The creator of instant Starbucks coffee was running a biomedical company in Sacramento when he brought his homemade instant brew up to Seattle.

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It might have been the most covert operation in Starbucks history.

Over nearly two decades, the project had code names — Stardust, Jaws and Space Needle — and when Starbucks employees took business trips to work on it, they didn’t even tell their wives where they were going.

“Where are you going? ‘Out,’ ” director of green coffee Andrew Linnemann told family and co-workers.

Such was Starbucks’ concern about people finding out that it was working on instant coffee, long considered the dregs of the coffee world, far inferior to espresso and brewed coffee.

Today, the Seattle chain begins selling instant coffee in single-serve packets in Seattle and Chicago. A nationwide rollout is scheduled this fall.

Heather Valencia remembers when her husband, Don, introduced decent instant coffee to Starbucks. It was in the late 1980s, when Don was CEO of a biomedical firm he’d started in Sacramento. He used freeze-drying equipment from his business to make instant coffee for backpacking trips and as a Christmas gift for Heather’s parents.

After Heather introduced him to Starbucks coffee, which she considered “the best beans in the world” after working at a University of Washington coffee bar, the couple brought some by the Starbucks’ store in the Pike Place Market.

They passed it along to CEO Howard Schultz, who hired Valencia to run Starbucks research and development until he retired in 1999.

Valencia developed a concentrate that Starbucks uses in its Frappuccinos and ice cream.

Shortly before Valencia died of cancer in late 2007, Schultz visited him in the hospital and told him the company was finally going to roll out his instant coffee, “Stardust.”

The product, called Via, is a play on Valencia’s name.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com