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Specialty Coffee Can Be Exclusionary. These Seattle Cafes Are Trying to Change That

As they employ craftsmanship and precision, Union Coffee and other local shops seek to be a more welcoming environment to all

On a windy spring afternoon, Union Coffee in the Central District is buzzing with activity as owner Geetu Vailoor and barista Grace Rathbone tend to a steady stream of customers. Through masks, they chat up many of the regulars, who grab cardamom rose lattes and other flavored drinks alongside pastries made on site. At one point, local roaster Jake Deome from Looking Homeward Coffee pops his head in to check on the bean supply and test a pull of espresso. Over on one wall, an illustration of a cartoon dog on a scooter, drawn by staffer Felix Tran, watches over the proceedings. There are even Scoot Dog stickers available for purchase with each expertly made drink.

On the surface, Union Coffee may appear like most modern specialty coffee shops: minimalist design, scales to weigh coffee, shelves filled with bags of single-origin beans, and a selection of natural wine. Though the exact definition of specialty coffee is mutable, in general it refers to high-quality roasts (often lighter and scored on a specific 100-point scale) that are prepared meticulously by rigorously trained baristas working with expensive machines. Union has a few of those elements, but it’s also a successor in spirit to longtime Seattle stalwarts like Bauhaus, Espresso Vivace, and Cafe Allegro, places where the foundations of the city’s coffeehouse community were established decades ago.

Over the past several years, in cities from coast to coast, there’s been a progressively growing shift in specialty coffee shops that attempts to shed some of the traditional snobbery associated with the scene. In 2017, Go Get Em Tiger in Los Angeles (an infamously fussy cafe) introduced playful takes on flavored holiday drinks; Everyman Espresso has expanded to three locations in the highly competitive New York City coffee landscape with a sunny, welcoming vibe (to pair with its meticulously prepared drinks); and the website of esteemed Big Shoulders in Chicago proudly touts a review that noted how it “eschews the hip pretensions of many third wavers.” Wrecking Ball (Berkeley), Monarch Coffee (Kansas City), Little Waves (Durham), Black and White (Wake Forest, NC), and Chromatic (San Jose) are also examples of the growing trend of the approachability.

As shops in Seattle emerge from the grab-and-go demands of the pandemic, Union and others like it represent a similar, subtle change in the local cafe culture, which can often become entrenched in the past. This recent shift reflects an amalgam of elements from the specialty world that values the science of brewing for greater consistency, but also strives for a more inclusive ethos that seeks to welcome all customers, no matter how much they know about the granular points of coffee. While some specialty shops may treat roasts like fine wine and emphasize the tasting experience over most other considerations, Vailoor and a new generation of owners and baristas also want to create a comfortable atmosphere and make stronger connections with the people they serve.

The inside of Union Coffee, looking out onto the street, with owner Geetu Vailoor speaking with a customer, and barista Grace Rathbone preparing a beverage
Union Coffee features larger servings, more medium roasts, and a wider variety of latte flavors than one might find at other specialty shops.

When Vailoor purchased Union from former owner Zack Reinig in March 2020, she wanted to showcase terrific coffee without forcing it down people’s throats. “Coffee isn’t the highlight — it’s the interactions we have with guests, and we make a huge point of meeting people where they are,” she says. That means customers who order at the Central District cafe won’t be evangelized into drinking a macchiato (though the shop’s version is stellar), nor will they need to have institutional knowledge of single-origin coffee to understand the menu. Rather, the hospitality focus at Union aims to accommodate customers’ wishes, even if those wishes don’t fit into the narrow rubric of specialty coffee.

One notable departure from specialty coffee strictures is in plain view: Guests can order a 16-ounce latte from the menu. This size has sometimes been frowned upon, since it accommodates a larger amount of milk. (The additional dairy can dilute the original roast’s subtleties.) “Some things associated with ‘third wave coffee’ [an era marked by the rise of specialty coffee] is like, you have to drink small drinks, and you have to drink coffee by itself, unsweetened,” says Vailoor. “And we don’t care about that. The horchata that we make, it’s pretty sweet, and it’s also very tasty.” There are medium roasts available, which generally appeal to a broader range of coffee drinkers, rather than the lighter roasts favored by many specialty outfits, which may taste vegetal to certain palates.

At the same time, the staff at Union — including Rathbone, a World Barista Championship contender — apply a great deal of precision to their craft, embracing many practices that are hallmarks of specialty shops. A common routine, which isn’t done at the average Starbucks location, is to “dial in” coffee at the start of the day. This involves creating a kind of recipe for each selection of drip coffee and espresso to be brewed that day based on the weight of the grounds (to the tenth of the gram), grind size, and extraction time, with staffers regularly tasting the result and making adjustments as needed. Vailoor says dialing in allows for a more consistent coffee quality. She likens it to craving a certain flavor of ice cream and knowing exactly where to get it. “It reminds people of why they want to come back,” she says.

