15th Avenue E Coffee & Tea. Inspired by Starbucks?



15th Avenue Coffee & Tea Sign, originally uploaded by andai.

15th Avenue East Coffee and Tea opened their doors bright and early this morning and I was in the vicinity later that morning. As I drove by the store around 8 AM, and it was interesting to note that there wasn’t a huge crowd trying to get into the store to try it out. Yes it looked like there were a few folks in there placing orders, but nothing yet like I would have expected after all the publicity they had been getting of late. But then again, it was still early and the day was young. And there were probably folk out there like me who are not necessarily going to go in on the first day, but will certainly visit the place and give it a try… at the very least to be able to say, “Yeah, I’ve tried their coffee and I think it’s…”

Regardless, what I found to be actually more interesting to me was the signage on the door of the ‘new’ shop. The signage stated the name of the store then included the phrase “Inspired by Starbucks” Now that is what I thought that was pretty hilarious on a couple of fronts.

First, despite all the hoopla that has been made about removing the Starbucks name and brand from the store, they just couldn’t help but find a way to put that name in there somewhere, and right on the front door where it smacks you right in the face. A friendly slap in the face to remind you that yes, you are entering Starbucks property. But the second and even more hilarious aspect of that phrase was it brought to mind the question as to why an ‘indie’ store would really be proud of being inspired by Starbucks. I mean, even if this was indeed a truly indie store, would they really be inspired by Starbucks? I don’t know, to me it was a rather bizarre statement (or tag line) to put in. I think they should take out that piece of verbiage.

For a couple of reasons I decided I didn’t want to drop in for a drink and so I continued on my way. I passed by Victrola Coffee which had a couple of people sitting outside enjoying their drinks. A few doors down also on my left is Caffé Ladro which had at least 5 people in line waiting to place their orders. I eventually ended up at the Whole foods along Denny Way and there I got an excellent Allegro Coffee latte. The espresso was pulled by a really cool barista with tons of tattoos on her arms and legs. She frothed the milk and I noted how she carefully poured the milk into the espresso shots and completing it with a nice thick head of foam, topped off with a beautiful Rosetta. She then presented it to me with extreme pride… this was her art.

And as I was enjoying my latte, I thought to myself, this is what Starbucks is missing. Starbucks does not seem to have the baristas who are passionate about their coffee and their culture. For too long I think Starbucks baristas have their orders from corporate with procedures on how to do everything. In other words, this is corporate culture, not coffee culture.

Well, I can only say Starbucks really needs to step up its game and serve great espresso that looks like real espresso, and employ baristas who live and breathe the coffee culture not corporate culture. I don’t think Starbucks is going away, not by any means, but I do think that Starbucks has become a commodity and their little experiment will certainly fizzle out if they can’t reinvent themselves and bring that real coffee culture that seems to have slipped through their fingers.

A Starbucks By Any Name Tastes Just As…



15th Avenue Coffee & Tea Remodeling, originally uploaded by andai.

Today at 6:00 AM marks a new era in the ‘reign’ of Starbucks Coffee.

At that time, Starbucks will open its first ‘I am not a Starbucks’ coffee shop up on 15th Avenue in Seattle’s Capital Hill neighborhood right next to Smith.

Now if you are familiar with this location, you will recognize that this is the exact same location where only a few months ago, there was a Starbucks branded coffee shop. To reinforce the idea that this is not a Starbucks (branded) store, you will not see any Starbucks branding anywhere. Instead, this shop will simply be called, appropriately enough, “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea”. This article by the Seattle Times business writer and coffee blogger, Melissa Allison, gives a detailed look at what the new store will look like. It is pretty clear that Starbucks is shedding its familiar corporate style coffeehouse decor and instead going the ‘indie’ look and feel… complete with furniture and fixtures made of ‘recycled’ materials.

So Starbucks, that company that is one of the kings of branding, now going in the total opposite direction and hiding the fact that this is indeed a Starbucks owned store? Why are they doing this? What gives? I think the answer is simple. Declining revenues, poorly performing stores and reduced foot traffic is the answer. And despite the fact that they have their stores all over the place, there is a huge segment of the coffee drinkers who simply shun the corporate coffee companies and instead stick to and support the smaller independent coffee shops. I think Starbucks is now trying to attract this group and this store is the first of three in this new experiment. And in addition to coffee, they will be selling beer and wine.

So is Starbucks likely to succeed in this new experiment? To be honest, from what I have seen, I don’t have much hope that they will. I think it is ironic that this move by Starbucks has gotten a lot of press, including some from the major news networks and foreign press. So on the one hand, we all know that this is indeed a Starbucks shop so the crowd that they are attempting to attract will not be fooled by this. But on the other hand, the publicity they have gotten will certainly garner a lot of interest and attention for Starbucks and will probably boost traffic this particular store… at least in the short run.

