I remember very clearly when the Starbucks store on Capital Hill’s 15th Avenue shut down. At first I thought they were gone as part of the restructuring going on at Starbucks when they closed a number of their stores. But I soon realized that something was up because they simply boarded up the place and soon after construction began behind closed doors. Now first forward a couple of months later and the rumors started coming out about the new Starbucks store that was opening on 15th. This new store was rumored to be different from the regular Starbucks stores we have all come to love or loathe depending on what type of a coffee person you are. This was going to be the first of the non branded Starbucks stores which were essentially going back to their roots. A time when they were more indie, less commercial and espresso was not done using an automated espresso machine.
I think it’s interesting that Starbucks chose 15th Avenue as the location for their first concept store. 15th Avenue has a number of independent café/coffee shops. These include Insomniax Coffee and Juice, Caffe Ladro, North Hill Bakery, The Bagel Deli and one of my favorite Seattle coffeehouse and roaster, Victrola Coffee. This to me sounded like Starbuck laying down the gauntlet especially to Victrola and Ladro. And there certainly was quite a bit of reaction to the news and rumor.
There was quite a bit of fanfare on the opening morning. Personally, I wasn’t interested in waking up to go stand in line at 6:00 am the morning of the opening, I decided that I would give the place a week or two just so they get settled down into their regular routine, then I would go there so try the espresso. And so I did…
The inside was interesting. At first glance the place looked like some indie coffee shop that bought used, well worn and weathered outdoor furniture to provide sitting for the customer. But then on second glance you quickly realize that the place was clearly designed by some highly paid interior decorator to have that look and feel. Thus it reminded me almost like a staged house ready for sale, and I think here they were trying a little too hard to look retro. Yet, they did have some nice stuff on the walls i.e. old, colonial style looking boxes for shipping coffee and gunny sacks.
But what I really appreciated was they do actually have a La Marzocco machine so they are actually hand pulling the coffee by hand as opposed to pushing buttons. This machine is a rusted looking, copper colored plating which gives the machine an old ‘I have been making espresso for years’ kind of look. This actually is once again in line with the interior decor which has a lot of old (or recycled) looking furniture.
Oh and they also have a Clover, which I haven’t yet tried… yet…
The latte I got was actually pretty decent. This was the first latte in years I can honestly say that I have enjoyed from Starbucks… even though they were trying to hide that they were indeed Starbucks. It could have been a tad bit stronger but it was much better than I would have thought.
In an effort to find out what the deal was here, I had an Interesting conversation with the barista. I asked her why they had the “Inspired by Starbucks” tag if they were trying to get away from the old image of Starbucks… and she explained that they were actually trying to do was to get back to the old Starbucks image of being passionate about their coffee and the community. I take this to mean that the store was inspired by the Starbucks of old, the original Starbucks when it was really all about the coffee. Fresh roasted coffee pulled by a real barista.
This barista also told me that they order the coffee directly from the roasting plant in Kent so their coffee is not more than 4 days old, whereas the coffee at the regular Starbucks stores can be up to a month old! They serve the regular Starbucks espresso blend and also the decaf blend. But then they also have a single origin bean that they serve. At the moment (at the time I was talking to them) they are serving Ethiopian Sidamo coffee of which she gave me a whiff… I must say it smelled great.
One think I do have to say that made me happy about the place is thank goodness they don’t wear the silly green aprons with the even goofier baseball caps that US fast food franchises love to dress their employees in. And also none of the “Welcome to Starbucks may I take your order please” type of greeting you find at some of these places. The baristas don’t wear uniform and although they are friendly, it actually felt more genuine.
I have to give credit where credit is due. I think this was a step in the right direction for Starbucks. The only problem that remains is to see how they duplicate this concept and make each and every new concept store different and fresh.