Coastal Kitchen is arguably the godfather of brunch in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The 24-year-old restaurant turns over 400 to 500 breakfasts every weekend–and with all of those orders of eggs and pancakes come hundreds of cups of coffee. “Every Saturday and Sunday here is like Easter,” says General Manager Christine Kennerly. “That 45 minute wait is kind of part of the deal.”
After decades in business, Coastal Kitchen is refreshing its espresso program—a move that remains uncommon in restaurants, who typically focus on food seasonality and ingredient sourcing but overlook their coffee service. “We want to elevate the coffee and elevate the brand,” Kennerly says.
The restaurant completed a three month revamp, headlined by a new custom Slayer and a series of trainings from both Slayer and longtime partner Caffe Vita. Coastal Kitchen formally introduced itself to the city’s specialty coffee community on May 26 at a Thursday Night Throwdown, a style of popular latte art exhibition. For the event, staff closed down half the restaurant, served tons of beer and sliders, and packed the buzzy room with barista competitors and friends.
Could Coastal Kitchen’s recent espresso upgrade be a sign that there’s a sea change coming for restaurant coffee? Third generation restaurateurs and brothers Jonathan and Dan Tweten bought Coastal Kitchen from its longtime owner last year. Jonathan chatted about the restaurant’s new coffee focus with Sprudge during the TNT from his seat at the restaurant’s oyster bar.
Tweton thinks that good restaurant coffee is still “uncharted territory.” There are exceptions in fine dining rooms, including Canlis in Seattle and Eleven Madison Park in New York, but by and large the elevation of coffee at casual neighborhood spots has remained stagnant. Tweton thinks restaurants will get there. “We’re on the verge of something and I think eventually restaurants will all get to better coffee,” he says. So, what’s taking so long?
A couple of things. First, upgrading a coffee program requires capital, especially when a restaurateur wants to own, and not lease, equipment. The Tweton brothers were able to buy their Slayer machine for Coastal Kitchen outright, giving them complete control. “It is really uncommon for restaurants to not only purchase a machine but to full-on own it and not have the obligation to use a certain coffee purveyor because the machine is tied to that,” Kennerly says.
Tweton has signed onto equipment lease operations in other restaurants, and says it’s easy to get into but tough to get out of the agreements. “You kind of lose control of your business when you don’t own your equipment. If I don’t like the roaster, or the training, or the rep or whatever… it’s hard to break that cycle,” he says. “If you own it outright, yeah, it’s a big bite up front, but you control going forward.”
Slayer’s Sarah Dooley says that to get to better restaurant coffee, roasters also have a role to play. “On one hand and respectfully, I do blame roasters who continue to dominate the market with stale tactics that are price or free equipment driven,” Dooley says. “Look for a partner that really takes the time to assess your goals, with regards to workflow offering not only the solution, but corrective criticism.”
Second, even when a restaurant invests in a quality machine and roaster, high staff turnover is a real challenge. “That’s the hard part,” Tweton says. “It’s easy to start and make a splash. If the management is stable, people can learn the culture. And if good coffee is part of the culture, it will follow that the level stays high.”
Besides loving coffee, Tweton and his brother followed through on an investment in their espresso program—and the culture behind it, like this TNT event—because of their location. Coastal Kitchen is a stone’s throw from Victrola and Cafe Ladro outposts and up the hill from Espresso Vivace. “It’s hard to not be inspired by that kind of coffee culture,” Tweton says. “I think the city and neighborhood that we’re in demand that the coffee sold be of the highest quality and be prepared properly. There are too many great places to go get an espresso or cup of coffee to bother with a subpar experience.”
Sara Billups (@hellobillups) is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Read more Sara Billups on Sprudge.
Select photos courtesy of Arthur Allen and Slayer Espresso.