In 2012, Joya Iverson sat on a corner in front of an abandoned gas station in Seattle’s Hillman City neighborhood counting how many people walked by the vacant building that would become her cafe and roastery, Tin Umbrella. She counted three pedestrians in four hours.
In the last handful of years, the space that now houses Tin Umbrella had been a restaurant front for a gambling den, before that it was a hardware store.
Hillman City has been called an “up-and-coming” area in southeast Seattle; it’s one of the last pockets of the city where rent remains relatively affordable. Part of Rainier Valley, historic Hillman City was declared by the Census Bureau to be one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America. Case in point: across from the cafe, there’s a Halal pizza place run by a Vietnamese couple. Before Tin Umbrella, this was also one of the last neighborhoods in an overly caffeinated city without a coffee shop.
For Iverson, opening a cafe in this relatively unknown part of Seattle was a double risk. “Even people who are in the city don’t know where Hillman City is,” she says. “There was a huge awareness issue. It was two-pronged, trying to get a coffee shop open and trying to let people know where this was and why it was important.”
Since Tin Umbrella opened two years ago, the neighborhood has begun to welcome more new businesses: The boarded-up gas station was turned into a shiny new Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken shack; there’s a popular bar down the block and a smoked fish house inching closer to opening across the street. Next door is a “pet grocery”.
“I’ve lived here for about 15 years. In that time, there have been spurts of growth,” Iverson says. “But the recession kind of killed any hope we had. And most of these buildings have sat empty. When I heard the term ‘coffee desert,’ I was like, yes, that’s what this is.”
The opening of Tin Umbrella was a turning point in Hillman City and personally for Iverson, who suffered three car crashes in a five-month span that left her with a traumatic brain injury and vision problems. “2012 was the year of the car accidents,” Iverson says. In February of that year, she was hit head on at 60 mph in a wreck that totaled both cars in heavy snow on a two-lane highway. “I thought I was going to die and prayed I would live. I got my wish.” Two months later, her car was rear-ended.
Iverson says she “couldn’t leave the house” following both accidents. Incredibly, three months after the second accident, she was hit by a car while walking on foot across a parking lot. “After a year of trying to get my old career and life back… I had to come up with something else. I was not the same person,” Iverson says. “On some level a coffee shop that had no customers seemed more doable that trying to get my old life back.”
She spent her savings on medical bills, her retirement on a roaster and five-year lease, and launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to generate support for the project. Neighbors and the local media took notice, and Tin Umbrella and Hillman City became new vocabulary words for Seattle’s coffee community.
Nowadays, while plenty of coffee enthusiasts travel to the neighborhood to check out the cafe, locals—many of whom pitched in to help Iverson with the final stages of opening—have remained the core of the business.
“Most Saturdays and Sundays it’s standing room only,” Iverson says. “It’s the neighborhood that’s here supporting this shop. People run coffee on bar, I’ve had customers grab the dish bin and help.” A civil engineer for the City of Seattle who goes by the nickname “Beef” roasts coffee for the store on nights and weekends.
The drink menu also caters to the neighborhood’s needs. “There are some amazing places in Seattle that can do fancy coffee. Here, we just try to keep it simple and good,” Iverson says. “I look at that cup of drip. Is it good? Is it affordable? Can anyone walk in here with some change in their pocket and get a small cup of drip? In that way, I hope it feels accessible.”
Could this type of neighborhood-centric cafe work somewhere else? Iverson doesn’t think so. “This is a project by Hillman City for Hillman City,” she says. “If we try to replicate anything that’s been done in Capitol Hill or Pioneer Square, it [wouldn’t] speak to the unique needs here. Upscale is not what this neighborhood needs.”