Empire Espresso in Columbia City

Empire Espresso, originally uploaded by andai.

Empire Espresso is Seattle’s Columbia City’s newest coffeehouse. This place is that I discovered while I was temporarily living in Columbia City. I was also able to check out the ground offerings from Columbia City Bakery and Tutta Bella, the Italian Pizzeria who also have an Italian espresso bar. Now for those of you know aware, Columbia City is not a city, but a neighborhood in Seattle, just east of Beacon Hill. I have talked to quite a few, even from the Seattle area, who have never even heard of Columbia City.

Empire is actually owned and run by a pretty cool chap called Tino. What is interesting about Empire is that when you first step into the place, you notice immediately that the place is a little different in terms of the interior design. On talking to Tino himself, I quickly found out that the place was actually designed by a team of architects… the same architects whose offices are in the same building, up stairs. Apparently the architects are also his parents too… so I am guessing he probably got a great rate for the design work.

Tino has been in coffee for a while now. In a past life he was a barista, and even worked as a bar tender at one time. But it was last year that he decided to strike out on his own and start his own coffeehouse in the area where he grew up, that is, Columbia City. In addition to his parents being close by, I believe he has quite a bit of family in the immediate area.

And who did he get to supply him with coffee? None other than Seattle Coffee Works’ Sebastian Simsch. I was happy to find a place in Seattle that serves Seattle Coffee Works coffee. It is a little unfortunate that the majority of the roasted coffee beans in Seattle are supplied by a few big names like Cafe Vita and Stumptown. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that their coffee is bad. What I am saying is that it becomes difficult to sample new and exciting roasts from some of the other smaller independent roasters that also have great coffee, so it is always exciting for me to discover coffeehouses in Seattle that have something different. Hence my excitement with Empire.

Overall, I have to say that I liked the coffee there. Tino and his baristas are really friendly and great to chat with. When I first went there, I chatted with one of the baristas who initially gave me the low down about the place. I wanted to take pictures of the inside and I asked the barista on duty for permission. She told me that in general she wouldn’t mind, but since one of the owners was around, I should ask her instead. And she pointed me to this lady who was seated having a conversation about coffee with this other gentleman.

This was the same lady whom I had observed a few minutes earlier drinking a straight espresso shot for the first time and asking the barista a lot of questions about this particular espresso shot and about good vs. bad espresso shots in general. Since she was pretty much engaged in conversation with the other person, I didn’t want to be rude and interrupt so I figured I could come back another day and chat with her. Because of the way she was interacting with the barista and also from the way the barista had pointed her out to me, I initially thought she was the owner of Empire but it was only much, much later that I guessed, and I believe that I am right, she must be Tino’s mother.

The one thing that I didn’t like about Empire, and this is nothing to do with the coffee, were the operating hours. They would close pretty early in the afternoon, sometime between 1 and 3 in the afternoon. However, that was changing around the time I was leaving, and they were going start opening much, much later. This of course makes it easier for those who do not live in Columbia City to stop by later in the evenings since the early closings I think primarily benefits the locals.

So, if you are in and about in Columbia City, I certainly suggest you drop by and check out what Empire and Seattle Coffee Works has to offer.

Coffee and Wireless in Wellington

When one has a laptop but no Internet access at home, finding places to connect to the Internet to check email and surf the web (i.e. if you don’t have a web enabled mobile phone) then becomes another part of your adjustment to life in New Zealand.

Unlike in the US where there are plenty of coffee shops that offer free wireless, and a few that actually make you buy coffee before they grant you access, here it seems those are more in the minority. In addition to this, the access provided in most of those coffee shops are restricted in either the amount of time you can use the access, the amount of data you can download and/or the types of data or files you can download.

To be fair, some of these restrictions are not unusual even in coffee shops in the Seattle area. For example, Fremont Coffee Company, located in the Fremont area requires you to buy coffee before they will give you a voucher with you time limited username and password. Some places like Victrola Coffee on 15th Avenue on upper Capital Hill turns off their Wi-Fi on certain days and at certain times to prevent ‘squatters’ who buy one cup of drip and hang out there the whole day on their laptops thus depriving others a place to seat and enjoy their espresso.. Starbucks had a deal with T-Mobile where one would set up an account for access. They also had a deal where you bought a Starbucks coffee card and somehow through that you could get some sort of Internet access but since I don’t really go to Starbucks to hang out, I never really tried to use their Internet access offerings.

