Espresso carts gave many Seattle coffee addicts their first daily fix. As coffeehouses sprang up through the 1990s, the dozens of carts began losing business to warm, cozy spaces. Now, just one sidewalk coffee stand is left in Seattle year-round.
Bridget Collins works at the last year-round coffee cart on a Seattle sidewalk and can’t fathom why a signature tradition has all but died.
She recently moved from Minnesota and said coffee carts flourish in the Twin Cities.
“It’s not minus-20 and snowing here,” Collins said one sunny winter morning as she worked the coffee cart outside 14 Carrot Cafe on Eastlake Avenue. “I was surprised, considering you can’t shake a stick in Seattle without hitting three Starbucks and two independent coffee roasters.”
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The city has kiosks in malls and building lobbies, and there are occasional carts on private property — such as the one outside REI’s flagship store downtown. But carts on city sidewalks are down to two, and one of them does not operate in winter.
Ironically, Seattle’s growing love affair with coffee might have killed its cart scene. At first, carts brought espresso to the masses when they did not know what espresso was. As the city’s addiction grew in the 1990s, coffeehouses sprang up, and carts began losing business to warm, cozy spaces.
Former cart owners recall a time when dozens of stands operated on city sidewalks, and local cart manufacturers numbered as high as 20 during boom times.
“I love the fact that it’s outdoors,” said 14 Carrot owner Terry Proios, who began leasing space for the cart shortly after she bought the cafe in 1992. She eventually bought the cart and has no plans to close it.
Others have not been so fortunate and say coffee shops took over the business.
“People outgrew them,” said Pedro Bada, longtime owner of a cart called El Carrico Espresso outside Men’s Wearhouse downtown. “They would rather have a comfortable place than hanging around on the corner.”
He takes part-time catering jobs rather than run his cart in winter, when business slows to a trickle.
Dave Stewart, co-founder of what is now Starbucks-owned Seattle’s Best Coffee, owned 13 carts and a drive-through espresso stand from 1987 to the early 2000s.
He lost a little business to suburban drive-through stands, then to Starbucks and Tully’s, and finally gave up the cart business to focus fully on roasting coffee at Vista Clara Coffee in Snohomish.
Seattle’s coffee shops have replaced sidewalk carts, sometimes literally.
Nordstrom last month closed the decades-old cart outside its flagship store downtown to focus on its indoor eBar around the corner, spokesman Colin Johnson said.
“We couldn’t brew drip coffee directly there at the cart, and we weren’t able to offer made-to-order fruit smoothies,” he said. Nordstrom still has carts in San Diego, San Francisco and Salem, Ore.
Espresso Vivace, one of the most highly regarded small coffeehouse chains in Seattle, began as a cart on Capitol Hill in 1988.
Sales doubled when owner David Schomer switched years later to a walk-up window in a building only 50 feet away.
“I had people coming up with nipple rings and chains … but really conservative about where they got their food,” he said. “They told me, ‘Now that you’re in a store, we want to come in.’ I was floored that there was a feeling that the cart was maybe not as safe a place.”
Owning a sidewalk cart never was easy.
Chuck Beek, who in 1980 bought what at the time may have been the only sidewalk coffee cart in the country, recalled the hazards of operating Monorail Espresso downtown.
“For years,” he said, “we had to roll the cart blocks away, and my nightmare did occur when an employee missed the wheelchair ramp and it fell over. Fortunately, the machine was bolted down.
“To think my livelihood could go down the drain, literally, that was frightening.”
Then there was the matter of finding a cart-friendly landlord and a place to store it at night.
“A coffee cart is a pimple on the sidewalk to landlords,” Beek said. His first storage space was below a parking garage, where “people eventually did get to it and rifle it.”
Espresso-machine importers Kent Bakke and John Blackwell — now co-owners of espresso-machine maker La Marzocco — got the idea for the cart after seeing kiosks at train stations in Italy.
“Nobody knew what espresso was, let alone a cappuccino,” Bakke said. “We were trying to sell machines, so we needed to create awareness and interest in the product.”
Blackwell and his brother, James, actually put the cart together. At a salvage yard in Georgetown, James found an old aluminum box with steel wheels and a Boeing tag on it.
They added a Formica tabletop, boat railing around the sides, a water tank, propane tank, bilge pump and piston-lever espresso machine.
After the cart’s debut at the Edmonds Arts Festival in 1979, they sold it to Craig Donarum, who named it Ambrosia and located it under the monorail where Westlake Center is now.
Rules take hold
At first, “we had no communication with the health department,” Blackwell said. “We just stopped downtown, opened the van up and unloaded the cart underneath the monorail, and Craig started selling espresso.”
Beek quickly retired that cart after buying the business, and the Blackwells built another for him with closer attention to demands from the health department, which by then had figured out what was going on.
In the heyday of espresso carts in the late ’80s and early ’90s, 15 or 20 cart manufacturers operated in this area, said Bruce Pedrola, who began building carts in the early ’80s.
Most manufacturers went out of business, but Pedrola’s Creative Concepts in Edmonds annually makes 20 to 30 carts and kiosks that are shipped as far away as Japan and Russia.
In Seattle, many go inside building lobbies, hospitals and other private locations where they do not need city Department of Transportation permits. Still, Pedrola’s production is down from as many as 100 carts a year at the peak, he said.
He said he believes regulations — about cart size and other matters — killed the business.
“It’s a shame because we had a nice culture at one time, and they regulated them out of existence,” Pedrola said.
Seattle and King County are working to revamp 1980s cart rules in an effort to revive street food in the city, largely to open vending to a broader range of foods.
Coffee — like hot dogs, popcorn and flowers — has been allowed on carts all along, said Gary Johnson in the city’s Department of Planning and Development.
The city proposes eliminating the restriction on cart size and deferring to the county’s more liberal public-health guidelines, Johnson said. He welcomes suggestions on possible rule changes.
Scott Renwick, who folded his cart across from Pacific Place in 2006, said he agrees with Pedrola that regulations were onerous.
“They have the regulations wired so tight you have to be a construction worker, a lawyer and an accountant to do it on your own,” he said.
After almost seven years of waking up at 4 a.m. to roll the cart out of storage and stand outside making coffee all day, Renwick has switched to dog day care and boarding at his house.
Alpha Dog Walking involves “no rent, no health department, no street use, no employees and no supply costs,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or email@example.com