Starbucks and the Foodie Revolution

Original Article

Starbucks, the international coffee chain that has helped revolutionize the cultural phenomenon of coffee, is 40 years old this month, and reminiscences are appearing. Like Daniel Jack Chasan, who has a story up at Crosscut, I also actually knew a couple of the young men who started the first Starbucks, located in the Pike Place Market. Gordon Bowker and Zev Seigel were unassuming revolutionaries, surely more than they realized.

The food culture was ripe for change. David Brewster (founder of Crosscut, and, formerly, The Seattle Weekly) began publishing a sophisticated and local restaurant review newsletter that led to a whole string of publishing innovations. (Among other things, Brewster stimulated production of local interest books in subjects from history to nature to recreation, resulting in whole sections of bookstores devoted to “Northwest Authors”; but that’s another story.) Ethnic restaurants were becoming popular even outside the biggest cities; that is, you didn’t need to be French or Italian to cultivate an enthusiasm for French or Italian restaurants. In Pioneer Square, Seattle Francois and Julia Kissel operated The Brasserie Pittsburg, humorously named after a Gold Rush cafe once at the same location. Over the years the Brasserie became an unpretentious hang out for people in politics (from the nearby Municipal Building and County Courthouse), media people from the papers and TV stations, delighted patrons of the Allied Arts lobby for good urban design and many young professionals. It was splendid, reasonably priced and collegial, but not replicable—alas.

Good imported wine made an appearance at the Pike and Western shop, also in Pike Place Market, and then came the revelations of Associated Vintners, avocation of a group of University of Washington professors who grew grapes in Eastern Washington and made surprisingly good wine from them. They proposed the intoxicating thought that Washington State had a future in quality wine production. Eventually, Associated Vintners became Columbia Wineries, now a major player in the thriving wine culture that ranks Washington now second in the nation, though still well back from number one California. In any case, the UW profs and the connoisseurs who stocked the little store in the Market and educated the palates of their customers all helped make for today’s sizable economic and cultural enterprise.

Later, a descendant of a gentleman artisan who was, we’re told, “chocolatier to the last czars”, took the old man’s secret recipes and created a company making hand made chocolates in the Market. He gave it the sassy name, Dilettante Chocolates. It did well, and inspired many immitators, not only in Seattle but nationally. What was novel was the on-site freshness and the specialness that conferred. That and the superior taste, of course.

Then there is the story of gelato, another treat imported to Seattle, even if the city can’t claim any unique parentage of the American variation. For my money, the best product for many years has been Gelatiamo (“I love Gelato”) at the corner of 3rd and Union, run by the estimable Maria Coassin, sometime Venetian, now a proud US citizen.

But it was Starbucks, sold in the 70s, that stamped coffee on the map of Seattle. As Chasan notes, you could get espresso drinks in New York and San Francisco’s North Beach in those days, or one could add at the Club 47 Mount Aburn in Cambridge, Mass,, where, in the 60s, a young Joanie Baez also would sing to you through the smoke. And in a few big cities—I think of a shop on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, DC’s Georgetown—you could get unground coffee beans and fresh teas. But it was inspiration of the Starbucks shop that discovered that if you brewed fresh coffee for your customers to sample, you could move more product. The smells and the taste seduced. And if you also offered electric coffee grinders and Krupp espresso machines, people could take all that experience home with them. Long suffering sybarites rejoiced.

It was later that someone had the idea to put a chair or two in the store andsell the samples. The owners soon figured out that (like the Kodak company that learned you should sell the camera cheap in order to hook the customers on repeat purchases of the camera film, where the real money could be made) that the highest and best use of the Starbucks coffee beans and coffee makers operated mainly as a come-on for the true in-store attraction, the fresh espresso in about a dozen variations. Such are the ways entrepreneurs learn and innovate.

My grandmother used a hand coffee grinder a hundred years ago. For her, canned ground coffee was an advance. But by the time my own family lived in Vienna in the 1980s, we preferred the fresh coffee bean brew. We further became addicted to the “Melange”, one the many Viennese coffee house’s espresso drinks—the cousin of the “latte”. What a nice surprise then it was to come back to Seattle and find that Starbucks had spread out and was offering its own bewildering number of choices and its own new variation on the coffee house.

I could write also of the advent of good bread in food culture of our time. The choices used to be white, whole wheat or rye. The return of the neighborhood bakery is a tale of a revival that excelled its revered ancestors. Seattle has at least eight such establishments now, and Seattle of course is not alone. One of the esteemed pioneers was (and thankfully still is) Grand Central Bakery, started in the 70s by some female teachers from Lakeside School.

Now if someone would figure out how to imitate the experience of the Viennese “heuriger”—or wine garden—where, indoors in winter, outdoors in summer, one can sample the house’s own wine, and enjoy a typical dinner alongside. Maybe throw in an accordion to provide the cozy atmosphere. It hasn’t quite happened yet. Nor has the German style beer hall. But when it does, it could happen in Seattle, and with a few distinct Seattle twists to make it unique, at first, and then scalable. Like Starbucks.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.