Wind the clock back 30 years and Seattle’s coffee landscape looked something like this: a handful of neighborhood cafes were in business along with Starbucks and Stewart Brothers (later to become Seattle’s Best), Monorail Espresso was pulling shots from the city’s first coffee cart, Kent Bakke had imported a handful of La Marzocco espresso machines to Seattle cafes, and Visions Espresso Service was born. The two decades to follow would solidify Seattle as an important player in American specialty coffee, and early pioneers including Visions helped the city become a catalyst for specialty coffee in the States.
Fast forward to 2016 and you’ll find the commercial and home espresso machine, equipment, and parts supplier founded by Dawn Loraas going strong in its Seattle warehouse. Visions introduced a shiny new showroom at the front of its 9,000-square-foot space last February under the watchful eye of Michael “Panda” Fernandez, the company’s savvy new New York-based marketing manager (and a onetime Sprudge contributor).
Visions does a brisk online and wholesale business, and in an economy increasingly centered on e-commerce, dedicating resources to a revamped brick-and-mortar space is a bold move. Fernandez says the decision to invest in remodeling a physical showroom was an intentional choice to extend hospitality to customers. “Sure there are a lot of folks that do the majority of their shopping online, myself included,” he says. “But there's something about being able to go to a space and engage with a team that is passionate about what they do in every way. It's energizing for the consumer and it fosters loyalty in what we offer.”
Visions HQ fits in with its changing neighborhood, SoDo. The company has been operating out of the burgeoning industrial area since 2004. With winemakers, distillers, and a flashy new Filson store for the lumbersexual set, Fernandez says foot traffic is on the rise. “You can come in and we can make you a cup of coffee or we can talk about brewers and you can feel welcome and get that service,” he adds.
There are a lot of moving parts to Visions, including resale and wholesale programs for espresso machines, a coffee education lab, an online store selling grinders, brewers, and miscellaneous equipment like cleaning brushes, filters, cup printing services, and a 24/7 service department working domestically and internationally, with team members zipping around Washington state in a fleet of branded Priuses. Staff maintain a meticulously organized parts library in the back of the warehouse.
The new showroom includes gear and live machines for demoing from Synesso, Mavam, Modbar, Slayer, and more; a new retail wall; and a couple of shelves for its “Visions in Focus” program selling whole beans from Northwest and out-of-town roasters.
Fernandez says the remodel of the Visions showroom is one part of a complete company refresh. “Connecting with the community has and will always remain important to us at Visions,” he says. “Our showroom and coffee education lab are a way to connect with customers, baristas, owners, and coffee enthusiasts. We've also put a lot of time into relaunching our website and creating public education and training courses, as well as showcasing out-of-town and local roasters in our showroom,” Fernandez says.
Home enthusiasts and professional baristas are welcomed at brewing and milk-art classes in the coffee education lab down the hall from the showroom. The tricked-out space has been booked for baristas training for competition; Fernandez namechecks 2015 Northwest Barista Champion Sam Schroeder and Maxwell Mooney as “really cool baristas” who have clocked time in the lab.
Fernandez will focus next on amping up social media, representing Visions at coffee events, and promoting the company’s brand on the East Coast, where it’s less of a household name. “Having a bicoastal presence is pretty huge. We're able to personally introduce our brand to a whole new group of folks,” he says. “With the advent of social media and digital marketing, we needed to change our approach. I like to say that I'm responsible for reminding people of how awesome we are.”