During a road trip from California to Washington State, Alex Johnstone and David Rothstein decided to start a coffee company. The recent college grads were into climbing, and during the vacation they found themselves perched on a rock along the Pacific coast. The tide had come in and they were stuck on top with a couple of cups and an AeroPress.
The idea for Convoy Coffee, which began as a small fleet of environmentally friendly human-powered coffee bike carts, was hatched that day. The friends settled in Seattle and built their first cart in 2014 (there are now three). Convoy quickly became a regular fixture at Seattle-area farmers’ markets. “We’ve spent the last year entrenched in the most beautiful food community,” Johnstone says.
People kept asking Johnstone and Rothstein where they could find their coffee during the work week, which resulted in the search for a permanent address. Now, the business partners have opened their first brick and mortar in Seattle’s buzzy Pioneer Square neighborhood.
Convoy started a conversation with the director of Impact Hub, a shared workspace that houses socially conscious small businesses in the 220 & Change building near Elm Coffee Roasters and The London Plane. Convoy cut the ribbon at its permanent cafe in the lobby of the historic building during the first week of August.
“Our space in itself is very much old Seattle—we’ve got this beautiful, all-windows footprint in a hundred-year-old building with a view of the Smith Tower,” Johnstone says. “Our layout is designed to bring people as far into the space as possible.” At the farmers’ market, customers approach Convoy’s bike carts from all angles; their new bar’s design takes a similar approach. “You end up brewing coffee for someone standing right next to you, and they see what you’re doing and want to learn. It makes people more comfortable with the whole process,” Johnstone says.
Calling the project “truly localist,” Convoy’s owners point out that their bar features a Synesso machine from Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, converted bike trailers built in a local community construction studio, and countertops from “the ever proliferated” Boeing hardwood. “The skeleton of Seattle is that industry,” Johnstone says.
Convoy’s coffee program is also Northwest-centric, offering small, primarily wholesale roasters including Kuma from Seattle, Roseline from Portland, and Spotted Cow and Velton’s from further afield in Washington State. “A year and a half ago, we started going to all the roasting talent we heard about, tasted coffees, and built relationships,” Johnstone says. “We’re trying to honor and support them as much as possible.”
Convoy uses organic milk from Pure Éire Dairy in Othello, Washington. “We’re surprised how few shops in town use organic milk,” Rothstein says. “We think it’s really important to set the bar high for quality, healthful ingredients.” Local farmers’ market vendor Patty Pan designed a custom line of salads for the shop, with pastries coming from the excellent Coyle’s Bakeshop.
“We want to give people the chance to support local vendors doing things better than they need to be done,” Rothstein says. “Our mission starting out was honoring [vendor] stories and representing them if they were our own products,” Johnstone adds. “Because that gets lost in a lot of shops. You see rebranding—surface-level descriptions of our vibrant local scene.”
The men liken running a business to pulling a whole bunch of strings together at once and presenting them to the world. Johnstone says that Convoy’s new Pioneer Square project “has basically given us 120 more strings to pull together.”
The business partners describe their decision-making process as a “constant argument.” Each claims to be perfectionist, and the two frequently bounce ideas off of one another. “We’re always taking ourselves to school,” Rothstein says. “We have a garage where we keep our carts and bring people there for brainstorming sessions. We’ve made a whole wall of whiteboard and go crazy.”
Staff and friends are welcome to Convoy’s whiteboard brainstorming sessions, including of course the company’s baristas, which the men describe as having “a passion and zeal,” but not necessarily years of training. “We hire people who are hungry to learn,” Rothstein says. “We’ve been pushing ourselves, and all the people we’ve hired have been self-starters and are pushing their own knowledge. Then we all come together to practice things. We can talk about it for hours.”
Sara Billups (@hellobillups) is a Seattle-based food and drinks writer, and has written previously for Tasting Table, Seattle Weekly, and Eater Seattle. Read more Sara Billups on Sprudge.