior design and architecture, although I did interview both designer and architect. My observations are strictly coffee.
The equipment featured at 15th Ave include:
One 4-Group La Marzocco Linea.
Two Mazzer Super Jolly grinders, both with glass hoppers.
One Mazzer Kony grinder.
One Clover coffee brewer
Three Melitta Pour Over Stations (4 slots each)
One Mahlkonig Bulk Grinder (Guatemala I believe)
One Ditting Bulk Grinder
Impressive, right? The cafe has the capabilities of hand-crafted brewing and superior preparation. There are many names to track here. D. Major Cohen, Global Development, Senior Design Manager and Coffee Master, is one of the many faces in Starbucks(r) who seriously gets it. I first met Major at Visions while working with Sarah Dooley at the Coffee Enhancement Lounge (CEL). I served him and Jenna, found out later she’s the 15th Ave store manager, cappuccinos made from S.O.E. shots of Beloya roasted by Victrola Coffee (Selection 15 to be exact, and still available from Victrola.) I had a pleasant time talking to them about coffee. I had no idea at the time what was going on. My biggest surprise was that 15th Ave Coffee had a Mazzer Kony dedicated to a Ethiopian Sundried Yirgacheffe roasted by Starbucks (r). This grinder rotates through other S.O.E. I’ve had a Guatemala as well. Early July, I cupped the same Ethiopian coffee with 7 other Ethiopians: Ecco’s S.O. roast of Beloya Selection #7, Ecco’s Espresso roast of Beloya Selection #7, 49th Parallel’s Beloya Selection #3, Victrola’s Beloya Selection #15, Stumptown’s Misty Valley, and Herkimer’s Misty Valley. I would say that the Bagersh family had a fair representation, wouldn’t you? Starbuck’s Ethiopia did surprisingly well initially. Strawberries with a developing brightness. As it cooled, it completely fell flat and tasted ashy. As an S.O.E., my first shot was over extracted, slightly balanced, lacked body and had an interesting tactile balance. Overall, didn’t meet my lowest standards. I left the cafe disappointed. On my return later that night, I was greeted and asked how my shot was? I told the truth. So the barista walked over to the grinder, purged the chute, and was on his way. I diligently observed consistent dosing, level tamp, purge of the machine, a pre-heated cup, then watched a rich flow of ‘spro into a 1.5 oz ACF tulip. This shot was delicious. Balanced, Bright, rich in berries and vanilla. Great body and a syrupy finish. I wanted to buy another. Later I found out this barista was Jared Mockli, the barista trainer of 15th Ave Coffee and Tea. I ventured around with different drinks, everytime watching the flow of the barista. These baristas are at various skill levels with all the right mindset. If you go there and order any espresso based beverages, I strongly recommend the Single Origin Espresso. I made the mistake of ordering a machiatto with the Starbucks generic blend, and it tasted horrible. It’s no secret that the biggest complaint is the signature Char-bucks roast. We all dread it. It’s so unfotunate. Smaller quantity, better quality. I hope Starbucks(r) soon decides to utilize this approach. It’s terrible that the roast they currently use neglects the attention a coffee needs. The introduction of a cafe that is focused more on quality than quantity means an entirely different understanding of Starbucks(r) roasted coffee. There are “small batch” coffees being roasted by Starbucks(r) for stores that are featuring a Clover ™ or have been given an eco-friendly makeover, and in this case, a quality focused “street level” establishment. So far, I’ve only had 1 coffee off of the Clover ™ that has impressed me. I’m certain they aren’t dialing in their Clover ™ coffees and they have not been given any formal training for the machine. I’m shocked that so much energy was put into various brewing techniques in this cafe, yet they seemed to have neglected to utilize the knowledge of the company they bought. I’ve had conversation with a barista there about it, and I hope to see an improvement soon. The coffees I’ve had seem to lack any complexity. In all my observations, I’ve yet to see a barista there make Clover coffee to taste and see where the coffee is. They do weight out beans, wipe the filter clean, run rinse cycles, and clean daily. But as a whole, the biggest fear of the specialty industry with the acquisition of Coffee Equipment Company by Starbucks(r), was that this tool that allowed a baristas capability and judgement to bring the high quality at a consitent rate, was bought out for the exploitation of the ability to say “fresh.” Bummer. The Melitta’s are my preferred brew apparatus from 15th Ave. In general, I’ve noticed they produced a cleaner cup with their coffees. Unfortunately, the coffees are left out all day, in open bins with labels in them. This is the only thing I don’t understand. Although I know that hope for some of those beans is long gone, others are delicious coffees with lighter roasts that have produced delicious coffees, unfortunately they sit out and oxidize all day.I question the constant negligence in all of the flavor profiles there.
The thing that sold me about this concept was the people involved in it. The biggest turn-on was the progressive mindset and transparency of the entire concept. Every barista has been extremely friendly and most greet me by name. One of my most interesting conversations was with Barista Trainer Jared Mockli, who’s also a trainer for a well known barista school. Every person involved in making this project happen is passionate about coffee at various levels. I was recently talking to a friend who pointed out that Starbucks(r) is a group of individuals who are everyday people, and in many cases, just as passionate about their involvement in coffee as we are. I started thinking about how many people I know in the specialty coffee industry who all started as green apron baristas and how Starbucks (r) had lost them. I even know a certain espresso machine developer who started there. Think about all of the amazing baristas that the company lost because they no longer had anything to challenge them with. There now could be a place for passionate coffee people to go within the company. Where would Third Wave be without Starbucks(r)? With a higher quality focused cafe, the “Third Wave Bottom-Line Starbucks(r) Standard” that I mentioned earlier suddenly is higher and is a threat to lower quality independent cafes. I have to see this as a growing opportunity to these cafes. It only takes energy to apply knowledge and learn. With the new challenges of new standards, a rising tide will float all boats. I hope to see many more cafes stepping up their focus on coffee. As far as the expansion of these concepts to a broader market, I see the chance of two polar opposite possibilities. Either the “street level” coffee concept is strictly in major cities for obvious reasons. Or, Starbucks (r) uses this as an opportunity. I would love to see places like my hometown that has 17 Starbucks(r), get a “street level” coffee establishment. Starbucks(r) could close 5 of those stores and run one of their street level concepts. They would be a pioneer in that area. There are hundreds of U.S. cities that have NO specialty coffee establishments, but multiple Starbucks(r) locations. Those locations could be the link for everyone to a broader market. Forget the money aspect of that. The specialty coffee market prides itself in educating the public. This company has now taken on the task of fighting the ill-guided consumer base and is assisting in showcasing some beauties in coffee. Everyday at 15th Ave Coffee & Tea, Major does a 10am tasting of either coffees or teas. (BTW, they have an extremely impressive loose-leaf tea selection. Seriously awesome.) I had the privilege of stumbling across one where I watched Major entice a customer into tasting coffees and they loved it. The guys were back the next day for the entire cupping. A success for anyone in coffee.
My overall opinion, I recommend watching this concept develop. It’s a great idea, and so far, it’s improving and still focused on the right things. I, however, fear the abuse of the success of this idea. I hope that Starbucks(r) does not turn this into another concept that is replicated as many times as possible without any discretion. They learned from that mistake, right? This is a huge opportunity for our industry as a whole. I also have many apprehensions of the direction of the overall concept. I do know that Starbucks has a very difficult choice to make. Fully automated fast food coffee, or a liason to the specialty coffee community. Either way, we’ll see what happens. I can’t say what Starbucks(r)’s Street Level Coffee will do next, but I do know as long as we share a common goal, I will continue to encourage industry professionals to keep an open mind.