Cafe Red, the six-year-old Othello shop that started as a South Seattle coffee cart, has a shaggier vibe than most specialty coffee destinations, with a lived-in feel almost like the hull of an old fishing vessel. Co-owner Jesiah Wurtz feels that the more sterile designs of many specialty shops can be turnoffs. “It’s almost like being in a hospital,” he says. But Wurtz also dials in roasts each day and uses a sleek-looking under-the-counter Mavam espresso machine with a precision pre-infusion button. (Pre-infusion lightly soaks the puck of coffee to help make sure all grounds get the same amount of water before extraction.) “Even if you’re not doing super high-end coffee, you still probably want your product to be consistent,” he says. “If you want every single person who’s behind that coffee bar to be able to pull out the same quality drink, then you need to have metrics that you can just repeat.”

Wurts says weighing coffee, keeping equipment sparkling clean, and other practices may be more rigorous at specialty shops, but they transcend any one style of cafe and may be what all neighborhood shops eventually aspire to execute. He thinks there’s a place for high-end cafes that have the $8 cups of coffee and wine tasting room vibes because “they move the industry forward from a quality standpoint.” But Cafe Red, which is located right by the Light Rail, aims to meet the needs of the average commuter, who may not care about where a roast was sourced or what the underlying tasting notes are.

“I grew up on gas station coffee, and I had a lot of experiences when my lack of knowledge embarrassed me whenever I went into certain coffee shops that felt exclusionary,” he says. “Why are we not respecting people who are coming in and keeping you in business? We’ve had all these super fascinating coffees [at Cafe Red], but if someone just needs to grab a drink on their way to the train, it’s my job to provide them a good experience, and maybe they’ll come back and be a little bit more interested next time if they tasted something great.”

Union Coffee owner Geetu Vailoor in a long-sleeved black shirt and a tan skirt, smiling as she pours a latte into a paper cup
Geetu Vailoor purchased Union Coffee in March 2020.
A chrome espresso machine drips brown liquid into a small glass.
For many Seattle shops, the science behind specialty coffee leads to more consistency.

Likewise, Moonshot Coffee in White Center — from the owners of acclaimed Burien Press — takes a scientific approach to the craft, including weighing grounds, but owner Matthew Wendland sees it as an “approach to hospitality.” Dialing in may be prohibitive to some shops, since it requires a lot of time, effort, and cost (from the equipment to the amount of coffee needed to perfect a recipe). But the tradeoff is a consistent product that will draw in customers on a regular basis. Like Union, the shop may apply science to the craft of coffee making, but it also isn’t opposed to adding syrups and more popular flavors to the menu, such as white chocolate mochas. “Everyone likes different things, and excluding people and not giving them the opportunity to experience your space, that’s gatekeeping,” says Wendland.

The notable distaste for sugar-laden syrups and artificial flavoring has long been a hallmark of specialty coffee, which places an emphasis on the subtle tasting notes extracted from the original beans. And to an extent, the original intentions of the specialty shops to preserve the character, vibrance, and richness of the region-specific beans that farmers and distributors had worked to raise and import were worthy. After all, for many years, owners and roasters worked to create genuine, ethical relationships with small farmers from around the world who were growing beans with specific flavor profiles that were notably different from the styles many importers were used to seeing. Why not take the time to experience those new coffees fully, clearly?

The black-slated menus at Union Coffee, with a list of food and beverage offerings and prices, lined up above the coffee bar
Finding the right price for coffee that values labor, while also being consumer-friendly, is an ongoing challenge.

But the admirable intent to support small farms can often veer into condescension and savior complexes and, at its worst, open scorn for customers at the cafes. Shops listing tasting notes such as citrus, bergamot, or berry compote become signifiers of potential alienation for anyone whose palate or coffee knowledge might not immediately align with the self-declared coffee aficionados. Such details tie in to a chart originally published by the Specialty Coffee Association in 1995 (and updated in 2016) that outlines a range of common flavors among high-quality coffee roasts. As the coffee grader and writer Umeko Motoyoshi has pointed out, fruits and flavors from many nonwhite cultures are left off the chart. (And ironically, even flavors of fruit from countries where coffee is produced aren’t included.) Creating a standard like this may intimidate people trying to expand their knowledge of coffee through their own palate and cultural experience. “If you want to be able to continue paying farmers well for their coffee, you need to make sure you have dedicated customers that are going to be paying you well, and you’re not throwing away business because they’re not cool enough to be part of your club,” says Wurtz.

