What’s holding back the DC coffee scene?

In a late night post he later regrets, Ezra Klein wonders why DC has such a dearth of good coffee shops:

Cities like Portland and Seattle are trying to create a livable city to retain and attract a certain type of resident. Namely, educated, young, white people. Portland’s 78% white, Seattle’s a bit under 70%. So you structure the city thus that there’s lots of educated white people bait, including cafes, bookstores, wireless internet spots, bike trails, etc.

DC, by contrast, has a lot of white people working in it, but is actually only 39% white, and has a city government that does not derive primary political support from transient white voters. So the character of the city actually does more to represent its inhabitants. Which seems rational. Moreover, the white people there basically have to be there. You don’t move to DC because it’s awesome, you move because it’s where your work is. So there’s little need to construct an affirmative agenda to attract residents.

Race issues aside, I agree with Megan McArdle that it’s weird to look to the city government for an explanation of the character of the city. (Unless we’re talking about the licensing issues that plague small business owners, which as far as I know are as equally a pain in the ass here and in the Northwest.)

But Ezra does have a point. Why are there so few good coffee shops in this city? I link it to three reasons:

1) History is the big one. As with wine, craft brewing, spirits, and seasonal cuisine, the West Coast was way ahead of the East when it came to great coffee. Sure, espresso bars were initially successful in New York in the 50s, but it was Peet’s in Berkeley that led the way on artisinal, single origin roasting. And of course Starbucks and the Seattle style followed later, along with lots of smaller, high-end roasters and obsessive espresso tinkerers. When it comes to building a customer base, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco have a huge head start over DC.

2) The same applies for the labor force. I can attest from experience as a trainer in two DC coffee shops that finding talented baristas is difficult here. In the Northwest you’ve got a lot more people who know their way around an espresso machine.

Perhaps even more importantly, coffee shop jobs get more respect in the Northwest. Whenever I would be asked the inevitable “What do you do?” question at DC happy hours, “And what do you really want to do?” would almost always follow my response that I worked as a barista. The idea that I actually desired to get up early and make espresso confounded a lot of people. Coffee jobs here tend to be necessary or transitory, rarely a long-term aspiration. This makes it difficult and expensive to train employees. Advantage: Starbucks and its superautomatic push-button espresso machines.

3) Finally, and this is more speculative, but DC’s Metro system strikes me as being very good at shuffling people from the suburbs and residential parts of the city to the work-oriented core and to a few social hot spots, but not so good at encouraging long stretches of mixed use neighborhoods. The result is that retail space near Metro stops is very expensive while the less pedestrian friendly, less accessible parts of town are more in the budget of a startup indie coffee shop. Given the importance of foot traffic to a cafe, advantage once again goes to the hyper-efficient Starbucks or to the lunch-oriented Cosi. I don’t have numbers to back this up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the distribution of rents is flatter in the Northwest.

The good news is that things are rapidly getting better here. There are many better options now than there were four years ago, Counter Culture Coffee is spreading the gospel through its new DC training center, and there a few other exciting shops in the pipeline. Consumers’ tastes are evolving and the market is responding.

This is also a good time to plug Big Bear, the new Bloomingdale cafe that’s taking great coffee into an underserved neighborhood (previously reviewed here). DC bohemians looking for an off the beaten track coffee shop should check it out.


4 thoughts on “What’s holding back the DC coffee scene?”

  1. Rents are definitely flatter in San Francisco. But over the summer, I had 1) Blue Bottle Coffee, 3 blocks from the Van Ness BART stop in Hayes Valley, 2) Counter Culture Coffee, at Ritual, 4 blocks from BART, and 3) Intelligentsia, at this little convenience place INSIDE my downtown BART stop.

    All of those places also have a bus stop within 1 block. Maybe West Coast public transportation just has better coverage?

    But San Francisco is a more epicurean city in general. It also tends to have more local businesses as opposed to mega-corporations in every sector. I’d imagine most of the West Coast is that way, if to a lesser extent.

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