When I met Sam Schroeder at Olympia Coffee’s newest location, on a sleepy stretch of road in West Seattle, he had just finished a six-hour shift behind the cafe’s white marble bar. Outside, a dog was hitched to the front door, giving passers-by excitable looks and sniffs, as the cloud cover broke into sunlight. In the works for years and opened in late January 2018, the cafe is Olympia’s first in the city—but for Schroeder, it’s a sort of homecoming.
“We signed the lease on this space in May of last year,” Schroeder says. “But opening a shop here for me has always been a goal, because I grew up in West Seattle. When I drive to the cafe, I drive by the house I was born and grew up in. It’s less than a mile from here.”
West Seattle is also where a teenage Schroeder’s coffee career began, at the Tully’s in Alki Beach, making coffee and coffee milkshakes for an endless line of swimsuit-clad customers. It’d be years until he was hired to bag coffee as Olympia’s first employee under its original owners, Tim Hunter and Terry Ziniewicz, and still more until he took over as co-owner of the company with Oliver Stormshak in 2010.
But some things today aren’t so different for Schroeder than they were in his first job. For one, the 640-square-foot West Seattle Olympia is insanely busy. Which is why, he says, he was scheduled for seven shifts in the cafe’s first two weeks of business.
“I haven’t worked a bar shift for about a year and a half,” Schroeder tells me, fresh off a busy morning on bar, “but one of our company values is teamwork. I don’t want to ever be in a place where I’m not willing to be on the front lines with the rest of our staff because the work is beneath me.” Fair enough, but for a growing company like Olympia Coffee—now with three cafes between Olympia and Seattle, with a fourth on the way in Tacoma's Proctor District—it's uncommon for an owner to get their hands dirty in this style on bar. A 7:00am opening shift at a busy cafe is no joke, but Schroeder is quick to make it clear he’s just here “helping out” during the cafe’s opening era—making drinks, doing dishes, and pitching in to iron out the quirks of a new space, like fixing the soap dispenser when it falls off the bathroom wall, or tidying up the storeroom. You know, owner stuff.
The real work of running this Olympia will be done by a team of Seattle-based baristas—but for now he's in the trenches helping out. “Barista work is so much more fun than working in an office,” Schroeder tells me with a wry smile, a tip of the cap that these early days might some of his favorite. “Seattle has a lot of history in coffee,” he continues, “and we’ve had a lot of people from the Seattle coffee community visiting and dropping off coffee. We already have regulars—even in just a few days, I’ve seen some of the same faces come back in, and I think it’s partly because it’s such a walkable area.”
The cafe itself was designed by Roussa Cassel at Artisans Group, who was also responsible for Olympia’s Capitol location remodel. Each location has its own style, and a West Seattle the feel is light and bright and open, with 14-foot ceilings and windows basically everywhere. It's a small cafe on paper—just 600 square-feet—but it doesn't feel small as a customer, with seating spilling out onto the sidewalk and to-go orders walking their own unique paths around this sleepy neighborhood. The bar sports Kalita pour-over cones, batch brew on FETCO XTS, grinders by Baratza and Mahlkönig, and a gorgeous La Marzocco Strada AV espresso machine, customized by Seattle-based Pantechnicon.
It’d be fair to give Schroeder and the team at Olympia Coffee Roasting Company a break, you know, given that their opening is less than a week old, but they're already thinking ahead to what’s next. “The next thing is opening our 1,200-square-foot store in Tacoma, which will basically be a mini version of our flagship in Olympia. We’ll have a five kilo roaster in there, and do specific coffees just for them,” Schroeder says, adding that a unique espresso will be on offer alongside a Poursteady unit for drip, same as their Olympia headquarters.
As for Seattle, Schroeder sees a future where Olympia has three locations in the city, while continuing to support growing relationships, both wholesale and retail. To that end, as he’s milling about in the back of the cafe, Schroeder makes eye contact with a customer walking in the door. There’s a group of new moms sitting at a table, and the customer, a man in full, stretchy-looking bicycle kit, makes his way past them to order an espresso. After getting his demitasse, he gets to Schroeder and the two shake hands, exchange names.
“You were outside making coffees in the rain,” the bicyclist says to Schroeder, who had apparently spent a bit of time around the holidays standing in front of the soon-to-be cafe, making brewed coffee for passers-by as the finishing touches went in.
“You brought your own mug,” Schroeder replies, before the man downs his drink, gives a nod, and makes his way back out the door. Interactions like this are small and happen a thousand times over every day at cafes across the world—in this case, the cafe just happens to be a day old at the time. It’s a barista and a new regular—a very, very new regular—taking a moment to stop and say hi. Nothing too big, just the first of many such commonplace moments at Seattle’s newest, local coffee import.
All photos by Honor Forte, used with permission. Photo of Sam Schroeder by the author.
Disclosure: Olympia Coffee Roasting Company is an advertising partner on Sprudge Media Network.