Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Playing Coffee Monopoly

There used to be two places in Seattle where I could get my coffee exactly the way I like it.
Hailing from Europe, I wanted a "lungo", made by pressing more water through the ground espresso.
In Paris the waiters and coffee jerks say: "Americain" or "cafe creme", in Italy they sigh: "troppo aqua". The latter ironically often the case with the "Americano" in the States. No wonder, with water added.

The only barristas who were willing to make a lungo without giving me a superior look and explaining that they wouldn't do that because it makes the drink too bitter, were the woman who operated a coffee cart on Lower Queen Anne and a gal at the Torrefazione coffee shop on Occidental Street in Pioneer Square.

Starbucks' employees —who are trained to make lattes —just so— would give me either a pityful or superior look while explaining that such treatment makes the drink too bitter. Which only told me that
1.-Starbucks doesn't have the espresso coffee European coffee makers use, and
2.- that all employees believe Starbucks knows best.
The latter breaks down a bit of the customer service aura they've otherwise created so well.

I got tired of explaining how I wanted barristas to make my Joe. So, what do you do, you stick to the folks who make you happy.

A decade ago, a lively barista would drive up on Mercer Street every morning to set up her business in front of the Tower Books Store windows. She had a few stackable plastic chairs for people such as me, who like to sit (and chat) while they savor their java.

Italians take their espresso in one gulp and are on their way. The Dutch drink coffee in a more social setting, so they want theirs a little longer. Americans, having been raised on "have a refill honey?" dish wash water brew, need a little more help.

Coming to Seattle I called those who had discovered lattes "Melkmuilen" (Dutch idiom for baby face, compare the advertisements "Have Milk?"). In the Netherlands a drink comparable to a latte is called "koffie verkeerd", which only translates to coffee the wrong way. Do I need to say more?

One day, the barista on Lower Queen Anne announced that she was quitting. Something about a lacking terrace permit, Tower Books couldn't provide and wouldn't apply for, since coffee wasn't part of their business. Now they're gone as well. If only they had made coffee their business…

Luckily, the Uruguan barista at Torrefazione, way across town, also knew how to make me a lungo.
One of a small chain (17 coffee shops/ stores in the Northwest, California, Chicago and Boston), the place breathed elegance. Coffee was served in ceramic cups adorned with colorful painted floral motives. From French style cafe tables on the terrace you could watch patrons of the arts go in and out of Pioneer Square's top notch galleries.

I wrote "breathed" and "was served", and using past tense right now may be a bit too soon, but the end of the Torrefazione coffee shops is near. In 2003 Starbucks bought the chain. And to make a long story short, Torrefazione just doesn't cut it. At least that's what I read in The Seattle Times today.

Monica Soto Ouchi reported that Starbucks spokesman Alan Hilowitz said (is this considered "hear say"?) that the company had two years to survey the health of its subsidiary and decided the brand had a stronger future through grocery and food-service channels. "Operationally, the stores were not performing where they needed to perform," he said.
Torrefazione coffee lovers will still be able to buy their favorite coffee beans in grocery stores.

Shame should be a four letter word.

Thank goodness there are some other independent coffee houses left in Pioneer Square, such as Zeitgeist (a coffee shop a block away) and All City Coffee (in the Tashiro Kaplan Building), and of course the basement cafe at Elliot Bay Books, but I'll be darned if I'll try to give the barista instructions on how to draw me a lungo. Oh, well, perhaps I will.

Still, it's a darn shame.
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