Two months ago, while completing background research for a blog post, I came across a gem of a blog, Seattle Coffee Scene.com.
Filled with thoughtful reviews and high-quality photography, the Seattle Coffee Scene.com (SCS) was conceived as a labor of love by Eddie, an experienced journalist with deep ties to community work and organizations.
One thing that struck me immediately about SCS was its emphasis on community. This focus is noted explicitly in the SCS About page:
As you can see I give out “star ratings” which are entirely subjective. Yet, they are often based largely on my personal feelings towards each coffee shop on the basis of community. “Community” is a vague word I know, but it revolves around the idea of having a connective quality for individuals. “Does the cafe or coffee shop create a sense of community?” is the question I always find myself asking. Of course, then there’s the quality of coffee, the customer service, and the uniqueness to each place that’s important…
As I read that paragraph, I thought, here is a kindred spirit! Someone who appreciates coffee shops, cafes, and lounges not just for the quality of the coffee and food that they serve, but for the ambiance, customer service, and community that they nurture. With strong traditional and new media chops, in the SCS, Eddie articulates what these elements mean to him in a way that is at once informative and fresh, never preachy. And with his own personal history of community involvement, Eddie also walks the walk.
Curious to learn more about what motivated him to start a coffee blog with a special emphasis on community, and what community means to him, I reached out to Eddie. True to his emphasis on the spirit of community, he graciously shared his insights in the following interview:
How much of your time do you spend in cafes and coffee shops? Do you go to a café or coffee shop every day? Are you a regular at any café or coffee shop?
Seattle is such a great city, with so many different coffee shops that serve amazing coffee. We’re certainly quite fortunate to live in such a beautiful city that has the best coffee in the world.
I spend quite a bit of time in cafés and coffee shops in Seattle during the week – and on the weekend (even though I have a perfectly comfortable desk with a great view overlooking Lake Union from home). There are periods where I have monogamist-style affairs with cafes are that are easy on the eyes, comfortable to spend time in, and are pretty low-maintenance – all attributes of being able to get work done. Yet, suddenly, for no apparent reason, I find myself moving on to the next café.
Over the last few years, I have been freelancing as a ghost writer, and some cafes are preferable for the type of writing I am doing at the time. I visit some cafes depending with what I’m doing that day. If I have to swing by the post office, then I will often visit a certain group of cafes in one part of town. If I have to make a run to the grocery store or get the gumption to work out, then I will visit others.
Incidentally, I do find myself being a regular at several cafes around town, all of them serving really good coffee.
You mention in your About page that your star ratings are often based largely on your personal feelings toward each coffee shop on the basis of community, and that community revolves around a sense of having a connective quality for individuals. What elements / factors help create or detract from that sense of having a connective quality?
I’m old enough to remember a time before we had cafes to hang out in like we do today and WIFI to keep us there longer. I remember looking for a “third” place to read a book, talk with friends, or simply hang out. I remember once trying to study at a donut shop in college – yeah, that didn’t last too long. Life for the pre-café monger was dire and desperate before hanging out in cafes was cool. Study groups had to be held at Denny’s or my aunt’s house – both bad options. Over time, I found myself smuggling coffee in an old heavy Thermos into our school library, which had a strict ban on food and beverages.
Though it really wasn’t that long ago, a lot has changed since then. Life went on and I moved to Europe for awhile, where they had countless open air cafes and open public spaces to choose from … and I fell in love with the whole scene. People came from all over the place to talk and meet up with neighbors or just strangers, and they would talk about anything and everything. It was beautiful. It was easy to feel a sense of community in some of those European cities. Though the conversations were wonderful, the coffee wasn’t that great – needless to say, that’s when we switched over to beer or wine.
Coffee brings quite a bit to the table. Coffee has the ability to bring people together just like you and me to talk, discuss, and foster a sense of community like nothing else can. I think the best cafes often find a way to tap into this extraordinary potential for social interaction that coffee brings.
If you were to pick your top three coffee shops or cafes in terms of the sense of community that they create, which would they be and why?
Well, there are many great cafes and it’s hard to peg the top three or so. I think each neighborhood café is a special place for that particular location. I think the best cafes lower the barriers between the customers and their baristas. If you have a barista who treats his/her job like say, McDonald’s – and you get an owner who expects that kind of service – chances are it’s not going to be community-friendly. There are plenty of coffee places that are successful and very profitable at herding in their customers and serving up mediocre and burnt coffee. We continue coming back because, well, that’s what we’re used to right?