It’s about more than just word choice. Vailoor says she has attended plenty of cuppings — tastings during which professionals evaluate the character and quality of a coffee batch — where folks who were born outside the U.S. had the space and freedom to note the flavors of durian or lychee or alphonso mango and evoke their personal relationships with certain foods. She much prefers those types of conversations and acts of sharing to the more regimented tasting methods employed by some specialty shops when assessing roasts. To her, these strict tastings ultimately feel more like a test one needs to pass than an act of hospitality. “Coffee is meant to be enjoyed,” she says. “Let’s find the joy instead of feeling like we have to continually find some quality control.”

In an attempt to create a more inclusive atmosphere around coffee tasting, Vailoor plans to introduce free educational events at Union. She wants to keep things small at first: 10 people per table in the upstairs area of the cafe, perhaps presenting the same coffee roasted by two different purveyors, so people can compare them side by side and have a discussion about the differences. “Whatever you taste is right. There’s no wrong answer,” she says. Vailoor adds, “Tasting with other people of color at the table, it’s different, it’s not intimidating, and I want to deconstruct and restructure what tasting looks like. It’s simple, people should be able to approach [the] coffee like, ‘Does it taste good or not? Do I like it or not?’ Because at the end of the day, it’s for you.”

As Vailoor plans tasting events, she’s also aware that people who come into the shop should feel a baseline level of comfort, unlike the colder tech ambience some specialty cafes have been known for. In a similar vein, Cafe Red is building a patio and hopes to revive the open mics and live music that had made it a popular neighborhood hangout before the pandemic. Moonshot Coffee is taking a similar approach to remind people that coffee approachability isn’t just about learning the lingo, but understanding and enjoying the product or being introduced to something new.

But even as shops begin to fill up again to become the gathering places that they were always meant to be in Seattle, it will be difficult to truly create an inclusive experience without addressing the issues of gentrification that loom over their presence. In a 2019 study, Seattle had the third highest percentage of gentrifying census tracts among 100 large U.S. cities. Fully half of its “eligible to gentrify” census tracts (those with lower incomes and home values at the start of the decade) have indeed gentrified since 2000, and the median home values in each gentrified tract rose an average 47 percent between 2000 and 2013.

Union, Moonshot, and Cafe Red exist in the heart of neighborhoods that have been through waves of intense socioeconomic displacement over the past two decades. While establishing themselves in the communities they enter, many of these shops face the conundrum of coming up with prices that feel welcoming to those who may not live in the luxury condos rising up all around them. Though specialty coffee isn’t as expensive as fine wine or fine dining, the typical price of a cup (around $5 after tax for a 12-ounce latte) can cut out customers who might otherwise come in. The shops, meanwhile, bear the expense of sourcing beans from quality roasters, and for businesses dedicated to paying staffers a living wage in a city with rising costs, setting prices too low just isn’t sustainable.

Moonshot Coffee knows the balancing act well. The shop sources its beans from Olympia Coffee Roasters, a specialty roaster with two cafes in Seattle. Olympia practices direct trade, buying coffee directly from producers without intermediaries, and is a certified B Corp, both of which involve rigorous standards that evaluate sourcing at every step of the supply chain. Before the pandemic, the cost of living grew faster than Moonshot’s wages, so it raised prices to balance things out while trying to keep at least the drip coffee affordable to avoid pricing out members of the community. It was one answer to an impossible situation. “Often, cheap means someone else is suffering,” says Wendland, the owner.

Likewise, Union has done away with tips altogether with the intention of taking full responsibility for employee wages. The concept isn’t unheard of in Seattle. If nothing else, it’s a verbal commitment to providing ethical compensation for staffers by ensuring better pay than a tipping-based model can allow. But there’s a commonality in those that have gone tipless. For a coffee shop, the act of being in tune with the needs of staff seems in step with the empathy needed to create a fully hospitable space beyond the sheen of stainless steel amenities, expensive couches, or lengthy tasting notes.

If there is another wave of coffee on the horizon beyond the widely recognized first three, Vailoor says establishing more equitable labor practices will be at its core. “That fourth wave will be how young people who start their own businesses can do it sustainably in a way that creates opportunities for people who work here and do what they love, and also benefit the neighborhood.” But for now, the baristas and owners behind these small shops are making sure everyone understands what’s going into their cup.

Rachel Hopke is a former world-traveling specialty coffee barista and self-described coffee community member. When she’s not working for a local drinkware company, she’s exploring the intricacies of coffee culture and coffee science, and sometimes writing about them.