Roy Street Coffee & Tea, Very “Un-Starbucks”…


Roy Street Coffee & Tea was opened and “inspired by” Starbucks Coffee Co. at 700 Broadway E. in Seattle,WA 2 weeks ago on November 18th.

It’s not a difficult observation, tons of money has been invested into this café. Roy Street Coffee is just a stone’s throw from indie café Joe-Bar, 2 blocks from Vivace (Brix), and a short walk to its sister store, 15th Ave Coffee & Tea.   If you’ve seen the first store, you will easily be able to see the amount of energy that went into the development of the next store for Street Level Coffee.  Starbucks has made no shortcuts in this cafe.

The bar design is fairly simple and wraps around the café in a manner that’s open and exposed to anyone who wants to take a closer look. Roy Street prominently features the latest and greatest from Synesso, the pressure-profiled Hydra, as well as two new Anfim 2.0 grinders complete with digital timer modifications. The entire left group of the Hydra is dedicated to Single Origin Espresso (SOE) and is equipped with a bottomless portafilter. Underneath the machine lies a portafilter with a blank insert for backflushing as well as a demitasse for the barista to taste shots throughout their shift. I’ve observed the Street Level baristas tasting shots during slower periods and, on a couple occasions, have even been asked to try shots while a barista made adjustments to the Anfims. There are roasted samples of different coffees on their menu accenting the wood bar as well as a massive pot of coffee in dried parchment. There is a small area dedicated to home brewing equipment and merchandise: Hario kettles and hand grinders, Chemex, tea wares, some porcelain cups, Roy Street shirts and, of course, Starbucks VIA. The displays are prominently juxtaposed on either side of the main glass entrance and both are butted-up next to cafe seating, making it impractical for anyone to take a closer look at them.

I show up at 6.30 am on Opening Day, walk up to the register and order a single origin espresso of the Ethiopia Sun-Dried Yirgacheffe as well as a pour-over of the Panama Hacienda la Esmeralda Diamond Mountain. I’m not a big fan of pour-over bars, but my palate wasn’t ready for a Clover coffee yet. Jared Mockli, barista trainer at both stores, was on bar and pulling shots. While waiting for my shot, I wandered around the new café. Howard Shultz was sitting by the bar,Sprudge.com editors were already sitting at a table with their coffees; I was still wiping the sleep out of my eyes. My espresso was served and I quickly was off to a corner to wake up. The shot was tasty; extraordinary “for Starbucks coffee.” I couldn’t believe that I was enjoying a shot of a Starbucks single origin espresso. The same Yirgacheffe was the first coffee I had off of a Starbucks Clover, memorable to say the least. The new concept store, naturally, also has a Clover and it’s own dedicated grinder. In addition to the Clover, you can also get a coffee from their pour-over bar or as a French press. Coffee is scooped out of bins on the back counter, weighed out, and ground fresh for every coffee. I didn’t like the Esmeralda from the pour-over bar.  The Panamanian coffee was one of the “featured coffees” at Roy St. Now that I’ve had it off the Clover as well as cupped it twice, I can still say I don’t enjoy it. I later saw the beans of the Ethiopia Sun-Dried Yirgacheffe and noticed the roast level seem to be moving away from the signature “Charbucks” roast. Just like 15th Ave Coffee’s public cuppings at 11 am everyday, Roy Street Coffee has a public cupping everyday at 3 pm (Update: 02-08-10 Cuppings have been moved to 10am at Roy Street). I cupped the Starbucks feature coffees with some other specialty coffee roasters after the Roy St. opening last week. I wasn’t a fan of the Panama Esmeralda Diamond Mountain on the table then either. I remain disappointed by the representation of the coffee and it makes me wonder what could have been. On my return trips, the espresso beverages I’ve ordered have been more than servable. Mockli has done an overall amazing job developing and training the staff with high standards.

As the sun sets over Puget Sound, you’ll observe Roy St. staff lighting candles and the music shifts to a more relaxing tone; transforming the space with a little evening-time tweaking. Roy St. is surrounded by massive glass windows that showcase the vibrant neighborhood where Broadway starts it’s retail journey south toward Pike St.

It is illuminated by beautiful Edison lights that warm the café combined with it’s accent lighting. The evening design accents one of Roy Street’s unexpected features, a theatre within the café. Red velvet curtains are strategically placed around the café, and if you look even harder and you’ll notice that there is a projector hanging from the ceiling as well as a

pull down screen. These velvet curtains can be pulled shut for a secluded area complete with surround sound creating a theatre-like environment. Both Street Level stores offer beer and wine, a small variety of café munchies and food. Pastries are stacked high behind glass while dessert from Essential Baking Company and another local bakery tease you as you wait to order.

