SEATTLE, November 18 – In the door at 6am, your Sprudge.com editors were the very first customers for the brand new “Inspired by Starbucks” stealth shoppe in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Located at the 3-way intersection of Roy, Harvard and Broadway, “Roy Street Coffee and Tea” is the latest offering from Howard Schultz and Co, whom clearly see this business model as having growth potential. RSCT is the second “inspired-by” location to open on the Hill in the last year, and leaked company memos point towards a national expansion of these Seattle prototypes. Call it radical re-branding; only the hand-drawn chalk menu offered evidence of whose pockets made this palace possible. We noticed a lovely Hario product display before we saw “Starbucks” printed anywhere in the shop.
And what a palace it is. Initial impressions: the space is, quite frankly, gorgeous. Any independent shop owner would bankrupt themselves to try and recreate it. Lovely vintage furniture abounds, unassuming at first, until your eyes adjust and the sumptuousness of the interior sinks in. Locally sourced dark woods, vintage furniture, red velvet curtains, Edison lightning, an enormous Diego Rivera-esque mural, and lots of little details in the color palette, like muted orange upholstery and glass sliding doors. The bar is slate and steel, salvaged from the Garfield High School metal shop. The large wooden table in the anterior conference room is salvaged as well, re-purposed from a ship’s deck.
Starbucks is clearly excited about what’s happening here on Roy St. A kind, unassuming young woman approaches and asks us how we like the shop…and hands us a packet of promotional materials bearing the Starbucks logo. The baristas already know their best customer by name: “Howard”, or if you’re nervous, “Mr. Schultz”, who ordered a double short non-fat cappuccino and accepted my business card with aplomb. He thanked us for coming in, as did the barista, who managed to say “groovy” half a dozen times during our brief interaction.
The baristas are working with a shiny new 3-Group Synesso Hydra, Anfim 2 Grinders, a Clover machine and pour-over bar. And the coffee? 7 classic offerings (Espresso, Decaf Espresso, Sumatra, Italian Roast, Caffé Verona, Costa Rica Bella Vista, Kenya) and 3 exclusive offerings (Diamond Mountain La Esmeralda, Sundried Yirgacheffe, 100% Kauai), offered through Clover or pour-over, each available as espresso upon request. The POS system was experiencing first-day nerves and so our coffees were served gratis. We went ahead and tried the Esmeralda and the Yirgacheffe. Yirgacheffe had recognizable berry notes, Esmeralda offered muted hints of lime… but if you grew up in the suburbs, you know what a Starbucks roast tastes like. You find yourself hunting for flavor instead of letting it bop you in the nose.
Local photographers, filmmakers, and blog-types trickle in. The restroom facilities are magnificent. “Belle and Sebastian” features prominently in the opening-morning mix, and we’re approached by an incognito early 20s Starbucks corporate spy (we’re 95% sure). Signs around the shop called for contributions from artists and musicians. Howard Schultz is out the door by 7 am.
Is Roy Street a lovely shop? Yes, absolutely. It’s a warm, comfortable, impressive shop. The small but subtle wine list promises a multi-purpose use of space that no indie shop in Seattle can rival. The coffee we tried was fine. Like it or not, Roy St. is now part of the neighborhood. There will be daily cuppings and small, patient lines at noon and 8 am. There will be Iced Mochas and chai lattes. If you want, there’s some amazing coffee to try here; opinions will always differ, but the shot of Yirg I tried was a lot of fun.
It begs the question: What happens when Starbucks expands their business model outside Seattle? You’d be hard pressed to find a city in America that spends more money on coffee daily. Roy St. probably won’t put its competitors out of business, and it’s not going to split allegiances or change the way we think about coffee here. It’s another shop on the Hill, albeit a gorgeous one, and we’re still going to go to Vivace for late night shots, or Victrola when we’re on 15th, Caffe Vita when we want bullshit attitude, or Stumptown when we need beans. We don’t think it’s a game-changer. But what happens when Starbucks goes stealth in Milwaukee, or Pittsburgh, or St. Louis? They’ll choose the hippest neighborhoods, they’ll throw money at their spaces, and it’ll be huge trouble for the roasters and shops. It’s not an accident, it’s by design. “Inspired by Capitalism”.
If I owned a coffee shop within a 2 mile radius, I’d be terrified.
Originally published for Breuters.