However from the little I have seen so far Internet access is pretty much restricted in some form or the other I have yet to see one coffee shop, of the few that provide access, where you can hang out to your hearts content and download Gigs of iTunes trailers and podcasts. Here is a quick summary of what I have seen so far at three coffee shops;

The first coffee shop/café I used to get Internet access was one called Perretts Cafe. This I think had the most stable of the three. It was relatively easy to connect one the barista gave me the username and password. What in interesting is that I don’t think they actually change the password, nor do they generate multiple usernames which means that once you’ve been there, you can probably hang out somewhere close and access the web without having to pay for coffee or eats. Now the problem I had with this place was that they do restrict the types of files you can download. This includes executables… and that makes sense since you don’t want folks downloading shady binaries via your network. The problem though was that they were garbling my anti-virus definitions files so I couldn’t do any windows system or security updates at all.

Enigma is a great little coffee and lounge on Courtney Place. This is the only one that seems to have no real restrictions as far as I can tell. Part of the reason I really can’t tell however is because it also the slowest and the least stable of the three. To actually be able to get connected, I was told that I had to sit at this particular spot right by the pinball machine… at first I thought she was joking and then one of the other baristas I asked also told me the exact same thing. Regardless, though I was able to connect, the connection and the speed were actually pretty bad.

Of late I have been going to Esquires Coffee for two reasons. First, they actually make good coffee considering they are a chain of not very ‘barista’ looking folks. Second, if you ask, they will give you a voucher for an hour or 60 MB of Internet access, whichever comes first. The Internet provider is a company called TimeZone. In my opinion this is still a good deal I think because you are getting your favorite espresso drink, and they will throw in some ‘free’ Wi-Fi to boot. Now of course there is a bit of a problem in the you get one hour or 60 MB which means that if you were downloading some of your favorite iTunes podcasts or doing your system updates, you might only be there for a couple of minutes. The other problem I was having the last couple of times I used them is that the there were a couple of times when I lost connects to the Internet or the Internet was extremely slow. I would click on a link then wait and wait. But for the most part they are ok.

TimeZone also provide Internet access for Starbucks. We actually went into one of the Starbucks and asked about their Internet access. They told us that Internet access cost $3.00 and no mention of buy coffee and get it free so rather than hang around and ask clarifying questions, we went to Esquires instead.

There is another service called CaféNET that is similar to TimeZone where the company provides Internet access to various eating establishments around the city. This includes Clark’s Café at the Wellington Library. They offer a number of access options but as far as I can see they don’t have vouchers meaning that you have to use your credit card to purchase time.

There are two other options available at the library. Supposedly there is Woosh but I couldn’t get a signal, then there is Telecom who offer access at $9.95 per hour compared to caféNET’s $10 for 24 consecutive hours. I’m sorry but this is exactly the problem I have with these dinosaurs. Why would I opt to pay $10 for an hour of access when I can pay the same for 24 hours of access? This to me is a classic example why no country needs these government monopolies (or former monopolies)!

In general, I think the difference between Seattle and Wellington however is that fundamentally; Internet access is on the whole much cheaper and more pervasive in Seattle than it is here in Wellington. It feels like Seattle was maybe six to eight years ago when Internet access was a little harder to some by and more expensive. But what helped Seattle and this something that I don’t really see here yet is that Seattle had/has a ton of people with laptops so there is much more demand for Wi-Fi be it at home or at coffee shops. Here I really don’t get the sense that a lot of the locals here lug their laptops with them everywhere they go. So as a result what you find that there is less demand for Wi-Fi from locals. At the same time it almost feels like many of those you see with laptops are tourists and travelers. Oh by the way, MacBooks and Accer netbooks seem to be really popular.

And I have to admit, being that I am new to this city, I have barely just began touching the surface with regards to coffee and coffee culture in Wellington… and so this is a topic I will be coming back to again and again as I continue to explore coffee culture here in New Zealand.

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