There’s one thing that I truly enjoy with every one of my visits to the Street Level Coffee store, and it’s the staff. There’s a refreshing transparency in the entire staff at both of these stores. They’re all employed by Starbucks to embrace coffee at a completely new level for the company. The staff is composed of new hires, and transplants from other stores including 15th Ave Coffee. Starbucks has been a leader in their employment practices for years and that’s another thing to be admired. The Street Level staff knows they’re in Seattle, the ‘City of Coffee’, and there is a lot of attention on their performance coming from every direction. In a way, they are defining where this project goes and how it gets there. Unlike most coffee shops in Seattle, this staff knows they, as a whole, have a long journey of growth ahead of them and it is because of this that they continue to strive to learn more. I feel that because this is an entirely new journey for everyone, they appreciate the opportunity more. There is a sense of eagerness that you can feel in the staff and a refreshing outlook in every barista. It’s really easy to forget that the company has amazing people in it.

The second Street Level Coffee store to open means a variety of things. For starters, it meant a glimpse into the reality of what Starbucks could become and what they’re capable of, and I think that’s an element that frustrates people. It’s close to my house, they have a friendly and eclectic staff, warm atmosphere, they’re open later and it’s a comfortable place. (It’s still farther than Vivace and Victrola) Sure it’s Starbucks’ coffee, but there are many other worse options. I still haven’t gone into an actual Starbucks in 3 years. I believe this is a great way for Starbucks to get back to its roots and get consumers to re-think about the company as well as redefine themselves. It’s hard to say where exactly this is going to go and I’m not going to try and predict it either. There are many theories and models that people have thrown out there as to where this project is going. We’ll never know until it actually happens, so to stress about it now is just a waste of time. If all else fails, it at least gets our consumers to ask questions. I can name plenty of cafes that source some awesome coffees from awesome roasters, and then serve them with low standards; they are independent and local though, so it’s okay for it to taste horrible. I wish the boastful “vigilantes” would be just as critical to the local shops as they are with the corporate ones with quality standards. I do understand the double standard, but what is really our goal for Starbucks? We are about showcasing the coffee producer through the coffee and letting it speak for itself and supporting the concepts of sustainability. There have been so many complaints about Starbucks environment, their push button machines, and the way they represent coffee; yet when they do something about it people are slamming them harder than ever. I feel that Starbucks has potential, but just as the 16oz NF SF Vanilla Latte was a fad, so is people blindly hating the company. They might not be perfect, but they listen to their consumers and there’s enough people in the market.

I remain open-minded about this concept. With the introduction of Street Level Coffee, I’ve had customers ask more questions and, whether you like it or not, it starts a dialogue. This initiation of a dialogue with customers is KEY to our role, as baristas, in the coffee chain. On one hand, I understand the fear and aggressiveness directed at Starbucks by the “local” cafes; on the other hand, I think we really need to re-think how we’re approaching this. Is the addition of more more cafe really the end of a strong coffee community in Seattle? I’m not an expert on the history of Starbucks, and to be honest, I don’t care. Starbucks is starting to take control of their company once again. I admire this. They are getting back to their roots and showing that they are listening. They are a super power in the world of coffee and things could be much worse. Personally, I’m excited to see what comes out of the shift to compete more with quality focused, specialty cafes. Like I said in my 15th Ave Coffee review, a rising tide floats all boats. Unfortunately, some boats will sink with the rising tide. Honestly? I see potential for Starbucks to learn more and, in doing so, become better ambassadors to coffee . As far as I know, there are no plans to open up another “Street Level Coffee” concept store. It’s not easy to look at Starbucks and view the demitasse as half full, but I’d much rather just sit back and enjoy the coffee.


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10 Comments on “Roy Street Coffee & Tea, Very “Un-Starbucks”…”

  1. 12/03/2009 at 7:33 am #

    Hmmm. I’d like to say about fifty different things, some of them directly contradicting one another. I suppose that’s that’s a slightly longer way of saying, “Alex, I feel like I need to go sit in a corner and think now.” I think I say that because while a part of me totally gets what you’re saying, another part of me doesn’t want me to jive with that. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but in regard to this post, I’m guessing that it was not only difficult to write, it was also very unwieldy and difficult to get a handle on your thoughts. I only say that because that’s what Starbucks (Howard Schultz, specifically) seems to have done with 15th Ave and Roy St. They’ve taken coffee and done something that’s captured our attention and made us re-think how we feel about and treat “Charbucks”. On a deeper, even more coffee-philosophy level, the whole Street Level coffee thing has made me take a good, long look at my own place in coffee, not just theirs…you know?

