Mocha mojo, espresso dreams

The coffee culture extends to hair and nail salons. Baker Street in Langley offers espresso drinks as a service to its customers. Here Karen Grossman enjoys her first soy latte of the day while Peggy Thomas cuts her hair. - Gayle Saran
The coffee culture extends to hair and nail salons. Baker Street in Langley offers espresso drinks as a service to its customers. Here Karen Grossman enjoys her first soy latte of the day while Peggy Thomas cuts her hair.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Langley's Karen Grossman has been a coffee drinker for at least 30 years.

She began enjoying espresso and good drip coffee during the 1960s at Peet's, the famous pre-Starbucks coffee roaster and coffee bar in Berkeley. Though her coffee house days in California are long past, she does not have to do without on South Whidbey. Awash in coffee joints, there's hardly a place on the Southend where a five-minute drive won't get diehard bean freaks like Grossman to the nearest caffeine outpost.

"I developed a taste for good coffee from one of the legend's in the business," Grossman said.

Her tastes have changed somewhat since then, when she liked the powerful punch from a shot of espresso. Now the softness of a soy milk latte is more her speed.

"I love to relax with a latte, whether it's first thing in the morning or after a good dinner in the evening, I really enjoy my lattes." Grossman said.

As in other areas of the country, the coffee culture is well entrenched on South Whidbey. With 22 coffee bars, drive-throughs and other businesses that serve gourmet coffee, South Whidbey java connoisseurs are never more than a couple miles away from a fix.

With average coffee consumption in the United States at 3.1 cups per day (according to a 2000 survey by the National Coffee Association), there's a lot of caffeine loading going on.

In this growing market, which apparently hasn't hit its saturation point on the island, it's personal service that keeps coffee drinkers going to the same place.

Amy Jones, a barista at the Whidbey's Coffee drive-through in the Freeland, said she tries to remember something about each of her regulars.

"I see many of the same people every day," she said. "I get to know them first by what they drink , then I learn their names and the names of their kids and dogs, who are often in the car with them."

She has been a barista -- coffee technician -- for Whidbey's Coffee Co. for two-and-a-half years. Whidbey's Coffee first appeared on the scene when owner Dan Olis parked his first espresso cart in front of Payless Grocery in Freeland. That cart, and another owned at the time by Sara Eskenazi, were the start of the local espresso market. While Eskenazi moved into the restaurant business, Whidbey's Coffee has expanded to 13 locations from Whidbey Island to Shoreline, Mukilteo, Burlington, Rice and Mount Vernon.

Jones said she believes there is room for everyone to sell coffee on South Whidbey.

"I think the competition is good," she said. "It keeps everyone on their toes, offering good quality products and service."

Doug McLeod, a semi-regular customer who enjoys an occasional mocha, believes gourmet coffee is here to stay.

"It is a treat to be enjoyed."

Whidbey's Coffee barista Kory Solkey from Langley agrees with McLeod. She said the drink is so special to some people, they will go to strange lengths to express their loyalty to the mighty bean. Solkey's parents actually named her after a brand of coffee maker.

"My parents decided to get married while they were having coffee in a small cafe in Minnesota," she said. "They both wanted children and agreed to name their first son Cory, the brand name on the coffee pot. I came along first, so they changed the spelling to K-O-R-Y."

South Whidbey's coffee drinks don't always exist in isolation. Often coffee is combined with other activities. Hairstylists, book stores, and even an Oak Harbor grocery store offer Americanos and cafe breves as freely as the coffee-only places.

Kelly Sad, the barista at Langley's Baker Street Nail Salon, said her business opened a coffee bar primarily as a service to its clients.

"But hope to bring in other business as soon as we have a sign in the front window," she said.

Even with all these beverage options open to them, coffee drinkers still need to master the coffee lingo to make certain they get what they want. Ordering "a coffee" requires a special language.

It's best to know before ordering whether you want a double tall-skinny-vanilla-latte-extra-hot-no-foam, a half-caf-breve-mocha-iced, or just a cup of coffee, especially if you're in a hurry. Islanders on the move often are, so many grab their favorite coffee drink while driving to work, on the way to the ferry, or during a leisurely breakfast or lunch at a cafe or bakery.

At Albertson's grocery store in Oak Harbor, coffee is available to even those in the midst of bagging their broccoli thanks to the in-store Starbuck's. And holding the coffee while shopping is no problem, thanks to cupholders on the carts.

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