Four weeks ago, Elm Coffee opened its doors as the first on-site coffee roaster in Pioneer Square. How has business gone one month in, and has reality matched up to expectations? Eater checked in with owner Brendan Mullally, who talks about his vision for the business and what sets it apart from other coffee roasters in Seattle.
Mullally grew up in Laurelhurst in Seattle, before moving to New York City for graduate school. While in the middle of a Phd program in philosophy, Mullally realized that his heart wasn't truly in it and decided to drop out instead to pursue a career in coffee full-time at Joe in New York, where he eventually became manager.
During his time working at Joe, the company moved from having two to 13 stores, which Mullally says taught him "a lot about what it takes to run a small business. It's a lot of hard work." Just over a year ago, with seven years of experience in the coffee industry under his belt, Mullally decided to move back to Seattle to open his own roaster.
Why Seattle? "I missed this city" he says, "[and] I want to start a family with my fiancée and you have to have a lot of money to do that in NYC." Astronomical real estate prices in New York also made the idea of opening a coffee shop in Seattle seem like a much friendlier option, not to mention the people.
Astronomical real estate prices in New York also made the idea of opening a coffee shop in Seattle seem like a much friendlier option, not to mention the people.
Mullally notes that "The customers are way better here than in New York. They are so much more polite. I love New Yorkers but they are way more direct. Here you can just find something to drink and they love it. It's a lot easier. People are a lot calmer."
So far the most popular drink at Elm has been Americanos—showing a difference in the coffee culture between the two cities. Mullally adds, "People love Americanos in Seattle. People in New York love 12-ounce skim lattes which people here don't seem too excited about."
According to Mullally, the neighborhood has greatly welcomed the opening of Elm Coffee. There are already established regulars. Their largest demographic has proven to be young urbanites working at tech-start ups in the area, highlighting the emerging tech scene in Pioneer Square.
The first few weeks of business have "been good [but] slower than expected. It's been really fun." When discussing how reality has differed from expectations in the opening of Elm, Mullally discusses how, "it took a lot longer to open than I expected. The permitting process was a lot more difficult and the hiring process took a long time." Mullally interviewed more than 50 people for a mere five barista positions and hinted at the importance of having "engaging friendly baristas that are not pretentious and stuck up."
What makes Elm Coffee stand out in the Seattle coffee community? According to Mullally, it is all in the simplicity and quality of what Elm sells and represents. "The design is a bit more minimal" Mullally says, noting how he thought Elm would fit well the minimalist design of other restaurants in the neighborhood such as the London Plane—which provides the pastries Elm sells.
The materials used in Elm's interior design is largely locally sourced—the benches inside were made from scrap mahogany that was originally put together to make crates for Boeing's airplane parts.
Mullally's overall vision for Elm is to have "quality in everything. We buy really good coffee. We try to roast it in a way that doesn't mask that quality. A little bit lighter but not underdeveloped." Mullally is a fan of light roast coffee, explaining that roaster Drew Fitchette's style, "is probably more typical in Scandinavia."
Elm maintains close connections to their selection and sourcing of coffee beans. "We sample 55 to 60 coffees and pick four. It's a long process and we buy really nice quality coffees. We pay probably 200 percent more than fair trade prices." Elm's current selection of coffee by the pound comes from Ethiopia, Colombia, and Guatemala.
Mullally hopes to foster social interactions that are increasingly hard to find in cafes today, noting that "some cafes you go into [have] a line of Macbooks. Everybody is in their own world, but I wanted a little bit more socialization. It works around here because people are coming from tech jobs or some sort of job where they are on their computer all day long so when they come here they don't want to do that. They just talk to each other."
What does the future hold for Elm? Mullally hopes one day to increase Elm's activity with wholesale accounts, and to make Elm's name known in supplying coffee to local restaurants and cafes. For now, Mullally is already placing a significant amount time and resources on the line to ensure that his first business delivers a quality experience that will have an impact on Seattle's microroastery scene.