I am constantly amazed at start-ups who invest a lot of money in their coffee business who skip out on the true customer service aspect of the business. This is especially true when investors buy their way into the picture. Now someone far removed from the coffee experience you’re having matters the most. The ripple effects throughout the chain – from the farmers, to the wholesale contracts, to the price you pay for the mass-produced coffee, memorable branding, to the door hitting your back-side – is all quantified and data-mined not to give you the best experience, but rather to extrapolate maximum profits from you.
In the end, the more engaged cafes are with their customers, the more successful they will be – at least in my consumer-centric opinion.
With all that said, there are a couple of cafes that stick out: Java Bean in Ballard is a great community-oriented café. The baristas know all the regulars and help generate a sense of welcome and community. Seriously, when I went there I got the feeling that I could walk in with my PJs, slippers, and bed head, order an Americano, and read the paper in the morning before shooting off to work and nobody would mind. Java Bean is like the front porch of that community. If people want to know how to run a successful neighborhood café, I’d say, pay them a visit or two.
I also like what the Kaladi Brothers are doing down on Capitol Hill. Their design is really cool, incorporating community programs and organizations that are welcoming to everyone. They’re from Alaska, so I suppose that they understand that people like a comfortable place to come on in from the cold. Great people, great vision, and great focus on community outreach.
What is the coolest thing that has ever happened to you in a café, or that you have witnessed happening in a café?
Well, I wish I could say that I had found Jesus in a café or that I saw someone propose marriage, but nothing like that has happened quite yet. I will say however that I have met some really cool and down-to-earth people, including many great business owners and very talented baristas – and now call some of them my friends.
How much of your time do you spend working/reading on your own in a café versus meeting up with others (friends, or any community groups)?
I spend about 80% of the time in a café working on a variety of personal projects and 10% of my time enjoying the coffee and writing about it or something related to it. (The other 10% either slips by without me noticing or me trying to figure out how to log on the internet service.) You know, there is so much to learn about coffee, and I find myself learning something new every week.
I’m like most people, I think. There are times where I am in a quiet, reflective mood (which I often confuse for a lack of sleep) and just want to be left in my own little world – of writing, people watching, and reading. Other times, I’m gregarious (not really) and chatty.
Why do you think Seattle has evolved to be such an amazing city for coffee? What factors in our city do you think are associated with the creation of a great coffee town?
On the one hand, coffee in America has been around for long time, and so have those Americana diners that once served drip coffee for 5 cents a cup. On the other hand, the great café cultures of Vienna, Austria, Italy, and Turkey have been going strong for hundreds of years. These two have influenced us with what we have today – and I’m not talking about those bikini drive-thru joints.
From what I understand, it wasn’t until the mid 1960s and 1970s did specialty coffee as we know in the “great modern era” (emphasize the quotes) begin to percolate here in Seattle. It’s easy to say that the dreary weather and cold rain have a lot to do with our love of coffee – and it might – but that doesn’t quite explain why other colder and much wetter places didn’t develop such a love affair with the bean as we have had. I think it stems from a number of factors, including one that pertains to Seattle’s size as city – and I’m talking before all those pesky Californians started moving up here. Despite being a port city, Seattle is a walkable town with lots of thriving neighborhoods, great universities, culture, art, and music. With sensible residents with higher-than-average incomes who were used to local open-air markets, locally roasted anything was always appealing. Offering higher-quality Italian roasted coffee tapped into a market that was more than receptive.
Could Starbucks have started out in Boston, New York, or Chicago? Maybe. I think it may have worked in San Francisco, Portland, or Scranton (Just kidding about Scranton).
During the time that you’ve lived in Seattle, what changes have you seen in terms of the coffee scene? Do you think it’s harder or easier for coffee shops to be successful now than it was five or 10 years ago?
That’s a great question. I think we have better coffee than ever before. We have more choices of coffee roasters, coffee shops, and coffee drinks. Seattle is a competitive market and it’s possibly a very saturated one – or we’re pretty darn close. But, you ask someone in the coffee business that question and they either scoff or kindly redirect you to something else. Yet, despite all that, Seattleites will respond to great coffee and great customer service (and some buttery baked goods to go along with it). As for great coffee and great customer service — those aren’t mutually exclusive for success here. If you want to be the best or even have a modest chance at surviving in the long run, then you have to offer both.
