Husband-and-wife team Baltazar Soto and Christine Esparolini had planned to launch a new Seattle coffee bar from the ground up. But when they learned that after almost seven years, Neptune Coffee owner and noted barista judge Dan Baumfeld had decided to refocus on his pre-coffee career in tech, they decided to buy the established cafe in the city’s Greenwood neighborhood. Two and a half years later, the slow, steady work of developing their vision for a coffee-forward barista’s cafe that advances an existing concept with a firmly planted name and identity continues to expand.
“It’s given us the opportunity to build on something instead of coming up with it,” Esparolini says. “[Baumfeld] had already established a great business that we could move into our vision. I feel happy we did it this way.” Esparolini affirms that Neptune is still transitioning in certain areas. “In the beginning I wanted it to be quicker, I thought [within] six months we’d have everything done. But looking back I’m really glad we did take that time,” she says.
The neighborhood’s welcoming response to Neptune 2.0 affirms Esparolini’s suspicion that the reputation of overcrowded Seattle coffee culture doesn’t match reality. “I think there’s a ton of room still for specialty coffee,” Esparolini says. “There are a lot of shops and I think quality isn’t always at the forefront. What we want to specialize in is quality.”
Soto says that when they took over, the initial focus was on establishing a coffee program and training the staff to meet their standards. “The second task was changing the aesthetic to make it fit our vision,” he says. “The intent was always to change the name, but by the time we came back to it, Greenwood had embraced the changes and identified the updates as Neptune Coffee. The name just kind of stayed.”
The couple kept the layout of the space the same, but quieted down its colors to create a more cohesive aesthetic. An engineer by day with a knack for carpentry, Soto built the cafe’s wooden benches in the couple’s living room. “We wanted super clean lines and to keep it very minimal,” Esparolini says. “To again bring it back to the coffee. We didn’t want distractions.”
Before the sale, Neptune served private label coffee roasted for them by Victrola Coffee Roasters but now embraces the multi-roaster model. “I was trying to bring on roasters that would be complementary,” Esparolini says. The bar frequently offers coffee roasted by Seattle-based Kuma and Velton’s, plus Brooklyn’s Parlor, and Spyhouse in Minneapolis. “We work with multiple roasters and prefer to establish long-lasting relationships rather than have a rotating model,” Baltazar says.
Neptune’s coffee menu is consciously minimal while giving customers, as Esparolini calls it, “a little adventure.” The bar rotates a pair of distinct espressos (recent offerings include a Kenya from George Howell Coffee and Colombia from Sweet Bloom Coffee) plus a decaf; two pour-overs and a seasonal drink. “People can have the choice to experience something a little bit more wild and something sweet and balanced,” she says.
In addition to the coffee program, after the sale the new owners were mindful of building on Neptune’s reputation as a barista’s cafe. “I think when you take over a business, you take on people’s ideas of what an old business is and how things were done,” Soto says. “It took some tweaking to get a cohesive team where people are excited and it’s not just a job. Our philosophy is simple: set the bar high, provide support, and grow together.”
The staff’s six baristas are given room to experiment, recently collaborating on a cold brew alternative: a slightly sweet seasonal espresso and tonic made with Colombia Agua Blanca from Spyhouse and Kenya Karinga AB from George Howell. “We really view this business as [the baristas]. There’s structure, but there’s not a lot of rules,” Esparolini says. “If they feel supported, that gets passed down.”
Neptune plans to continue developing its community education program throughout 2015. Instead of cuppings, recent free classes have included how water affects taste, and brewing techniques; attendance has spiked from six to 25 people. Baristas are currently fine-tuning a class that starts with customers brewing coffee in their kitchen and bringing in a sample. Staff will then take a refractometer reading and recommend how to improve grind or dosage for optimal extraction at home.
In addition to coffee education, Esparolini’s focus for the rest of 2015 is on refining policies and procedures and exploring additional ways to support her crew of baristas—something she deems essential to move into the future.
“Our philosophy is simple,” she says. “Set the bar high, provide support, and grow together.”
Sara Billups (@hellobillups) is a Seattle-based food and drinks writer, and has written previously for Tasting Table, Seattle Weekly, and Eater Seattle. Read more Sara Billups on Sprudge.
An earlier version of this post mistakenly identified the original Neptune private roaster as Velton’s Coffee of Seattle, when it was in fact Victrola Coffee of Seattle.