New To Town 2015
There was probably a time when Starbucks did things small. That time was more than 30 years and 21,000 stores ago. The newest Starbucks—the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room on Pike Street ("Just nine blocks away from our original Pike Place Market Store")—is a 15,600-square-foot palace rumored to have cost more than $20 million to build. It is, according to the company, "a one-of-a-kind coffee shrine in our hometown that captures the past, present, and future of Starbucks." God is in the details, and the Starbucks palace is filled with painstakingly beautiful things: teak wood tables and stools, copper piping, a two-sided steel fireplace, huge felt cut-out curtains with metal stitching. The shrine often has its own security guard posted out front.
There is an overwhelming amount of stuff—to look at, drink, eat, and buy—at the Starbucks palace. The whole place is designed, apparently, to feature the Starbucks Reserve line of high-end coffees, beans selected for careful roasting because of their "special, unique" flavors and limited availability. But this palace (there's just no other word for it) also contains a large bar serving espresso drinks, brewed coffee, pastries, sandwiches, and salads; a smaller "experience bar" serving a limited menu of espresso drinks and coffee; a "coffee library" housing more than 200 books about the beverage; a scooping bar where you can purchase loose coffee by the pound; two roasting facilities (one is a small batch roaster for beans that get sent out to stores, the other is a micro-roaster that roasts all of the coffee being served on-site); and a Tom Douglas restaurant (specifically, the third outpost of his Serious Pie franchise, meaning that, yes, there is a wood-burning oven deep in the palace). There is also a unisex restroom ("This is soooooo European," a customer was overheard saying) where, while washing your hands, you can peek through a window down into the roasting operation.
I cannot tell you the first thing you will notice about the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room, because there are just so many things and so many people (both employees and customers), and there is so much happening that you'll be lucky if your heart doesn't immediately start racing in a mild panic. My eyes darted around furiously, desperate for something to focus on.
Afraid of the line for the main coffee bar to my left, I drifted right, attracted to the shiny objects for sale. I found a yellow napkin for $23.95, gasped out loud, then walked in the other direction, toward the scooping bar, where I asked the earnest young man behind the counter: "So, what's going on over here?"
This simple question led to an extraordinary monologue explaining the six different Starbucks Reserve coffees being roasted and sold on-site. We started in the mountains of the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia, where the natural process of drying the coffee in the sun with the fruit still surrounding the bean led to the coffee's signature floral, fruity aroma and flavor. I had some questions about that, but before I could interject, we were on the island of Sulawesi, where in addition to sourcing an earthy, spicy coffee, Starbucks was helping build elementary schools, getting a new generation involved in coffee farming, and improving the lives of the rural Indonesians.
Just like the coffee beans they are selling, the workers at the Starbucks palace wear handwritten chalkboard name tags with their place of origin: "Toni from Olympia," "Emily from Portland," "Tyler from Wisconsin." They also wear custom Starbucks Reserve aprons made from "oil-tanned leather, waxed canvas, and copper rivets." (You can buy these aprons here; they cost $149.95 each.) From my experience, employees here—I wouldn't be surprised if their job titles were listed somewhere as "coffee ambassadors"—are so earnest, it's hard not to like them. They are well-informed, friendly, and, yes, passionate about coffee. They also seem painfully scripted, as though they were given a quota of positive words and sentiments to say about the company during every customer interaction. When employees stumble and appear to fall "off script," it's alarming—their brains have been pumped so full of information that it's hard for them to get their bearings or speak extemporaneously once they've gotten off track.
Which is not to say that the staffers aren't pros. By far the best thing about the Starbucks palace is the Experience Bar, the much smaller coffee bar on the building's lower level. It's here where you can have a "coffee experience"—basically, an actual conversation with a barista (whereas the main bar, with cashiers and expediters, is designed to efficiently move people through the line like cattle). I experienced a coffee-tasting run by Emily from Portland, during which I sampled the same coffee brewed in a French press, a Chemex, and a siphon. The French press produced the thickest, darkest brew, the Chemex the cleanest tasting cup, and the siphon (a fascinating device that looks like it walked out of a 19th-century chemistry lab) a light, tannic, almost-tea-like drink. A cup of siphon-brewed coffee costs $8.
I watched Emily from Portland answer the same question about the siphon no less than five times in the span of 40 minutes; she was unfailingly enthusiastic and thorough in her responses. It occurred to me that I would never be able to ask these sorts of questions at a place like Stumptown, for fear that someone would roll their eyes at me and I would have to slink away, exposed as an idiot. But because the Starbucks palace is often filled with tourists (many of whom admit to not even drinking coffee), you can fire away the most basic questions without any self-consciousness.
Starbucks plans to open Reserve cafes around the country (and the world, eventually), selling only the special coffees roasted here at the flagship Starbucks palace. A half pound of their reserve coffee runs from $12 to $18, about twice as much as their standard beans. The Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room is the first step in a plan to, well, make A LOT of money off of people who take coffee seriously.
Or, at least, off of people who shop at places that take coffee seriously. As I was walking out of the Starbucks palace, a strange, squat object wearing an ugly gray sweater caught my eye. It was a coffee press. It had a description on it: "This coffee press, from Portland start-up Bucket, is built to last a lifetime. The glass is a mason jar made in the USA. The lid is hard rock maple. The felted cozy that keeps your coffee warm is made from Jacob sheep wool. It's nice to be able to support the kind of coffee passion you can only find in the Pacific Northwest." Price: $164.95.