  2. 12/04/2009 at 11:43 pm #

    Hi there! Definitely an intriguing blog post. I liked your concrete identification of the double-standard because I see that all the time. Also, I tend to have some disdain surrounding the use of the phrase “Charbucks” because it seems to dismiss any acknowledgment that there are people who really like a darkly roasted coffee. Anyway, thank you for the open-minded post. You did a great job of describing the new kind of Starbucks experience which sort of embodies the best of what it had – The employees, with re-inventing the quality coffee & espresso experience.

    (As an aside, you have a couple of minor grammar problems throughout the post)

    • 03/25/2011 at 12:04 pm #

      No one is denying that people like a dark roast because for many years that was the standard roast profile. The point of the “third wave” is influence people to taste the coffee rather than the roast. Melody you are passionate for the Starbucks way, but we are equally passionate for the non-starbucks way. Fresher coffee, higher quality coffee, lighter roasts and taking more care in making coffee. It is glaringly obvious that Starbucks sees what the third wave is doing and is incorporating this focus to quality into this location. Now, the hope is that they take it beyond these two stores and make it company wide.

  3. zeigfreid
    12/20/2009 at 6:41 pm #

    This blog post expresses my feelings very accurately. I visited 15th Ave today for the first time (I am a barista in Vancouver), and participated in a public cupping there. The atmosphere, the product, and the staff where all to my liking.

    Like you, I am afraid of organisms that are concerned only with growth and adaptation. It is easy to imagine that this new concept store is nothing more than an expression of growth, and that is what many in our culture have done. It is difficult for us to accept, but somewhere deep inside that organism there are individuals whose love and understanding of coffee is as complete as ours.

    I wanted mention that this blog could use a nice favicon. People love favicons. http://absolutely2nothing.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/adding-a-favicon-to-your-wordpress-com-blog/

  4. sandy
    01/01/2010 at 12:29 pm #

    Hey Alex,
    I really liked this post. Something that I try to remind people of when discussing Starbucks is that (the macchiato issue aside) they really did the hard part of (sort of) teaching people what lattes and caps are. They made our jobs possible. Not to say “Don’t bite the hand that feeds”, but none of us could be in this industry had Starbucks not swept the globe. Plus, though I have no real evidence, except from an interview with the Peterson family from Hacienda le Esmerelda, I heard repeatedly that they actually do some really great work for farmers.

    ANYWAY. I really appreciated how fair you were in this article, and I really appreciate that you remained focused on the important issue: Is the coffee good?

    I also liked your point about holding indie shops accountable. There is no excuse for serving bad coffee. Either you don’t know or you don’t care, and in either case, you really have no business running a coffee shop.

    Really great review of the shop, Alex. I used to live at Broadway and Mercer and wish that it would have been there when I was.

    Thanks,
    -sandy

  5. Nathan
    05/09/2010 at 10:17 pm #

    I love amazing coffee. In general, I am against large corporate retailers. Starbucks is simply muscling into a fairly new niche of the industry that makes money. They’re run by a board of directors answering to shareholders and hire consulting firms that advise them on how to make more money and then help them execute the plans. That nice barista running that sweet Hydra may be sincere and may really care that your espresso tastes as good as it possibly can, but that’s where the candy coating stops. Starbucks bought the rights to the Clover to keep control over who can have one. How many calories are in a 20oz Mocha Frappuchino? Starbucks can get any location it wants over an independent cafe or roaster. Can you afford a bidding war with them?

    Companies like Starbucks stifle progress by giving so much priority to the bottom line and mass production while occupying such a large portion of the market. They aren’t pushing boundaries with these nice new faux-indie cafes, they’re copying the business models of already successful independent businesses competing amongst themselves in one of the only niches of the industry this titan had not yet tainted.

    Inspired by Starbucks? Hardly. Inspired by money, owned by Starbucks. When you buy coffee here you are patronizing a Starbucks. Congratulations.

    • james whitney
      05/20/2010 at 10:11 pm #

      I’m totally with you Nathan! this is not an independent coffee shop, but it does directly effect all the independent coffee shops in seattle. It can not fail, that fact alone is a great reason to stay away from it. Starbucks new concept stores exist specifically to destroy other independent shops. they are a product of jealousy and greed. Roys has a clover but how can they be proud of it? it was secured for them years ago and they were destined to be the only coffee shop in there neighborhood to have one. they didnt “geek out” and order a new toy, their coffee parents stole the toys from all the other kids long before these “geeks” were born.

    • 03/25/2011 at 12:13 pm #

      Nathan, it is not Starbucks’ fault they are successful, but it is their customers. I am glad they are successful because it has allowed me as an independent coffee shop to provide a product that once was scoffed at. Even here in small town Oklahoma people are glad that someone like me came in after Starbucks closed shop. I believe we do it better and my customers seem to agree. We all have a place in the market. Only the market will decide if I stay.

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