Seattle’s reputation as mecca of America’s coffee culture has been slipping in recent years as cities as varied as San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles have all had progressive communities of baristas and coffee lovers expanding the craft through innovative approaches to the model of the American coffee shop. Cafes have started to shy away from any resemblance to the haunts of the Crane brothers from the 90s sitcom Frasier and have instead begun to embody elements of fine dining establishments. For an example of this, one needs to look no further than the recently opened Slate Coffee Roasters in Ballard.
The storefront serves as a signpost of the company’s mission statement and underlying philosophy that it intends to treat coffee as a culinary artform rather than simply a means of daily caffeination. This fact is evidenced everywhere from the cafe’s minimalist design aesthetic, which is common to many newer cafes, to more progressive measures such as the lack of a menu board, or more than three menu items for that matter. Patrons looking for a large vanilla latte will be out of luck as Slate serves neither vanilla syrup nor the lattes in which to put it. Instead, customers are presented with a printed menu which includes espresso, espresso with milk (available in 4oz, 6oz and 8oz sizes) and brewed coffee. While some might scoff at the pretense of abandoning some of the standards of American coffee culture since the proliferation of Starbucks-style cafe drinks, what Slate aims at is a bold reconsideration of how we think about and consume coffee.
Since the rise of Starbucks in the 80s and 90s, what arguably cemented Seattle’s reputation for coffee, coffee consumers have been gradually conditioned to expect uniform offerings from any given coffee shop in the same way one would approach a fast food restaurant and know that there will probably be a hamburger, cheeseburger and a chicken sandwich. When one steps into a nice restaurant, however, they are presented with a menu explaining the various offerings and specialties that will shape the dining experience at that restaurant. By stripping down the menu, Slate is attempting to engage customers by, as they put it on their website, “emphasizing intentionality, hospitality and exploration.” Each interaction with a customer is an opportunity for the barista to paint a picture of why the coffee going into the cup is notable and strengthen the connection between the people make their livelihoods growing and harvesting coffee and those who drink it, often thousands of miles away from its agricultural origin.
While expanding transparency in the coffee industry is not a new innovation in Seattle, Slate’s bare bones presentation does make its mark on landscape as the most bold attempt to reconceptualize the cafe model, giving Seattle a jolt that might help it reenter the pack of progressive American coffee cities.