For the love of coffee

Gary Smith doesn’t buy into the mantra that the three most important ingredients to a successful business are location, location, location. And if he does, he sure doesn’t interpret location in the same way most business owners do, at least those wanting to attract customers.

To Smith, it’s coffee, coffee, coffee. Location is about quiet forested surroundings, getting away from the busy-ness of the day, and taking the time to enjoy a fresh cup of coffee in whatever form one prefers it.

Mukilteo Coffee, owned by Smith and his wife, Beth, recently opened its new roasting and packing facility along Crawford Road, miles from the nearest population center and isolated by a dozen speed bumps from one direction and the worst potholes on the island from the other.

The business does not depend on coffee drinkers making the trek to the new roasting facility — the beans are mostly for wholesale — but Smith is betting they will come anyway. He built a funky art-deco style coffee shop, complete with windows overlooking the roasting operation, where coffee drinkers can try the fresh roasts and truly sit back and enjoy the brew.

“I love it when people say ‘how are you going to get people back here,” Smith said. “Well, watch.”

The coffee shop is not even open yet — that’ll likely be in mid-June — and he says he has a steady stream of locals stopping in to check it out. He’s already given several tours of the roasting operation to different groups.

“We always tell people: ‘Don’t be in a hurry to have your coffee. Just sit back and enjoy it,’” he said. “This location is perfect for that.”

Mukilteo Coffee’s move to the island is the latest in a mini-coffee war on South Whidbey in which three major players are fighting it out for a piece of the local retail business. But, that’s microcosm stuff. In the big picture, all three businesses have found their own niche in the specialty coffee business.

Mukilteo Coffee roasts roughly 4,000 pounds of coffee beans a day, wholesaling mostly to Japan and Hong Kong. Smith, a long-time resident of the island, doesn’t plan to get into the service business. The new coffee shop in the woods is his one and only, and Smith says he has no plans to develop more.

“Fortunately for us, we’re blessed with so much wholesale business, we can afford to do this,” he said.

Whidbey Coffee Company, also 14 years old, sells its own brand of coffee roasted to its specifications. It’s not a coffee roaster, but a coffee brewer and retailer, with 14 coffee shops and small stands spread throughout the island and from Shoreline Community College to Mount Vernon. The company has 80 employees. The Lighthouse Cafe in Freeland, a pleasant place for a sandwich and latte, is the Whidbey Coffee Company flagship.

“Until the next one,” owner Dan Ollis says, without revealing any more about his plans.

The Jousting Penguin Coffee Roasters is a smaller startup business, also targeting the wholesale market. The new company roasts from the back room of JW Desserts at Ken’s Korner Shopping Plaza, roasting fresh coffee to fill orders as needed. The Jousting Penguin does not yet have a namesake coffee shop featuring its coffee, but that’s a consideration for the future, said co-owner Dan Cole.

“Our marketing strategy is to target the cafes, restaurants, and roadside stands, but not necessarily on Whidbey,” Cole said.

The entrepreneurs of all three businesses know each other. Smith and Ollis used to work together. At one time Mukilteo Coffee was the roaster for Whidbey Coffee. The very first cart Ollis used to start Whidbey Coffee was the same cart Smith used in starting his business. Cole and fellow Jousting Penguin owner Dan Rogers have talked to both competitors to flesh out business relationships and talk coffee.

“The specialty coffee business is kind of a club,” Cole said. “We share a passion. We like talking about coffee and we all hope everyone’s business does great.”

Adds Smith: “If people are passionate about coffee, we have the greatest respect for each other. But if you’re in it just to get rich, that doesn’t work.”

It’s all about quality, each of them say, although that word can mean different things to different people. It’s about the beans, certified organic or not, the roasting, the cooling, the packaging, the freshness, the care of the equipment, the skill of the barista, the atmosphere, the odor — and don’t forget — fair trade practices that ensure farmers are paid a decent price for their crop. All of this can make or break a good cup of coffee, depending on the palette and the politics of the coffee drinker.

“Everybody thinks their coffee is the best,” Ollis said. “It’s really up to the public and the consumer to figure out what they want.”

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