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Corporate coffee vs. mom-and-pop shops

Celeste Gee, 22, has worked at Poverty Bay Coffee Company in Federal Way for three years and is trained in the deli and in espresso-making. Here, she prepares an espresso drink. - Jacinda Howard/The Mirror
Celeste Gee, 22, has worked at Poverty Bay Coffee Company in Federal Way for three years and is trained in the deli and in espresso-making. Here, she prepares an espresso drink.
— image credit: Jacinda Howard/The Mirror

By JACINDA HOWARD, The Mirror

When it comes to Federal Way coffee shops, success is dependent on a niche market.

The Pacific Northwest is coffee central. An espresso shop or stand can be found on nearly every corner and in most shopping malls. In the coffee industry, discovering what will keep customers content, then mastering that process, is key to a successful business.

Corporate powerhouses like Starbucks, mom-and-pop shops like Poverty Bay, and those somewhere in between like Marista’s Coffee, have all made it big in Federal Way.

No stereotypical coffee shop customer exists. Some clients seek the perfect cup of java, while others desire a social atmosphere. Yet more customers value convenience and want their beverage right now. Some customers look for a combination of these driving factors when deciding which espresso joint will get their business.

Corporate coffeehouses:

Starbucks baristas see hundreds of customers a day, and time for socializing is usually minimal. But the company’s coffee shops are generally stationed in convenient locations.

Take the Starbucks on South 320th Street, for instance. Located minutes from the freeway, the line at its drive-through normally winds around the building and nearly out of the parking lot most weekday mornings.

Name recognition and convenience fuel Starbucks’ success. The business dominates the coffee market nationally, but recently its shareholder value has slipped. The coffee giant has realized it must take a second look at the industry and reconsider how to stay competitive.

“We realize that we are operating in an intensely challenging environment, one in which our customers and partners have extremely high expectations of Starbucks. And we have to step up to the challenge of being strategic as well as nimble as our business evolves,” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said in a Feb. 21 Starbucks press release and letter to his employees. “Unfortunately, we have not been organized in a manner that allowed us to have a laser focus on the customer.”

In mid-January, Schultz returned as CEO of the company. An estimated 600 employees will be laid off and poorly performing stores are expected to close, according to the press release.

Roughly 7,100 corporate-owned stores closed their doors for a three-hour period Feb. 26 while training and discussions with Starbucks employees ensued. Revisiting how to steam milk and pull espresso shots was on the agenda for baristas — all in the name of better coffee and better customer service.

“Starbucks has gotten so ‘McDonaldized,’” Poverty Bay Coffee Company co-owner Alice Olmstead said. “A lot of people are looking for an alternative.”

Mom-and-pop shops:

Poverty Bay, 1108 S. 322nd Place, began with a convenient coffee stand in the adjacent Safeway parking lot and eventually became much more.

Olmstead describes her business as a coffee shop with food, not a restaurant with coffee. Here, success is the result of a well-functioning, friendly staff and array of menu choices.

Baristas, like Celeste Gee, 22, know their customers. They joke around with them and share stories. The Poverty Bay baristas also know their coffee. The company roasts its own coffee beans in Auburn and educates its customers on shade-grown and free-trade coffee. Baristas are hired based on their personalities first and coffee skills second, Olmstead said. Gee tries to treat her customers as she would like to be treated in a coffee shop.

“I want to feel like (the baristas) are looking at me as an individual,” Gee said.

About half of the Poverty Bay clientele come for the coffee; the other half come for the food or social interaction, Olmstead said. A breakfast and lunch menu featuring waffles, sandwiches, salads and soups draws a number of customers to Poverty Bay. Several retired folks gather to socialize and discuss local happenings at the coffee shop’s small, aged, wooden tables every morning.

“I can’t even describe the typical customer,” Olmstead said.

Federal Way resident and long-standing Poverty Bay customer Rob Quello comes to the shop at least once a day because he enjoys the taste of the coffee, he said. For customers like Quello, Poverty Bay was not at first familiar, but it has become a regular part of life.

Name recognition with a twist:

Around the corner, Marista’s Coffee provides a mix between the corporate Starbucks and small-town Poverty Bay.

The combination of friendly service in a classy atmosphere, along with the Tully’s name association, grabs customers’ attentions. They recognize the corporate coffee brand and feel comfortable trying Marista’s coffee for the first time.

“We chose Tully’s because we wanted an established name,” Marista’s co-owner Maria Kuehlthau said.

The shop does not offer scrambled eggs or sandwiches — only pastries and several choices of espresso drinks.

“We stick to coffee, what we know best,” Kuehlthau said.

Marista’s does offer seating in front of a fireplace in large leather chairs where customers can read the newspaper at green marbled tables. Like Starbucks, customers can come inside or get their coffee at the drive-through. Also, like Starbucks, the location at 1301 S. 320th St. is convenient for customers in a hurry.

But like Poverty Bay, customer service is essential. Several of the nine staff employees have worked at Marista’s for at least one year. They know their customers’ names and favorite beverages.

“(Customers) are not just 16-ounce mocha,” Kuehlthau said. “They have a name.”

To ensure a good work ethic and commitment to the coffee shop, Kuehlthau schedules interviews with new potential employees at 5 a.m. Those who show up have already made a good first impression, she said. Marista’s does not hire someone just because the company is low on staff, Kuehlthau said. Instead, she will work double shifts or her employees will volunteer to work varying schedules until a qualified barista is found.

“I don’t want just a cute girl,” Kuehlthau said. “I want the whole package.”

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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Check it out:

Coffee has been a popular chattel for nearly a century, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture-produced June 2007 Amber Waves article titled “Coffee Consumption Over the Last Century.” In 1946, the per-capita availability of the product reached a high of 46.4 gallons per person, according to the article. Though the per-capita availability has decreased to 24.2 gallons per person in 2005, specialty coffees have grown in popularity. Coffeehouse sales increased 97 percent between 1998 and 2003, according to the same article.

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