Sam Lewontin (@coffeeandbikes) in Seattle has written a fascinating post at the Slayer Espresso blog, in which he makes the following case: Portland cafe culture is far superior to coffee life in Seattle, in terms of sustainability, style and substance. Sam says:
Most shops in Seattle are based around the second-wave café model—the model of coffee beverage as commodity. In this model, volume of drink production is paramount. Any choice which might challenge the customer is avoided for fear of scaring away potential drink sales. Drink prices stay low, because low drink prices are easy to stomach. Sugar and large volumes of milk are the order of the day, because sugar and large volumes of milk appeal to the broadest range of palates. In order to keep profit margins up at relatively low price-points, cheap, low-quality ingredients become the norm. Training time is reduced, both because training time costs money, and because well-trained employees will demand higher wages. Automation is adopted to promote speed, efficiency and consistency. Quality is beside the point. Quantity is everything.
To galvanize the Seattle scene, then, coffee professionals need to throw it all out and start over again. We are not competing for the same small slice of the total coffee market, and we are not competing for the folks who have chosen fast food as a lifestyle. We are in this business to show people who have never known—or had any reason to know—what can be done with just two ingredients. We are here to challenge people’s assumptions about what coffee can and should be.
2009 Sprudgie Award-winner Stephen Vick sees the problem as a systemic one, as opposed to being cultural or grounded in coffee ignorance:
From having retail experience in both markets, the City of Seatte and King County Health Departments are giant pains in the ass, and corrupt. Many small businesses in Portland (coffee, food, etc.) have thrived by having the opportunity to start their businesses with a very small footprint (food cart, kiosk, farmers market etc.) and then being able to expand to a larger space as they generate a customer base. This is a fundamental step in starting a business, and Portland seems to actively promote this, while Seattle thwarts it.
Slayerespresso.com: Why the Seattle coffee scene now lags Portland’s.