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IN SEATTLE, THEY HAVE A STEAMY PASSION

IN SEATTLE, THEY HAVE A STEAMY PASSION
John Woestendiek, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER,
March 8, 1992

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.



IN SEATTLE, THEY HAVE A STEAMY PASSION
John Woestendiek, 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.

"By 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, after all."

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 pastries.

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.

"I 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."

Amy 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.

"The 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 exploding.

"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."

Though not 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 the bean."

"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."

Illustration:PHOTO

PHOTO (1) 1. Craving the espresso experience, customers flock to stands like Howard
Berkson's, in suburban Bellevue. Berkson, serving a cup to Jane Friesen,
likens the camaraderie to a lively neighborhood bar. (Special to The Inquirer
/ JIM DAVIDSON)

Written By: libbyt
Date Posted: 3/1/2007
Number of Views: 4976

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