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Outsmalling Starbucks

In a strange way, many independent coffeehouses owe their survival to the king of coffee. But to be sure they stand out, they have to do what Starbucks can't: stay quaint.

Published September 27, 2006

SEATTLE - It's hard to find a bad cup of coffee in Seattle, and that's not just because it seems like there's a Starbucks - or two or three - on every corner.

Although more than 100 of the ubiquitous green awnings dot the big coffee corporation's hometown alone, local favorites such as Zoka Coffee, Diva Espresso and Caffe Ladro are proving it's possible to survive and even thrive in the shadow of their much larger corporate competitor.

As other towns worry that Starbucks Corp. will run their local favorites out of business and rob their streets of quirky charm, the owners of several of Seattle's most beloved independent coffeehouses say they have found success by going the opposite route of their big competitor: making a selling point of being small.

"We try to stay a little more neighborhood, we try not to be too corporate," said Steve Barker, co-owner of Diva Espresso. "We don't upsell and we don't - we're not megamerchandise stores. We just try to sell coffee and pastry."

But while Barker and others may toss small barbs at their bigger competitor, they are the first to note that Starbucks pioneered the idea of paying up to $5 for a cup of joe, paving the way for them to follow.

"Starbucks is the best thing that ever happened to coffee," Barker said. "Without Starbucks, I don't think any of us would've survived."

The coffee giant provides a convenient foil for companies such as Diva and Zoka, which point to it as the antithesis of the artisan coffee and quirky feel they seek with the scruffy floors, mismatched furniture and local artists' work that typify the smaller chains - and, in some ways, feed their success.

For its part, Starbucks says that it doesn't do anything to discourage smaller coffee stores.

"Starbucks has kind of raised the coffee awareness in the United States," Andy Fouche of Starbucks said.

For some smaller coffee purveyors, perks like free Internet connections, dog treats and the occasional free cup of coffee go a long way in keeping customers from straying to the big-chain competitor.

Others stress the importance of getting to know the customer, and learning not just what drink they prefer, but how they like it made - not too hot, with extra foam, or light on the chocolate.

Many of Seattle's better-known coffeehouses have become minichains, finding that the scale of several stores helps keep costs down. But several say they would hesitate try to follow in Starbucks' footsteps.

Jack Kelly operates 10 Caffe Ladro stores in the Seattle area, and he won't rule out adding five. But after that, he said, the company would have to start adding things, like a human resources department, that wouldn't make economic sense.

Zoka owner Jeff Babcock thinks he will eventually add to his two Seattle stores. But he worries that if he gets too big, his company won't be able to do things like spend weeks painstakingly training baristas using the methods his more seasoned employees follow for the competitive world barista championships.

"I don't want to get so big that the quality ever drops off in another store, and if we get really big then that would happen," he says.


The battle for the best cup of coffee in Seattle is waged long before liquid hits cup, in cavernous rooms where coffee beans are piled high and noisy equipment churns out each company's unique coffee roast. Many of Seattle's local roasters insist their small-scale, decades-old roasting machines and intense attention to detail allow them to make a better cup of coffee than industry giant and hometown competitor Starbucks Corp. All three companies insist that they are roasting in small enough batches to guarantee quality. "We're still a specialty coffee producer," says Gregg Clark, director of Starbucks' plant operations.

Caffe Vita: It roasts about 3,000 pounds of coffee a day, mostly in 80-pound batches, using circa 1939 equipment. In a cavernous, loud room behind one of the company's shops, the roasters say they judge whether a batch is done by listening, watching and smelling the coffee as it swirls around a big vat. "It's full senses," says Andrew Daday, Caffe Vita's lead roaster.

Zoka Coffee: Several times a week, owner Jeff Babcock heads down to the roasting plant located below his corporate offices to slurp spoonsful of fresh coffee with the small group of roasters, who "cup" - or taste - the coffee twice a day to ensure quality. "It's fine art," he says of the roasting and tasting process.

Starbucks: The 350,000-square-foot roasting, packaging and warehouse plant in suburban Kent churns out up to 1.5-million pounds of coffee per week, using high-tech computer controls to monitor roasting equipment that can handle 400- to 600-pound batches of beans. The coffee there is subjected to periodic quality checks.

[Last modified September 26, 2006, 23:41:38]

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