In the future—not long from now, surely—each and every telecom data replenishment node will sport a far-out high-end cyber modified coffee experience. But here in 2018 there is Ada’s Discovery Cafe, a first-of-its-kind high-flying collaboration between Seattle local indie Ada’s Technical Books and multinational telecommunications conglomerate AT&T, open now at Broadway and East Thomas.
It’s a match made in Seattle, or at least the Seattle of today, where rising rents and influx of new money tech culture make successful cafe/bookstore/event space/coworking hybrids like Ada’s so very important. Founded in 2010—roughly an eon ago in the Seattle time scheme—Ada’s is the work of Danielle and David Hulton, an enterprising couple with deep connections in the international informations security and cryptoanalysis scenes. David co-founded a leading information security conference, ToorCon, in 1998, and sold his company Pico Computing to a larger technology firm in 2015. Danielle is a Seattle Pacific University graduate in the field of electrical engineering and manages day to day for Ada’s growing team including bookstore, events, co-working, and cafe staff.
Those operations now include Ada’s Discovery Cafe, opened in late September a block from the iconic Broadway strip running north-south through the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Once synonymous with the city’s bohemian music scene and LGBTQ community, not to mention coffee culture, today it’s a neighborhood in flux, with construction everywhere and a rapidly changing social milieu. (Walking to the cafe I passed a gentleman in skin-tight neoprene gym clothes and wraparound sunglasses, hitting his Juul vape and checking his iPhone, balanced atop a Segway MiniPro just so.) The Hultons are ardent advocates for Capitol Hill: they’ve lived here for 15 years and owned a business there for around half that time. “We’re passionate about the neighborhood,” says Danielle, and they see the newly opened Discovery Cafe as a way to further serve it.
I asked Danielle Hulton how it happened in the first place, that Ada’s would come to partner with AT&T, and the story is something like a corporate meet-cute. “They contacted us out of the blue,” she tells me, “and at first our event coordinator met with them—he meets with everyone—but very quickly he realized this was something more.” From there Ada’s had the opportunity to pitch their vision to the team at AT&T, and they swung for the fences. “We pitched this really ambitious concept,” says Hulton, “with coffee robots, super high-end third wave coffee, and a focus on being approachable to customers using storytelling. It was a two-page pitch with a few pictures, and a month later they called us back and said yes.”
The end result feels fresh, new, highly enterprising, and still very much in the early stages of determining the optimal outcome (as they say in tech, one imagines). The hybrid relationship—is this a cafe? is this an AT&T store? is it both?—was still very much in public beta during our visit, which meant being greeted semi-aggressively by a small team of AT&T staff upon entering the cafe’s east entrance, imploring us to sign up for an app and get a discount on the day’s coffee. The app itself requires multiple intrusive permissions and repeated opt-ins; it also controls multiple massive televisions displaying DirectTV (tuned to Food Network during our visit). The store does offer a hands-off locker program to access AT&T purchases, as well as a self-serve kiosk to purchase further products, so the greeter-led fancy AT&T store vibe is still very much being dialed in. “They’re still learning the neighborhood,” Danielle Hulton offers. “They just want it to be a relaxed space.”
But your coffee purchase—indeed, the totality of your coffee interaction—have not been AT&T app-ified, and it’s very much Ada’s own staff, own menu choices, and own expression of playful, geeky coffee culture on exhibit here at the pop-up. That’s the key compound word here, “pop-up,” as Discovery Cafe is officially a three-year commitment in which Ada’s has complete creative control over the bar space. “We control everything from here”—pointing to the bookshelf, stacked with titles by Ursula Le Guin, Roxane Gay, and Cordelia Fine—”to here,” says Danielle, gesturing to the end of the coffee bar. Over the next three years, one presumes that AT&T’s hopes the space, a kind of ur-millennial New Seattle tech denizen AT&T store on steroids (or rather, nootropics), can make waves and shift units on Capitol Hill. In the meantime, we’ve got a very ambitious little coffee bar to enjoy.
Overseeing the insertion order for said ambition is Cole McBride, the 2018 United States Barista Champion and a career competition barista. The Hulton’s relationship with McBride extends back the better part of a decade, when McBride—in a previous capacity with Seattle’s Visions Espresso coffee supply and consultancy—helped train and set-up the couple’s first coffee bar, at the Ada’s Technical Books flagship store (at 425 15th Ave E, a few blocks straight up the hill). At the new Ada’s Discovery Cafe McBride has been given what appears to be free reign to design a challenging, surprising, playfully geeky take on the coffee bar menu in 2018, chockablock with flourishes from frozen espressos to cocktail riffs like the “Cannon Iced Coffee” made with Scrappy’s lime bitters (an ode to Pacific Northwest coffee professional Mike Cannon) to a series of drinks brewed on co-founder David Hulton’s own line of KYOTOBOT robotic coffee brewers.
