Coffee a consumable passion for Bellinghamsters

Recent survey places city fourth nationally in coffee shops per capita

Heidi Schiller
   Grind, tamp, steam, pour.
   It’s the language of espresso that many Bellinghamsters are familiar with — more so, in fact, than most residents of other United States cities.
   In June 2005, Bellingham ranked fourth in the U.S. for having the most coffee shops per capita, according to a study done by NPD Foodworld, a provider of data about food consumption patterns (Anchorage, Seattle and San Franciso topped the list, in that order).
   At the Black Drop Coffee House on a Tuesday morning, Bellingham’s thriving coffee scene can be felt as acutely as the crunching sound of the shop’s grinder. Customers tap away on laptops and sip from steaming clear-glass espresso mugs. Two men chat at a window spot as a WTA bus grumbles past.
   Sixteen years ago, this type of scene may have been found at only one or two coffee houses in town: Bellingham’s 1990 phone book lists only three establishments under “coffee and tea retail.”
   In 2000, that number increased to 31 with the addition of a new “espresso” subhead.
   This year, 49 coffee establishments are listed under those two subheads, as well as under an added “coffee house” subhead.
   Coffee shop experts have a variety of reasons to explain why Bellingham can sustain such a smorgasbord of coffee options. Most agree it is the combination of a number of factors, not just one alone, that makes the town ripe for a java explosion.

More is More
   “A large part of the population (in Bellingham) are students who have more time on their hands. Plus there are a lot of folks who’ve moved past the working part of their life,” said Wendy De Jong, director of coffee at Tony’s Coffee and Teas, established in 1971. “That includes retired people who are not necessarily senior citizens, and also artists who don’t work regular hours.”
   Bellingham is a town with a lot of leisure time on its hands, De Jong said. The combination of students hanging out, studying and socializing, coupled with the large population of retirees who meet friends for coffee or enjoy a morning cup out along with their newspaper, is unique to Bellingham.
   She also noted the top four coffee towns have cool, damp climates, and coffee is a cozy treat on a dreary day.
   Others in the coffee business said the amount of coffee shops in Bellingham encourages more to open.

Teri Bryant, co-owner of The Black Drop Coffee House, said Bellingham’s brisk coffee-house business shows no sign of oversaturation. “The more coffee places there are, the bigger the market gets," she said.

