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A glowing red coffee cup sign with the Pike Place Market marquee in the background
Seattle coffee shops are reliant on mostly walk-in customers, which is not an option right now.

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Seattle’s Coffee Culture May Never Return to the Way It Was

Coffee shops have served as the city’s primary hangout spots for decades — now some are trying to pivot to online sales with mixed results

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Only a couple months ago, Tim Graham was leading sales and marketing at Broadcast Coffee, a popular small-batch community roaster in Central District. Today, he describes himself as more of a “fry cook,” though bagging coffee, gathering produce from closing restaurants, and preparing food for laid-off staff all fall under his new list of responsibilities as well.

“It’s adapt or die, at this point,” he says.

Graham is one of many cafe workers in the city whose role has significantly shifted due to COVID-19 measures, as shop owners and managers resort to serving limited takeout drinks and trying to maintain a social media presence, all at a social distance. Graham’s day-to-day now involves cooking breakfast sandwiches, serving to-go orders, and making the occasional delivery. Years in the food service industry have made him well-equipped to handle the changes, he says, though he realizes not every coffee shop may be able to adjust as Broadcast has.

Pipo Bui, cofounder of Seattle Coffee Works, the well-regarded cafe near Pike Place Market with three other locations in the city, has also taken on multiple roles in the wake of the pandemic, trying to do grassroots marketing in an effort to drum up more business. The cafe itself is temporarily closed, but continues to sell roasts through its website. “None of this is our strong suit,” she says.

After serving as the city’s primary hangout spots for years, coffee shops in Seattle are in limbo. In general, coffee’s first wave was considered home-driven mid-century iterations like Folgers, the second wave focused on fast service and the rise of Starbucks, and the third wave (beginning in the 90s) was more about developing artisanship and a hangout culture around cafes. Many of the third wave businesses rely on walk-in customers, and now face a sobering new reality — one that may last for a long time.

“We’re not just in the business of coffee, we’re in the business of community,” read a recent Facebook post from the acclaimed Indian-influenced Greenwood shop Makeda and Mingus. “When the governors [sic] orders came down that we could only serve to-go orders I was convinced, ‘this is how it ends.’ I didn’t start Makeda Coffee just to hawk coffee. I do what I do because I value human connection.”

Sipping leisurely in coffee shops is out, so cafes in Seattle are building an online presence through social media and email campaigns to keep customers engaged and drive retail sales of coffee beans. A few of the larger chains in the country, such as Stumptown roasters, have found some reason for optimism to weather the current crisis through such adjustments, but more independent cafes paint a much different picture locally.

A view of a light blue wall and wood communal tables at Preserve and Gather.
Preserve and Gather in Greenwood is still open for takeout, but has usually relied on walk-in traffic.
Preserve and Gather [Official Photo]

The significant drop in customers over recent weeks has forced nearly all Seattle coffee shops to furlough staff and operate with a skeleton crew. Some acclaimed local roasteries, like Fulcrum, Lighthouse Roasters, and the aforementioned Seattle Coffee Works, are still roasting beans and selling bags for retail online, even though their shops are closed temporarily.

Others such as Dubsea, Analog, Preserve and Gather, and Elm Coffee Roasters have limited hours, relying primarily on takeout and some online sales, while the Vietnamese cafe Coffeeholic in Columbia City is one of the only cafes to make its debut during the stay-at-home order, currently operating on to-go orders entirely. In early April, Tougo Coffee originally seemed to indicate that its Central District cafe may have to close permanently, but as of Thursday, both the CD and Yesler Way locations were still open for takeout with reduced hours. Eater Seattle confirmed that there are no plans to close either location for good right now.

But the pivots include mixed results. Even places that can sell their own beans will have a tough time making up for lost revenue. Before the pandemic, Seattle Coffee Works would see 2,000 diners a day across its four locations, Bui says, while there are now only around 75 daily online sales. According to Graham, Broadcast Coffee’s sales are down 37 percent across all channels.

