In downtown Seattle, workers don't think twice about passing a Starbucks cafe on three consecutive blocks. But even in the heart of latte...

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In downtown Seattle, workers don’t think twice about passing a Starbucks cafe on three consecutive blocks.

But even in the heart of latte consumption, this cafe stands out.

The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia opened a Juan Valdez Cafe this week near the corner of Fifth Avenue and Pike Street. The store, its third U.S. location, celebrates its grand opening today.

To many Americans, Juan Valdez is a household name. The fictitious Colombian coffee farmer of TV advertising fame has long touted his country as the producer of “the richest coffee in the world.”

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The Juan Valdez Cafe — replete with stone floors, dark-wood accents, orange-leather chairs and porcelain cups — is not Colombia’s answer to Starbucks. Rather it’s a way for the federation, owned by its some 560,000 coffee growers, to ensure consumers continue to ask for Colombian coffee by name.

“They [the cafes] are interactive, sustainable billboards,” said Juan Esteban Orduz, the federation’s president.

The launch coincides with the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual conference at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center through Monday. Conference planners expect some 12,000 specialty-coffee professionals to attend.

Since 1960, the federation has spent $600 million building the Juan Valdez brand. But its advertising campaign went dark in 2001 as coffee prices hit all-time lows.

The federation plans to spend $75 million in the next five years to reposition itself as an upscale specialty-coffee region with a diverse line of coffee. Last year, it opened a cafe in Washington, D.C., and in New York as part of that effort. It chose Seattle as its third spot.


“Seattle is a very sophisticated city when it comes to coffee drinking,” Orduz said. “In the coffee industry, Seattle is the place everybody is.”

Andrew Sokolski, 44, of Warren, Pa., stood outside the cafe yesterday drinking a latte, baby carriage in tow.

Sokolski, who was in Seattle on business, said he lives in the “latte desolate wasteland.” (His town’s first cafe opened a year ago.)

He has already visited the cafe twice. “I think it’s terrific,” he said.

Alex Bernson, 16, a Lakeside School student and an aspiring cafe owner, dropped in for a macchiato with his father, Blair.

Alex Bernson, a self-acclaimed coffee historian — Did you know Lloyds of London was started in a coffee shop? He did. — said the federation was the only group in the 1970s that focused on advertising about the quality of coffee versus the superiority of a brand.

For that reason, he respects the Juan Valdez brand.

That said, the young Bernson said the cafe could use a little work. The espresso machines are hidden in the back. He would pull them to the center of the store. They are its most important feature, he said.

He would add softer, more plush furniture to invite coffee drinkers to sit and relax a spell.

“It’s a much more personal connection,” Bernson said of the Juan Valdez brand. “Coffee isn’t some random thing. There are people at every stage of it making their livelihood and living and dying by it.”

Monica Soto Ouchi: 206-515-5632