But if I may expound in a little more detail why I don’t think they will be very successful include the following reasons.

a. Starbucks is way, way too corporate. They do not have an iota of ‘indie’ in them. It is interesting to note that during the initial stages of the planning and remodeling, Starbuck actually had a team of observers, all carrying their little folders, who would go to the various independent coffee shops around Seattle and ‘observe’. I thought this was really incredible because it immediately says to me that these folks have never really hang out at any independent coffee shops and thus are really not familiar with the way these places look and feel. I think they have been stuck too long in the corporate coffee culture for way too long that they really don’t understand what the other half are doing.

b. The name of this location (as will be the same when they open their other experimental stores) is supposed to reflect the neighborhood of the place where the store is located. Now think about this, if the best that they can come up with is “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea”, then I don’t really know what to say.

c. I think the big test though will be how they prepare their coffee. If all they have are their usual automated machines and baristas who really don’t know much about the coffee and where they source from, if they have baristas who really can’t carry a conversation about dry vs. wet cappuccino and all they can do is smile and wish you a nice day, then I don’t really see too much hope. The real test will come if they can indeed make excellent coffee….

But I have to be honest. I associate Starbucks with soccer moms and their little kids who want the hot chocolate and I really can not see how they expect to get the ‘real’ coffee appassionatos to start hanging out in their stores. The espresso appassionatos know their coffee, their coffee shops, their roasters and their baristas really well and they avoid Starbucks for many a reason. I know for one, I will go and try their coffee, but after that, I am really not interested in going to hang out there. I’d rather go to Victrola or Insomniax or Tougo or Fuel or Vivace or Stumptown or Kaladi Brothers, all of which relatively close are all small independent business and make great coffee.

But time will tell whether Starbucks will indeed be able to pull this off.

Stella Caffé’s Italian Style Espresso



Stella Caffé Flagship, originally uploaded by andai.

I really like Stella Caffé. It has to be one of my top five favorite coffeehouses in Seattle. The only problem for me though is that I just don’t find myself too often hanging out in the area around the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) which is the next block over, north of Stella Caffé’s retail location. But I certainly do make the effort to get there when I happen to be in the area.

I first heard about Stella Caffé from a workmate (lets call her A), who had heard about the place from another workmate (lets call him B). Workmate “A”, knowing that I am always looking for new and interesting coffee shops to try out told me how workmate “B” just wouldn’t stop raving about the Roman coffee that he would always get at the shop. The only thing here was they workmate “A” could not remember the name of the shop and exactly where it was located. I did talk to “B” and though he told me the general area where the store was located, he could not remember the actual name of the shop.

It was happenstance that a three or four weeks later I happened to stumble upon this coffeehouse looking store. I was a bit taken back because for as long as I could remember, that particular store was a clothing store, but now as I was walking right by it, it looked like a coffee shop. Clearly the previous business was no longer located at this space. And of course you know me, I just had to go in and check out the place.

From the moment I stepped into the store, I loved it. The decor reminded me of an Italian style coffee shop, and had a bit of the essence of Mirage Coffee down in Victoria BC… but just a bit. I loved the fact that they actually had a real espresso bar where you could stand and enjoy your espresso… that is if you weren’t interested in sitting down. I liked the Vespa they had parked in the window, and the other bike they had in the large, mostly empty room they had in the back. I really, really liked the fact that the pictures on the wall were not from “yet another artist selling their works”, but were pictures that were shot by Rob’s wife in Italy. Beautiful pictures of Italian coffee culture. Before I continue, maybe I should take a moment and introduce you to Rob.

Meet Rob. Rob Wilson. He is the owner of Stella Caffé, is a pretty cool guy and very interesting to chat with. We chatted for a while about how he came into the coffee business and told me about his stints in Australia and in Italy. It was in Italy where he was inspired to come back to the US and open a proper Italian style coffeehouse, serving world class authentic Italian coffee and give Seattlites a more authentic Italian style coffee experience. You can read more about his foreign experiences in this Seattle Times article by Melissa Allison and Amy Martinez.

Rob roasts his own coffee beans… and I must say that he does a really great job. As we were chatting, me made me great latte. It was nice and strong with really great flavor. The blend that they serve for the espresso drinks is called the Suprema blend… that’s good stuff right there.