In terms of community, do you feel that Seattle is a very good town for community in general? The term “Seattle Freeze” is actually in the Urban Dictionary–do you think that reputation is warranted?
Seattle is a great city with talented individuals who appreciate culture, education, and having a good roller derby team. People are a lot friendlier here than say, L.A. or Sweden. But, if you’re not in school or in a good AA meeting group, I do think it is tough to make friends in Seattle, and I’m not sure that I’ve figured out why.
All joking aside, I’ve met some great people here, but I also see where the “Seattle Freeze” can appear eerily familiar to many of us. I think in general we live in a tough time where people are more polarized than ever – and not just politically, but socially, culturally, and economically. We’re more agitated, stressed out, worried, easily annoyed, and often less compassionate, less forgiving, and less willing to listen. Other than seventh grade, I don’t remember people being so vitriolic towards each other. The Occupy Movement in Seattle was clearly displaying this deep frustration that we collectively have. But there is hope! I think coffee shops and cafés can serve as islands where people can come to – and find common ground.
When did you start Seattle Coffee Scene.com?
I started the website earlier this year (2012). I don’t know when, but I just always had known that Seattle had a great coffee scene – I didn’t know why. So, in a way I set out to discover it. Sometime later, I thought I’d start to write about it.
How much of your time do you spend on Seattle Coffee Scene.com?
SeattleCoffeeScene.com is a true labor of love but, like everyone else, I have responsibilities. I love visiting new cafes and tasting coffee, so I try to do a bit of work while vising a new café, but this isn’t always possible.
I spend about an hour or so every day on the blog. Sometimes I focus on the writing, learning about coffee, or tinkering with website development, learning HTML, and fine-tuning my WordPress skills. It takes a lot of work to nurture and develop a blog from the inside out, so I try to devote time when I can, and hope, in my own way, to contribute to Seattle’s coffee scene as best I can. There’s always room for improvement – even the best products need tweaking, right?
There is a lot to learn about coffee. People can spend a lifetime learning about the 1000 different compounds that influence its quality and taste. Then we have the business aspect – the branding, the latest trends, the hottest coffee shop to move into town. I try to keep it all in perspective and write from a customer’s point of view – granted, a customer who’s now slightly more educated than when I started.
Your site features a photo submission option. Do you get many submissions of coffee photos? Have you had people submit guest posts yet? How do most people find out about your blog? How much time do you spend promoting it?
I’ve received a few photo submissions – most of them PG-13 – and I have had a couple of blog post submissions as well. I do hope for more guest blog posts that are relevant to readers-to-be in our future.
As far as my wide readership … I’m not exactly sure how my three readers actually found my blog. Well, actually I told my sister and mom about it – so they read it regularly (after hounding them) … The other reader probably found it by accident.
What advice would you give to people who aspire to, or are just started to blog about cafes and coffee shops?
Write. Write. Write. Drink lots of coffee, but don’t ignore those heart palpitations. Consider teeth-whitening products – or brush with hydrogen peroxide. As far as the blog goes, find a niche that you are comfortable with and go with that – but don’t be afraid to change things up. Learning a bit of technical stuff can and should be done with your website. Don’t rely on Spell-Check, she’ll eventually betray you.
Do whatever works for you – and don’t worry if it takes some time. With writing stories – I’m always debating with myself on whether I should simply visit a café, enjoy the experience, and then write about it. OR whether I should announce myself to person behind the counter and pepper them with questions… I’ve done both, and I’ve regretted both.
You have a strong background in community activism, as well as with traditional and new media. What attracted you to community activism, and what community organizations are you involved with now?
It has been said that I have the perfect face for radio, so I’ve always worked behind the scenes – whether it’s network news or community activism. In my “spare” time – that is, the time between doing laundry and sleeping – I have spent quite a bit of time working in a variety of capacities working with homeless organizations, assisting near-homeless families, working with people with disabilities, and troubled youth. I’ve worked with child and adult literacy programs, elderly care, and with inner-city students. Increasingly, I have turned my attention to social entrepreneurship and learning how small startups can find a marriage between making a profit and helping the community they serve. There are quite a few things that are going on with the specialty coffee industry and community activism. It will be exciting to see that area progress, and it’s my hope to be able to write about it.
Last but not least …
Keep reading at www.SeattleCoffee.Scene.com!
In addition to launching and maintaining the SCS, Eddie is an award-winning writer, former journalist, and non-profit creator.