IN SEATTLE, THEY HAVE A STEAMY PASSION
IN SEATTLE, THEY HAVE A STEAMY
IN SEATTLE, THEY HAVE A STEAMY
Berkson won't fill your tires, and he won't clean your windshield. But from his
cart between the gasoline pumps at a BP station, next to a display of Quality
motor oils, he'll concoct a caffe latte that should keep your motor revving
John Woestendiek, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER, March 8, 1992
Yup, this is Seattle, once known for its quality of
life, rainy skies and the Space Needle. Now famous for - more than anything else
- upscale coffee drinks.
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER Howard Berkson won't fill your tires, and he won't clean your windshield.
But from his cart between the gasoline pumps at a BP station, next to a display
of Quality motor oils, he'll concoct a caffe latte that should keep your motor
revving until lunchtime.
Yup, this is Seattle, once known for its quality
of life, rainy skies and the Space Needle. Now famous for - more than anything
else - upscale coffee drinks.
|Here, in the city that proclaims
itself the specialty coffee capital of the United States, one is never more than
a couple of blocks from a cup of espresso or its milkier alternatives: caffe
mocha, caffe latte or cappuccino.|
You can hear it being pumped - pulled
is the correct terminology - by vendors, called baristas, on the the street. You
can smell it wafting from storefront cafes, and you can see plastic-lidded,
to-go versions clutched in the hands of about one of every three people walking
downtown. Here, after a hard day at the office, folks go out for a tall hot one.
The phone directory lists 74 cocktail lounges, but 89 coffeehouses. And that
doesn't include the espresso stands that have sprouted at florist shops,
carwashes, gas stations, laundermats, bookstores and dentist offices.
Plain old coffee is out; espresso (actually, latte is the drink of
choice) is in. It has been that way here for a good five years, growing all the
time, and now there are signs the phenomenon is getting ready to do to the rest
of the country what it has done, for better and for worse, to Seattle.
The espresso explosion has created lucrative opportunities for small
businesses (a popular cart here can gross $500,000 a year), provided the local
economy with the equivalent of a caffeine buzz and given Seattleites a place to
meet and an experience to share.
At the same time, though, it has
produced an annoying form of coffee snobbery, left thousands wondering - usually
lightheartedly - just how addicted they are and opened the door to jokes about a
city that some think takes itself and its coffee too seriously.
demanding freshly roasted coffee, we are sowing the seeds of a quality culture,"
an espresso stand owner wrote last year in a column in Cafe Ole, a Seattle
magazine devoted to specialty coffees. "Little by little, we are an urban
landscape where we can hang out in little clusters and bric-a-brac about who has
the hottest cappuccino in town."
"We try not to be coffee snobs," said
Roger I. Sandon, publisher of the 1 1/2-year-old magazine, soon to come out with
a national edition. "But there's a great tendency to slip into that. People take
it very seriously, but we try to remember that it's coffee we're talking about,
Equally lamentable to some is the comparable decline in
neighborhood coffee shops - the kind of place that slings eggs and hash browns,
displays little boxes of cornflakes behind the counter and refills plain old
coffee cups with plain old coffee, at no charge, until you float away.
Down-to-earth places like the espresso-less Five Point Cafe downtown,
with customers of every stripe at its booths and counters, and waitresses who
really don't care what kind of day you have.
"He looks like something
the cat barfed up," one was heard to say of a departing customer, just before
turning to another customer with, "More coffee, hon?" You won't hear those three
reassuring words at an espresso joint - there are no free refills - and your
food choices, more often than not, will be limited to desserts, muffins and
Espresso joints tend to be cliquish, like bars. In Seattle,
you can sip your cappuccino with leather-clad punks or beret-wearing artists or
struggling writers or businessmen in suits.
Outside B&O Espresso in
the Capitol Hill section recently, the sky turned gray and rain started to fall,
sending more customers inside. Soft jazz played in the background, and ashtrays
overflowed. Waiters hustled in drinks - some black, some brown, some iced, some
steaming, some frothy, some with globs of whipped cream - as customers talked,
read, played cards or wrote.
"There's almost one of these places on
every block," said Ryan Leighton, 24, sipping a mocha as he completed an entry
in his journal. "It's just a matter of finding one that suits you.
just kick back and write in my journal," he said of his daily mocha routine.
"And this is a great place for meeting people. It's not the high- intensity
situation like you have in a bar. Here, if it happens, it happens."
Eugenio, 23, paused from her iced almond mocha to comment on the espresso craze
in Seattle, most commonly linked to the cold, wet weather.
"I think it
started because there's nothing to do here and it's always raining," Eugenio
said. "Now everybody's addicted."
Some attribute espresso's popularity
to the coming of age of a generation hooked on sweets. Most espresso drinkers
here started on mocha, espresso with steamed milk and cocoa, and worked up to
the harder stuff. In addition to the standard drinks, flavored coffee is also
popular, including blackberry, raspberry, almond and Irish cream.
generation of people from 44 down to 19 have grown up on sweet drinks. It's the
Pepsi generation. Ten percent of the population drinks soda pop for breakfast,"
said Robert Burgess, president of Burgess Enterprises, which manufactures
espresso carts in Seattle.
Nationally, he said, commercial coffee sales
have been declining for four years, while sales of specialty coffee have been
"A lot of it here is the social aspect," he added. "Instead
of leaving work and making a beeline for your car, you stop and get in line for
espresso and the next thing you know you're talking to somebody. It's something
warm and delicious in your hand. It's a nice way. The explosion of espresso
carts has taken Seattle and made it a friendly city."
Long popular in
Seattle, San Francisco, Berkeley, New Orleans and pockets of Los Angeles, the
espresso train is beginning to work its way to new markets across the country.
Espresso carts can now be spotted in places such as Montana and Nebraska, and
the coffee is being sold in shops in Florida and Chicago.
"Things have a
habit of starting on the West Coast, leapfrogging to the East and meandering
back to the Midwest," said Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty
Coffee Association of America, based in Long Beach, Calif. Lingle said the
popularity of specialty coffees and espresso was "a fundamental consumer
response to improved quality. We've built a better mousetrap."
the first to sell espresso in Seattle, Starbucks is the company that best
reflects its surging popularity. In 1987, the company had nine stores and fewer
than 100 employees. Today, it has 117 outlets, including 55 stores in Washington
state, and 1,500 employees. It recently moved into the Los Angeles market and
will open in San Francisco and San Diego this month.
At the BP station
in surburban Bellevue, Howard Berkson works on a considerably slighter scale
than Starbucks. From sunrise, when he hauls his cart to the station, to sunset,
when he hauls it away, Berkson spends his day chatting with customers, drawing
happy faces in milk foam and striving for what he calls "the noble essence of
"It's just like bartending," he said. "Customers want to tell
you how good their day was, or how bad their day was. I know the health problems
of all my female clients, whose marriage is working and whose is not. That's
really why people do it. It's a nonalcoholic bar. It's the coffee experience."
PHOTO (1) 1. Craving the espresso experience, customers flock to stands
Berkson's, in suburban Bellevue. Berkson, serving a cup to Jane
likens the camaraderie to a lively neighborhood bar. (Special to The
/ JIM DAVIDSON)
Written By: libbyt
Date Posted: 3/1/2007
Number of Views: 4836