I then had to ask him about the Roman coffee. At first he seemed a little confused then he asked me whether I was talking about the Roman Cappuccino, not the Roman coffee. I told him that must have been it… considering that the “B” couldn’t remember the name, Stella Caffé, it was highly probable that “B” also got the name a little mixed up. Anyway, Rob told me a bit about the Roman Cappuccino and offered to make me one. Since I already had a latte, I declined his offer but suggested that next time I was in the place, I would take him up on his offer… and that I did a couple of weeks later. I thought the Roman cappuccino was great.. though I don’t normally drink cappuccinos, I understand why “B” totally loved to drink.

I think Rod and his baristas are great. He does a great job of chatting with and getting to know his customers. While the baristas are friendly and seem to be genuine and they do a great job with the drinks.

I have to say that I like the place, been there on more than a couple of occasions and I still plan on dropping by for an espresso drink whenever I am in the vicinity.

LOC.18 Cafe in Thailand

Our guest blogger Michael Wu tends to travel extensively in the Asia region and sent us this brief post from his recent visit to Thailand

Suwat de ka. That’s the proper greeting in Thai. Thailand is known for many things but I was pleasantly surprise to see that coffeehouses and cafes are very much part of the daily culture. And I’m not talking about traditional Thai coffee – all of the cafes you’ll be reading from me are western influenced.

First up is a little cafe run by the Niphanphaisal family, who own and operate the Sathorn Place boutique hotel. Situated just outside of the hotel lobby, it provides easy access and proverbial view of who’s coming in and out of the hotel. Comfortable seating is casually set out – given a very homely feeling. Patrons are sheltered from the heat under shades and open air.

It opens daily from 7AM to 4pm – serving both western and Thai breakfasts and lunch.

Now on with the coffee – menu is limited but enough to cover your basics with a coupe of specialties of their own. LOC.18 coffee is a blended coffee drink with cream and sweet honey. Coffee bean is flavorful – I would describe it’s flavor as mild. Not sure which local brand of coffee they use but will find out before the trip is over.

Porchlight Coffee, Cafe Char and that Other Coffee Company



Porchlight Coffee Sign, originally uploaded by andai.

In the last month or so, two new coffee shops have opened up on the upper Capital hill and Madison areas. These are Porchlight Coffee and Cafe Char. But now there is a third coffee shop that will be opening soon. This new, yet to be opened coffee shop will be called “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea”.

Porchlight Coffee is located up on 14th between Pike and Pine, right round the corner from Old School Frozen Custard. I have been there, but I haven’t had the coffee yet. They serve Herkimer coffee and I certainly I do plan on checking the place out.

Cafe Char is located on East Madison, just about on the corner of East Madison and 23rd Avenue. The serve beans from Caffe Vita. I have also been there, but just like Porchlight Coffee, I haven’t tried the coffee yet. I also plan on checking this place out shortly.

Now “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea” is going to be located on 15th Avenue where the old Starbucks coffee shop on 15th was located. And there is a good reason for this. Its not that the Starbucks coffee shop there went out of business and closed shop, rather, “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea” is actually a Starbucks store, but without any Starbucks branding at all. In other words, its Starbucks, but Starbucks doesn’t want you to know it’s Starbucks. I will talk at length about what I think about this strategy in my next blog post.

Now some may think that the Capital area has way to many coffee shops but I totally disagree. Though I think we have too many corporate coffee shops on Capital hill, on the other hand I don’t think we have enough independent coffee shops. What we need are coffee shops that are not only independent, but offer diversity of coffee roasters. I for one am tired of going to the different coffee shops and finding that they all serve beans from the same roasters….

Mioposto Caffè e Pizzeria and Caffè Vita Espresso?



Mioposto Latte, originally uploaded by andai.

I happened upon Mioposto Caffè e Pizzeria totally by chance while I was up and about and passing through the neighborhood of Mount Baker.

It all started while I was driving along the Lake Washington Blvd just to the south of I-5. After a bit of driving I decided I had gone far enough south and it was time to turn and go back the way I had originally come. There was this turn off just ahead and to my right that looked perfect for this so I made a right and immediately started looking for a good turn around spot.

Now to the left were some really nice houses while to my right was a really nice park… and just ahead was a small clump of shops and restaurants. The area looked very pleasant… a sign welcomed me to the Mount Baker neighborhood. This is where I found Mioposto Caffè e Pizzeria(i.e caffè & Pizzeria). right at the corner.

What initially made me sit up and take notice was that the signage of Mioposto looked more like what I would expect of a proper ‘authentic’ Italian pizzeria. Even the name Mioposto which means “My place” looked very Italian to me. Then, to make matters even better, the signage also mentioned that Mioposto also served espresso drinks… this is what really got me excited because I thought that they must indeed serve the real Italian style espresso since the place sounded very Italian. So I made a mental note to come back in a few days since at the moment I was not really in need of espresso.

