Coffee and Mars Hill
The Story Behind Storyville
"WE COME IN PEACE," shouts the Storyville Coffee Company website. "Love everybody," say the T-shirts worn by the exceptionally cheerful, helpful staff. "CAN WE BE OPEN WITH YOU?" the website asks.
Storyville started as a specialty coffee roaster in 2006 on Bainbridge Island, eventually also selling grinders ("BUY HAPPINESS" reads the website copy for one) and coffeemakers (one's called FREEDOM) and other equipment. And now Storyville has just opened its first cafe—"COFFEE HAS A NEW TOMORROW," as they say—in the former Chez Shea space, upstairs in Pike Place Market.
Storyville clearly put a lot of money into the place. It's far more upscale than most Seattle coffee shops, with leather couches, sepia-toned lighting, and arched windows looking out on the market's famous clock. If it looks designed by committee—riveted metal panels in some places, polished wood elsewhere, a wall of stock-photo-style Pacific Northwest images, a flock of shapely old-fashioned lightbulbs with glowing filaments near the space-age underlit coffee bar—at least it looks designed by a committee with a capacious budget. It's ready to replicate, and two more Storyville cafes, on Queen Anne and downtown, are already planned. Storyville is making much of its intent to provide superior service, too (the website: "Around the moment you realize that you're not expected to buss [sic] your own table... it becomes surreal").
A source in Pike Place Market reports seeing Storyville advertised by plane, Tesla, and bicyclists riding through the market and around downtown. Storyville also spent a pretty penny on several weeks of invitation-only soft opening; anyone could sign up, via their website, to come in for free coffee and a pastry. "It's so cool, it's a secret," an "Editor's Pick" at KING 5 breathlessly reported. "At least that's how Seattle's newest coffee shop appears during it's [sic] invitation only roll-out... Storyville Coffee Company is brewing intrigue at what is described a new coffee experience [sic]."
What's not a secret: The owners of Storyville are heavily involved with neo-evangelical, homophobic, misogynist Mars Hill Church.
Mars Hill, you'll recall, is led by ultraconservative bro pastor Mark Driscoll, who advocates for women submitting to men, men submitting to church leadership, and everyone submitting to God (as interpreted, of course, by church leadership). If you're gay, well, you should be aware that, according to Driscoll, "sex is for marriage, and marriage is for one man and one woman," and that all sex outside of that is a sin. (So is pornography.) The thing for gay people to do, he says, is confess your sin to Jesus, receive "a new heart," and it'll all be cool. Mars Hill has "all kinds of groups to help you" with your homosexual "temptation," he assures in a March 2013 YouTube video, answering a question received via text message during a sermon, wearing a hoodie, distressed jeans, and a silver chain.
One of the copresidents of Storyville is Jamie Munson, former executive pastor of Mars Hill Church. Munson was on staff at Mars Hill for a dozen years before resigning from this high-up role in 2011; his resignation letter, posted online at marshill.com, declares "I LOVE MARS HILL," noting, "My time on staff at Mars Hill Church has come to an end, but the Munson family is not going anywhere, and we're so excited to see what Jesus does in the next fifteen years." (The tone of protestation may be because Mars Hill has been known to ostracize those who question or part from it. The letter is followed by one from Driscoll assuring everyone of Munson's good standing—"If you are their friends, keep being their friends," he dictates creepily—and detailing plans for Munson to become an elder and a member of the board of directors.) Another Storyville copresident is Kris Rosentrater; his LinkedIn profile says he got his education at the "School of Hard Knocks" and was previously a "Freelance Ditch Digger," but he's been with Storyville since 2006, and he played on a double live album from Mars Hill Church called Death to Life, as part of the band Ex Nihilo, led by Pastor Tim Smith. (Mars Hill preaches through music, too.) Jon and Esther Phelps are cited as Storyville owners; as Mars Hillers, they merited a thank-you from Driscoll in his 2009 book The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out.
I tried to reach Munson, Rosentrater, and Esther Phelps for comment; I was directed to send an e-mail. A Storyville marketing manager then assured me, "As a company, we are not affiliated with any religious organization of any kind." I answered that while there may not be an official connection, given the involvement in Mars Hill of the company's principals, it seems logical that profits from Storyville will end up benefiting Mars Hill. Would they be willing to comment on that? As of press time, no reply has been forthcoming.
I signed up for an invitation-only Storyville visit. The coffee was smooth, the pastry was buttery, and the staff was bright-eyed and very friendly. I asked to see one staffer's tattoo. "It's scripture," he said, and so it was, Romans 8:18 (about our present suffering and future glory). Everyone was very informative until I asked about Mars Hill. They were still friendly, but the answer was just that there's no connection. One worker said "not everyone" who works there goes to Mars Hill Church. I persisted, and then the staffer checked with someone else and gave me the same media e-mail address. They probably shouldn't say anything else, they said.