Originally created 09/09/06

Brewing differently



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, 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 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 coffee houses 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, a co-owner of Diva Espresso. "We're not mega-merchandise stores. We just try to sell coffee and pastry."

Though Mr. Barker and others might toss small barbs at their bigger competitor, they also are the first to note that Starbucks pioneered the idea of paying as much as $5 for a cup of joe, paving the way for them to follow.

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

The coffee giant also provides a convenient foil for companies such as Diva and Zoka, who 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.

Starbucks says it doesn't do anything to discourage smaller coffee stores.

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

Indeed, Zoka owner Jeff Babcock said he was inspired to get into the coffee business after coming across Starbucks while he was a student in Seattle in the late 1970s. At that time, Starbucks was still a tiny company, mainly known to local residents who frequented its landmark store in Seattle's Pike Place Market.

"They had something that was special," Mr. Babcock remembers.

By the time he opened Zoka in 1997, after a stint in the coffee business in Florida, Starbucks had grown more institutional. He wanted Zoka to have that something special that he remembered from Starbucks' early days.

"I wanted to be the Porsche, not the Ford," he said.

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

Others stress the importance of getting to know the customer, and learning not just their drink, but how they like it made.

Many of Seattle's better known coffeehouses have become mini-chains of their own, 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 now operates 10 Caffe Ladro stores in the Seattle area, and he won't rule out adding five more. But after that, he said, the company would have to start adding things, such as a human resources department, that wouldn't make economic sense.

Mr. 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 training baristas using the methods his more seasoned employees follow for the 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.

For some of Seattle's independent proprietors, the decision to keep things at a smaller scale is in part about quality of life. Dow Lucurell wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and gets his first latte of the day at the Uptown Espresso in Queen Anne before embarking on a 12- to 14-hour day that will often take him to each of the seven Uptown locations he owns in Seattle.

The hours may seem long, but Mr. Lucurell knows the names of all 63 of his employees and has a job that allows him to have long lunches with his buddies or coffee with his parents. It's a life he says he wouldn't be able to maintain if he were running a bigger coffee chain or trying to answer to shareholders, like Starbucks does.

"I've always had a great niche," he said.