That frozen espresso? With its Igloo cooler full of billowing dry ice? It works. Made on my visit with Verve Coffee‘s Ethiopia Sakara, the shot offers loads of warm-cold contrast upon first sip (expect an icy lip mark on your cup), melding into a lovely sort of melted chocolate orange thing for the back half of the shot. It’s the drink we tried at Ada’s I could most see myself coming back for, as a civilian coffee enjoyer, to drink for fun on future visits to the neighborhood.
“Cole taught David and I everything we know about coffee,” says Danielle, “and through the years we stayed in touch online and we’ve followed his journey. He’s a really great fit for the space and for what we’re trying to do for accessibility, and we’re excited and proud to have him onboard.”
There’s that word again—accessibility—and so I asked Hulton to help dial it in. The menu at Ada’s Discovery Cafe is a lot of things: exciting, challenging, unabashedly weird, and oddly reverent to the coffee styles of yesteryear, with options like dry and iced cappuccinos and shakeratos. But I’m not sure the word I’d use is “accessible“, or at least not in the same way as, say, the massive hulking Starbucks Reserve store a few blocks down the road, whose presence at five years in now looms over any other new coffee project on the Hill. I feel like David and Danielle Hulton understand the question well.
“Accessible, in this context, refers to our approach,” Danielle tells me. “We own a technical bookstore, you know, and we want that to be accessible, but we sell books about quantum mechanics! The idea is, this is something anyone can get into, and we will make it really friendly for you without being snobby, and the same thing extends to coffee. The whole point of our brand is to be curious.”
That’s all well and good, and this notion of democratizing specialty coffee for the curious is something we’re hearing more and more of from new cafes around the world. Snobbishness, it turns out, isn’t great for business. Making delicious coffee accessible, however, more assuredly is. Where frozen espressos and siphon robots fit into the equation, I’m not totally sure (quantum mechanics is not my field), but I do know that the menu at Ada’s is unabashedly fun, and frequently surprising, in a kind of “nerds take over the cafeteria” sort of way.
“In the last few days of this soft opening we’ve had executives come in here from AT&T, and they don’t know much about the coffee industry,” Danielle Hulton tells me, by way of example. “One of the executives ordered a latte, and she was just…blown away. I mean, she went out of her way to say it was the best latte she’d ever had. That’s just quality beans and quality milk. No extra flourish, just quality—and that’s cool for me. This space can introduce people who would maybe never go into a third wave shop for what coffee could be.”
“They see the value of what we’re doing as small brand trying to innovate in the coffee scene,” she continues candidly. “They could have easily partnered with someone like Starbucks or Tully’s.”
But they did not, in fact, partner with Tully’s or Starbucks, or any other multi-national coffee conglomerate. Instead, they partnered with Ada’s, a small business whose co-founders seem to be swaddling their new creation into the world like loving parents of a second child, with lots of lessons learned and hopes and dreams for the future and also some quite natural concerns. The interior design vibe, controlled entirely by AT&T, feels like what you’d find in the common room event space of a fancy new condo building. The TV’s are big and garish and have been widely derided by commenters in the local press. The footprint for books and magazines, while well-curated, is far too small—with all that space, and all that expertise from the team at Ada’s, it could easily be expanded to include more titles.
I guess I just want more Ada’s in the Ada’s Discovery Cafe experience at AT&T Lounge, but therein lies the devil’s bargain of big brand/small brand collaboration. It is rarely ever perfect, but it has the capacity to create experiences that get people talking and pique their fascination, and on that front the Ada’s + AT&T project has been a roaring success out the gate. People want to see and experience this thing for themselves, and in today’s ever-crowded new cafe market, that’s saying something.
And so for at least the next three years we get Ada’s Discovery Cafe, which means more dry ice espressos, more highball iced cappuccinos, more coffee cocktail riffs from morning ’til afternoon, and more from our new friend KYOTOBOT. Maybe this really is the future, in which enormous brands partner with tiny brands to help create a version of both for more people to enjoy. Perhaps we, as a society, can requisition further nodes of collaborative dispensation betwixt large corporations (with money and vision) and indie companies (with good ideas/delicious products/etc) so that exciting and interesting things have the backing and platform to capture popular imagination at scale. This is how a lot of great literature and film and music is made, after all—as a collaboration of art and industry.
More good ideas, more tasty coffee, more books, and maybe, you know, if you need it, some more GB for your data plan. This is… not capitalism, exactly, or at least not any sort of zero-sum straight-line version of it. But in 2018 it feels very much like Capitol Hill.
Jordan Michelman (@suitcasewine) is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network, a contributor to Portland Monthly and Willamette Week, and co-author of The New Rules of Coffee. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.