It was the baristas who noticed him first. Howard Schultz, the iconic Starbucks chairman, began coming into Top Pot doughnuts on Fifth Avenue and Lenora Street a month after it...

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It was the baristas who noticed him first.

Howard Schultz, the iconic Starbucks chairman, began coming into Top Pot doughnuts on Fifth Avenue and Lenora Street a month after it opened. Sometimes he came in alone, sometimes he brought others.

The visits opened the way for an unlikely pairing between the specialty-coffee retailer and the small, hand-forged doughnut company.

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Starbucks yesterday began selling Top Pot doughnuts in its company-operated stores in Western Washington. The doughnuts are the only branded product in Starbucks’ pastry case here.

“[Schultz] was very friendly,” says Mark Klebeck, who co-owns Top Pot with his brother Michael Klebeck and Joel Radin. “I always like to embellish [the story] and say his chopper landed on the roof.”

The deal helps to bolster a local brand begun nearly three years ago when Top Pot opened its first store on Summit Avenue East and East Mercer Street on Capitol Hill — one developed through a combination of serendipity and fate.

The Klebeck brothers both have carpentry backgrounds and like to salvage old signs and machinery for projects. Michael Klebeck ran across a neon sign affixed to a long-defunct Chinese restaurant in South Seattle that read, “Top Spot.”

Mark Klebeck is a co-owner of Top Pot doughnuts.

After getting permission to take the sign, the brothers stored it in their mother’s back yard, where it was eventually steeped in ivy — squirrels and raccoons happily nesting inside.

“It looked like an art project for some art-institute kid,” Mark Klebeck recalled.

After five years, the Klebecks’ mother told them to “get this thing” out of her yard. The brothers decided they’d restore and use it for their new venture.

“As we’re driving down the freeway, the ‘S’ fell off in the very center,” Mark Klebeck says. “All of a sudden, it said ‘Top Pot.’ We were thinking: great — now we’re going to do our own hemp shop.”

The owners hung the sign on their Capitol Hill store after they decided to sell doughnuts. If they needed any reinforcement, the sign fit the width of the building perfectly.

Top Pot was born.

While its cafe and wholesale business is nearly three years old, the partners have coffee and pastry business experience that spans a decade.

Michael Klebeck, Radin and the late Kris VonOy opened Bauhaus Books & Coffee in 1993. Four years later, Michael Klebeck, Bryan Yeck and Eric Hentz opened Zeitgeist Coffee (now wholly owned by Yeck).

In 2001, the Klebeck brothers, Radin and Yeck went on to open Elliott Bay Cafe in the basement of the Elliott Bay Book Co. in Pioneer Square — a cafe still owned by the Klebeck brothers and Radin.

A year later, the Klebeck brothers and Radin opened the Top Pot store on Capitol Hill. In 2003, they opened a second store downtown.

The company now has roughly 40 wholesale accounts with local businesses, including The Westin, the University of Washington and now Starbucks. Top Pot plans to open a third store in Wedgwood later this year.

Mark Klebeck said the company would continue to make its pastries in the back of its two stores. The bakers knead the apple-fritter dough and weigh each piece. Sprinkles are placed on doughnuts by hand.

The labor cuts an impressive display at its downtown store, bedecked with 1940s-style library bookshelves that span two floors. The doughnuts are stacked inside a display case on ornate silver platters.

They have names like feather boa (a plain cake doughnut topped with pink icing and thick coconut shavings) and double trouble (a devil’s food cake doughnut crowned with chocolate icing).

The Klebeck brothers said they are flattered to have their doughnuts sold in Starbucks stores.

“We honestly had no idea,” Mark Klebeck said about the popularity of Top Pot. “We’ve learned more in the last two years about what a brand is. That’s really the way it was born.”

Monica Soto Ouchi: 206-515-5632 or msoto@seattletimes.com