And come back I did. Now right off the bat there were some things that I liked about the Mioposto and one really important, thing that I didn’t like about the place.

First, what I liked about Mioposto was that the atmosphere, though a little loud was great. Lots of the neighborhood people stopped by for a pizza dinner, some for espresso… and the food was good. The staff were great and fun to talk too…. and didn’t frown on me taking pictures of the place. That was what I liked about the place.

On the other hand, I didn’t like that they served Caffè Vita coffee. This might sound weird but let me explain further. Like I had mentioned in my long winded preamble, when I first saw Mioposto Caffè e Pizzeria, I was thinking wow! this looks like a great authentic Italian pizzeria… then when I saw that they served espresso, I thought they should be having some really great Italian style espresso. But unfortunately they don’t. Mind you, there are plenty of roasting companies here in Seattle that specialize in Italian roasts.

Some of these roasters include Caffè Umbria, Caffè D’arte (my favorite Italian style coffee) or even the Starbucks owned Torrefazione Italia. But Caffè Vita is certainly not one that I would consider to be Italian style. Now hear me out. I am not saying Caffè Vita is bad coffee, not at all. All I am saying is that I really think if Mioposto were to use a proper Italian style roast(er), that would certainly go a long way to making their espresso offerings much more inline with their business and the overall customer experience.

That being said, I will go back again… for pizza… and espresso.. but I will also let them know that maybe they should consider their coffee in light of the fact that they are a pizzeria.

Blue Saucer Cafe for Stumptown Coffee and Fine Teas



Blue Saucer Cafe, originally uploaded by andai.

I usually drive by the Blue Saucer Cafe on most Sundays and I have always wanted to stop and try it out. The reason I didn’t do so until recently is if you were to take a casual glance at the place as you pass by, looked more like some small restaurant then a coffee shop… In other words the place just did not look very “coffeeish” to me.

Well this one Sunday I decided that I might as well stop by and check it out and if I didn’t like it, then I simply wouldn’t go back again. And so I did. The inside was much different than I had expected… it actually looked coffee shop’ish to me… not Capital Hill coffee shop style, and certainly not the Capital Hill type of customer but nonetheless the place was inviting.

The baristas on duty were really nice and told me a bit about their coffee.They pride themselves in serving Stumptown coffee in addition to having a fine selection of great teas. Like most of the coffee shops here in Seattle that use Stumptown coffee beans, they use Stumptown’s Hairbender blend for the espresso. However, for the drip coffee, they use a French press as opposed to the common way most places will brew their drip.

In addition to French pressing the drip, they tend to rotate the blends of drip coffee so if you decide to go there, be sure to ask what blend they are serving that day. Now I have to be honest, I tried a sample of the French pressed drip that was being served that day but I really didn’t like it that much. I think partly the answer may have been because it was rather weak and watery.

On the other hand the latte I got was actually pretty decent. Good, familiar Stumptown flavor… though I wouldn’t have minded if it was a little stronger… but that is what I have noticed with a lot of places that serve Stumptown, the espresso drinks tend to be a tad on the milder side.

The Blue Saucer Cafe opened for business last year in March. They are located in the Maple Leaf neighborhood and they seem to be doing well. And I have to admit, though I wouldn’t mind going back again for another latte, there are two places relatively close by that I think server better espress… these are Cloud City Coffee (better) and Javasti (even better!).

I am Sleepy, Really, Really Sleepy…

I am having a really hard time staying awake… Oh! My kingdom for a bed! Well that won’t work right now so instead, my kingdom for a double espresso!

I have been staying up late each night working to get the house organized and neat. I have been staying up late working to get rid of stuff that I have accumulated over the years and do not necessarily now need or even used for years. I have been staying up late each night to do all this because I am unable to take care of more of this stuff during the day. You know, I have to work and there are only so many hours in a day so a lot of my night time sleep time is being taken up by this.

And why am I doing this now? Well I really don’t want to talk about the reasons why I am doing all this organizing, boxing stuff up and ‘spring cleaning’, that I will talk about more in the coming months. Suffice it to say, I have over the years collected a lot of stuff that for the most part I haven’t used in years and I think part of it is that it is time to stop hoarding. I have often wondered what it is, this attachment, that we as humans seem to have towards collecting and accumulating stuff, then building bigger barns because we have simply run out of space to store stuff.

Anyway I decided to get a really strong Americano. I had them make a 6 oz double American which gave me a nice strong drink and that seems to have done the trick. I am much more wide awake now and hopefully I will make it to 5…

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