The coffee doesn’t come first at Seattle’s General Porpoise, but it’s hardly an afterthought. The five-month-old doughnut-centric shop from much-laureled Seattle chef Renee Erickson is also a bustling multiroaster cafe.
General Porpoise is part of a trio of neighboring projects spanning one block in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. In order to break up the oversize space, Erickson and her Sea Creatures business partners hatched three concepts: steakhouse Bateau (not your grandpa’s wood-paneled prime-rib den; Bateau is bright, airy, and decidedly Francophile); French-Atlantic-hued Bar Melusine, and—inspired by her experience eating one of Justin Gellatly’s beloved doughnuts at St. John in London—General Porpoise.
It’s a given that if you serve doughnuts, you’re going to pair them with coffee. And, why the hell not, champagne. At General Porpoise, brut, d’Asti, and sparkling rosé are sold by the glass or bottle, with customers mostly indulging on the weekends.
General Manager Jeff Butler came to General Porpoise from Milstead & Co., one of Seattle’s first multiroaster cafes. He’s built a simple menu centered on “coffee fast, coffee slow” offerings. Batch brew is always available for fast service, or slow via Modbar. Splitting the drink menu into speeds has become an icebreaker: Butler estimates that customers inquire about the fast/slow menu split about 20 times a day.
General Porpoise’s roaster list may change, but current offerings are from four: Portland’s Heart Roasters and Dapper & Wise Roasters; California’s De La Paz; and Brooklyn’s Toby’s Estate. You’ll find no Seattle roasters on the roster, which Butler says was determined by cupping blind. “We pulled in tons of stuff over the summer to taste; we did a blind cupping, and none of the names really mattered to [the owners],” Butler says. “They picked their favorites, so that’s what we opened the doors with.”
Pastry chef Clare Gordon landed at General Porpoise by way of Ava Gene’s in Portland, the Italian restaurant owned by Stumptown founder Duane Sorenson, and, most recently, Seattle’s Mamnoon. Gordon prepares the filled-and-sugared style of doughnuts using eggs from Erickson’s Whidbey Island farm and pipes them with lemon curd, chocolate marshmallow, and seasonal fruit jams. They’re a departure from other Seattle doughnut offerings and consistently drum up nostalgia from well-traveled patrons.
“There are tons of people who come in and have these recollections of doughnuts they’ve had in some other place—Iran, Peru, Italy, Germany,” Butler says. “They all have different names or fillings, but there’s something that’s reminiscent.”
General Porpoise is built on an uncommon cafe business model, and is an experiment into largely uncharted territory: The shop tacks on 10 percent gratuity to all sales and, matching staff at all of Erickson’s businesses, baristas are paid a flat $15 per hour. They also qualify for health care and retirement benefits.
The practice of adding a flat percentage gratuity to checks is being implemented at an increasing number of Seattle restaurants, and Erickson was an early adopter. “Renee wanted to make it work in a cafe setting too, because if it didn’t, it meant there was something flawed about the idea in and of itself,” Butler says.
Seattle passed a $15 wage law in 2015; when enforced, it will make the city’s minimum wage more than twice the current federal level. Seattle businesses with fewer than 500 employees still have a few years until they’re legally required to hit $15, but in order to remain competitive and/or close the wage gap in an increasingly expensive city experiencing an affordable-housing crisis, some restaurants like Erickson’s are ahead of the curve.
General Porpoise opened with a higher rate, adding 20 percent gratuity to sales to match the tip rate at other Sea Creatures restaurants. But after running with it for the first week, “it felt like too much to me,” Butler says. “Ten percent fit the cafe. There’s no cash jar or things to sign. The cleanliness of the customer transaction benefits both of us and is faster for everybody.”
But can a barista earn a competitive wage with a flat service charge but no tips? “Every cafe I’ve worked at is different, so it’s difficult to compare tips with certainty,” Butler says. He says that staff may earn slightly less than baristas at a busy cafe, “but the benefit is that all earned income is shown on check stubs, making getting loans, etc. easier. Add to that health insurance and 401k after a few months of employment as well, making the working experience feel more like a career than a job.” Butler notes that in Seattle, “paper stability” also helps with securing rent in a competitive and overpriced housing market.
Now several months in, Butler is full of praise for the flat tipping model. “We’re part of a restaurant group, so there’s absolutely a restaurant-service mentality overarching this whole service model. Our 10 percent gratuity is split with pastry chef Clare Gordon and her team, the same as the servers and chefs [do] at all of the other restaurants,” Butler says. “The equality between front of house and back of house is what’s important. We’re all one team working together for a common goal of making the best doughnuts and coffee we can, and served with a little warmth and kindness, so that our customers truly enjoy their experience. Happy, well-cared-for employees feel vested in that ideal.”
Sara Billups (@hellobillups) is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Read more Sara Billups on Sprudge.