“One of the worst aspects of this whole crisis is not being able to provide the amount of jobs we normally do,” says Deming Maclise, owner of Caffe Vita, which is trying to make ends meet through its roasting operation, grocery accounts, and digital sales (including a virtual tip jar for baristas). “We’re constantly looking at how we can provide more work for our current employees and are trying to keep them employed for as long as possible.”

Caffe Vita permanently closed its Greenwood Ave N location after more than a decade, reducing its Seattle imprint from six to five outposts — and it seems that a rent hike was to blame. “After facing an increase in our rent to renew our lease at a time of uncertainty, we have made the difficult decision to close our Phinney Ridge cafe,” the shop tells Eater Seattle. “The implications of COVID-19 have pointed out some of the imbalances in tenant/landlord relationships regarding risk and rents with metrics highly favoring the landlord, with most or all of the risk placed on the tenant.”

Bui says coffee shops now must consider what the “new normal” may look like when it’s time to reopen, including coping with a projected shift in demand that will likely have wide-ranging effects. According to one study, on average a one percent drop in GDP growth globally is associated with a reduction of in demand of approximately 211 million pounds of coffee. And global GDP is expected to drop by at least 3.9 percentage points this year.

According to Bloomberg, coffee traders in the U.S. are bracing for supply chain disruptions over the next several months. Shipping and payment delays, the projected impact on exchange rates, and the inability to work are some of the primary concerns of industry workers. Farmers, producers, and importers are expected to take some of the biggest hits, with many shops feeling the pressure to pull back on their purchase commitments.

“We have already committed to coffee this year and it’s on its way here,” says Maclise when asked how the supply chain shift may influence their relationships with farmers. As for the future, he says, it’s too soon to tell. “The ports and logistics are certainly messed up right now.”

For coffee farmers, the effects may be slightly delayed, with the brunt of the impact reaching them around the same time the rest of the world is starting to recover, says Bui.

“At this time of year, we would usually be earning the money that we will use to purchase this year’s coffee crop,” Bui says. The shop’s green coffee buyer, who’s responsible for sourcing beans before they’re roasted, is currently discussing options with their farmer partners, including the possibility of delaying payments, she says.

A coffee machine with Caffé Vita’s logo on it.
Caffe Vita recently changed ownership.
Caffé Vita/Facebook

Bui says prioritizing direct trade — or the process of purchasing beans directly from the farmer — is more vital now than ever, as coffee prices become more volatile. It means more money in the pockets of those at both ends of the supply chain.

“It’s terrible to have to ask the farmers to make these compromises, especially when many of them are also experiencing stay-at-home orders in their countries,” she says. “They may not even have the medical infrastructure and financial help that we and our domestic suppliers have in the U.S.”

Because of the supply chain issues and general economic volatility, the resounding effects of this shift mean even more uncertainty for Seattle’s coffee houses. And even when dine-in services resume in the city, strict social distancing measures will likely be put in place, which would require more adjustments from cafes. After spending years trying to cultivate community gathering places and supersede the fast-service model, Bui says the pandemic has caused a big step back for third wave coffee culture, as discussions of plexiglass shields and bank-teller-style handoffs dominate the conversation.

“It’s hard to imagine that Seattle’s coffee culture will return to the way it was,” she says. “I used to think the future was ten years out … now the far future is June.”

Though some small, specialty coffee shops may reopen, Graham says, it’s likely that more will have to close for good.

“Seattle was already feeling the pain of the economic situation prior to this, and now it has been compounded,” says Graham. “It’s kind of terrifying to think about what’s coming.”

Maclise also says the current crisis has exposed the lopsided nature of the coffee business. Despite employing more than 450 people in Seattle alone, he says, it’s difficult to see how they’re going to reopen current operations, let alone open any new ones.

“This could be a wake-up call for the industry and a magnifying glass on the difficulty of making restaurants and coffee houses work in the current business environment as a whole,” says Maclise. “The level of risk and expense for a restaurant or coffee house owner has gotten almost unsustainable and an event like this quickly exposes that risk.”