Two years back, a wine vet and an accomplished chef walked into a vacant teriyaki and burger restaurant in Seattle, and knew they’d found the right space for their first project: a food-focused coffee and wine bar. Thus was born Vif (that’s “full of life” in French) in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, now one of the city’s essential cafes.
Professionals with decades of experience in the food and wine industry, co-owner Shawn Mead brings extensive wine knowledge to the project, while co-owner Lauren Feldman’s career cooking in Seattle restaurants, and as a private chef, gives Vif a hyper-seasonal menu and scratch-baked pastries. The women say that the cohesive link between their coffee, food, and wine list is the farm.
“Everything we present here represents a farmer’s product, a product of agriculture,” Mead says. “We’re trying to get a message across, which is that it all starts on the farm. And we see food, wine, and coffee all as ultimately something that’s produced in the field. We think they all reflect back on each other in a subtle way.”
The partners prioritize building relationships with growers, winemakers, and coffee farmers. “You start with really good ingredients and you get really great product,” Mead says.
While Feldman and Mead were considering the multi-roaster coffee program, they decided to partner exclusively with Olympia Coffee Roasting Company. “We knew right away that they were our people because their coffee is so good, everything they do is intentional, and they care about their people, which matters,” Mead says.
The “caffeine by day, booze by night” concept that clunkily fits together at other cafes is seamless here, a clear nod to the decades of professionalism and industry knowledge the women bring to the business. “Everything we present needs to be at the same level of intention,” Feldman says.
That same ethos for consistency and quality compelled the women to build a coffee program that’s elevated by details. Almond milk, ganache, and sweetened condensed milk is made in-house.
Before it was a fast food restaurant, the 60s-era, big windowed space on Fremont Avenue was originally a doughnut shop. “We had the vision immediately,” Mead says. “We saw the building and it was perfect. It was not pretty to look at, but we didn’t change the structure at all.” Vif’s two-and-a-half month buildout initially involved a lot of moving and rearranging; the project’s designer built the coffee bar out of “twigs and planks” which allowed the women to literally move the coffee bar around to find where it best flowed with the space.
While the buildout was relatively quick, the concept for Vif was hatched years ago. Mead and Feldman met while working at Cafe Campagne and the now shuttered (and formerly much-beloved) Campagne at Pike Place Market in the early 2000s, where Mead was wine director and Feldman pastry chef. “We barely knew each other really; she was working nights and I was working days,” Mead says. “Then 9/11 happened.” Both women had trips planned right after 9/11 and their flights were cancelled. “Everyone was in a state of shock. So we were like, do you want to drive to San Francisco? We road tripped and became really great friends.”
Nowadays, vacations are rare for the business owners, although both women were able to travel after the shop had been running for more than a year. “I feel pretty proud about that,” Mead says. “Some people go five years without taking vacation or days off.” Work-life balance is crucial for the partners, who are on the floor daily, doing everything from counter service and cooking to doing dishes and mopping floors. At least one owner is at Vif during business hours.
Looking ahead, Mead and Feldman face Seattle’s impending $15 minimum wage hike alongside other small business owners. They “want to be proactive” about the changes, even if, as Feldman says, “we know something has to give somewhere. We really just want to have a lot of information and make a thoughtful decision. As a really small business person, it’s really scary.”
In spite of wage increases, talk of expansion is also on the horizon. Mead hints that their second concept may not be the “exact same thing,” as the original Vif and that they’re not yet negotiating leases, but “the conversation has started.”