    “Business is busier every year,” said Teri Bryant, co-owner of The Black Drop Coffee House. “The more coffee places there are, the bigger the market gets.”
   Bryant illustrated her point by noting that the Black Drop’s West Champion Street block also houses the Mount Bakery and The Temple Bar — both coffee shops in their own right — while Bay Street Coffee House is just a block or so away.
   Coffee gains popularity as consumers’ palettes expand, she said. It’s similar to wine culture. Just as consumers become aware of, appreciate and then buy many different wine varieties, so it is with pockets of coffee culture — apparently more so in places like Anchorage, Seattle, San Francisco and Bellingham.
   “If you went to a grocery store to buy wine, you wouldn’t buy just a bottle with a label that said ‘wine’ on it, you’d look at the varietal and label to decide,” Bryant said.
   Bryant explained advancements in the coffee industry — which can be seen here in Bellingham — with the idea that consumer consciousness regarding products evolves in waves, sometimes over generations.
   Our grandparents, for example, would never have shelled out the dough for gourmet lattes and mochas as people do nowadays, but still drank it regularly, she said. This type of consumer mentality represents the first wave of consciousness and could include an interest in, say, Folgers coffee.
   In the second wave, consumers begin a new affair with higher-quality coffee and espresso, like Starbucks or other coffee shop chains that serve good espresso but often disguise it with syrups or sugar, she said.
   The third wave represents the pinnacle of coffee connoisseurship with the consumers’ discovery of, and appreciation for, gourmet coffee beans and their distinct and varying flavors and aromas.
   Bellingham consumers support establishments catering to all three waves, she said.
   Like wine, coffee consumption has become a hobby, said Heather Lange, who recently opened up one of Bellingham’s newest java stops, Coffee Junction, in Fairhaven at the ferry terminal on Harris Avenue.
   “People like to have hobbies and wine and dine, but don’t necessarily want to consume alcohol,” she said. “Coffee is a hobby, just like wine.”
   Western Washington University’s 13,000 students also drive the need to caffeinate, with their late-night homework habits and desire to study somewhere other than apartments, dorms or the library.
   Plus, a latte or mocha costs a lot less than a meal out — it’s an affordable luxury for most students, Bryant said. Many of her customers found coffee-house culture as students and have continued the tradition into adulthood.
   Students also tend to drive cause-conscious purchases, Bryant said, supporting independent coffee houses that use fair trade and organic beans. Cushioned, as well, by a strong “buy local” mentality in Bellingham, those independent coffee houses can stand on their own (and proliferate) in the face of chains like Starbucks.
   Lange said this cause-driven mentality is similar in Seattle, where she spent 18 years in the restaurant industry before moving to Bellingham to open Coffee Junction. Because of that mentality, Lange made sure to use local products in her business, such as locally roasted Moka Joe beans and Rainy Days Kitchen biscotti.
   Garry Flemming, co-owner of Stuart’s At The Market, said Bellingham tends to be a hotbed for political discussion, and that type of gathering always tends to happen at coffee shops.
   “Especially with the college (being here), everybody is concerned about issues and what’s going on,” he said. The old Stuart’s on Bay Street was especially known for cause-conscious discussion and fostered that connection to coffee houses, he said.
   Shelly Ness, owner of the I Wana Moka drive-through coffee stands in Fairhaven and downtown, attributed Bellingham’s coffee affinity to the fact that coffee drinks are comforting and affordable to everyone.
   One of her regular customers refers to her daily espresso drink as mother’s milk, because it’s comforting and “won’t talk back.”
   “Plus, we’re all hooked,” Lange said, and Ness concurred. There’s no getting around the fact that caffeine — a stimulant — is an addictive substance.
   “The thing about coffee is, if you drink it, you’re going to need it,” Flemming said.

But how many more?
   Ness said she thinks Bellingham can accommodate more coffee establishments, as long as owners have a savvy business sense. While business at her Fairhaven stand has leveled off, the Holly Street I Wana Moka continues to grow, she said.
   “I can think of three locations right now for more drive-throughs,” she said.
   If anyone could succeed in adding another coffee house to the fray, it would be Lange.
   On a recent high-temperature weekday at the Coffee Junction, Lange’s boisterous alto voice booms with energy, and she seems to have a knack for charming customers with upbeat banter and quick familiarity.
   The coffee shop’s interior is painted taxicab yellow and double-decker-bus red. Two round black tables are plopped in front of a distressed wooden bench. A black and white pop-art portrait of Audrey Hepburn smiles demurely down at a female customer to whom Lange refers by first name.
   Lange said she knew she needed to find a niche for her business, that just another generic coffee house wouldn’t cut it, and so she found an already established location, which she completely remodeled and revamped.
   “I wouldn’t have opened this place if it wasn’t established and didn’t have a good location,” she said.
   To fill a coffee niche, Lange decided to run with the travel theme — being so close to both the bus and train stations, as well as the ferry terminal. In addition to coffee and espresso drinks, she sells travel items such as magazines, bags of whole beans to take on long ferry rides, fresh sandwiches, travel mugs and games and inflatable travel pillows. So far her niche theory has been accurate as about 70 percent of her customers have been travelers.
   As far as other new coffee shops in Bellingham, Lange also said she thinks Bellingham can sustain more, but their owners will need to be thoughtful about location, service and of course, selling high-quality coffee.
   With that, Lange expertly flips the coffee grinder switch back and forth, sifting grinds into the espresso machine’s arm, then twists it into the body of the machine and presses a button, watching carefully as the dark liquid streams into a clear shot glass for the standard 17 to 25 seconds.
   It’s a perfect shot.



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