If you didn’t know Gary Smith, you would after stepping foot inside his cafe. He made an effort to greet everyone stopping by his establishment. Friends said he had the kind of positive energy that fills a room and was as friendly as he was witty.
“If you don’t meet Gary, then you’re doing something wrong,” said China City restaurants owner Jack Ng, of Langley. He called Smith “a fun ambassador for tourists” and “the happiest guy I know on Earth.”
Tucked away near Langley was Smith’s Cafe in the Woods. The social hub sat adjacent to a warehouse that served as the home of Mukilteo Coffee Roasters. Over the decades Smith turned what began in the ’80s as an espresso cart into a coffee powerhouse, shipping beans around the world. He also owned multiple cafes around the greater Seattle-area that were bought and sold over the years.
Smith died of cancer on March 3. He was 69.
Smith grew up in Mountlake Terrace and Edmonds. He attended Meadowdale High School where he played guard on the 1972-73 football team, which had a perfect 10-0 season. The team outscored opponents 248-66, still a school record. In 2020, the team was inducted into the Snohomish County Sports Commission’s Hall of Fame. Smith and his team members stayed in touch over the years and met up for reunions.
After finishing his studies, Smith worked in construction before discovering a passion for that cuppa joe. Café latte was just starting to become popular in the Seattle area when one day Smith ordered one from a coffee shop in Port Townsend, according to an article in Northwest Business Monthly. Before that, his nephew Brandon Diers of Sedro-Woolley said drip coffee was all his uncle had ever known.
One taste, and it changed his life.
Smith called it “Nectar of the Gods,” according to his company’s website, and loved it so much that in 1983 he opened an espresso cart in front of the Seahorse Restaurant by the Mukilteo ferry dock.
“I knew at the first sip that this is what I wanted to do in life,” Smith said in 2009.
Smith’s future wife Beth Korvin entered the coffee scene a few years earlier. She began her career in 1979 at what today is known as Seattle’s Best Coffee. Back then Smith purchased his coffee beans from Korvin, which is how they met, according to a 2014 Herald article. The couple went on to become business partners and have two sons together, Lake and Leo.
Smith built up his clientele and opened a cafe in 1987. He quickly outgrew his Mukilteo location and moved to a larger space nearby two years later. It was around that time Smith acquired his first coffee roaster and was trained by German roastmaster Peter Larsen, according to Northwest Business Monthly.
Smith’s coffee grew a loyal following, like Herb Gould, who was president of Anthony’s Restaurants. Gould first met Smith after one day wandering into his Mukilteo cafe in 1990. He was so impressed that his immediate thought was: “We need to get this coffee into our restaurants.” And a few years later he did just that. Gould said there has been a special “Anthony’s blend” coffee from Smith served in all of his family’s restaurants since 1993.
Amy Burns, Gould’s sister and the restaurants’ current president, said she loved how committed the Smiths were to buying beans directly from farmers and knew exactly from where their product was sourced.
“It goes beyond the coffee,” Burns said. “He was just such a special person and had that commitment to only the best.”
Smith had a part to play in the founding of other Seattle-area roasters. In 1989, he sold a small espresso stand to college student Dan Ollis, which would be the start of Whidbey Coffee Co. Years later Smith gave Mike Donohoe his first job in the coffee industry. He worked as a roaster master for six years for Smith until leaving to launch Honeymoon Bay Coffee Roasters in 2008.
Smith told the South Whidbey Record in 2017 that Ollis, Donohoe and him were all friends and helped each other despite being in competition.
“If you’re a lone wolf, that’s how it’ll stay,” Smith told The Record.
In 2003, the Smiths relocated the company to a new warehouse and roasting facility on Whidbey Island and opened Cafe in the Woods. Mukilteo Coffee Roasters went on to work with distributors like the Hong Kong-based Pacific Coffee Company to sell their whole beans around the world.
Despite business success, the Smiths’ goal was to invest in their employees over maximizing profit. They regularly took workers overseas on educational trips to coffee farms in Costa Rica and Indonesia.
“I’m a two-time cancer survivor, so I’m not after the almighty dollar at this point,” Smith told The Record. “But what we do means we get better qualified employees who are passionate about what they do, and we give them artistic freedom with their work.”
Smith’s nephew Diers described his uncle as a “father figure.” He worked for him after high school until leaving to focus on his plumbing business.
“There’s not a better person on this earth, in my opinion,” Diers said. “People that haven’t even met him loved him.”
Aside from coffee, Smith was also known for his passion for music. He played bass and guitar in multiple bands. He and his older brother Dave Smith teamed up to form The Smith Brothers Band. When that dissolved, Smith in 1983 started a band called The Lost Vuarnets. The group’s name comes from a brand of designer sunglasses popular at the time.
In interviews, Smith said everyone he knew who had a pair of Vuarnets lost them immediately after purchase. So that’s where the band’s name originates.
“It really is a pretty stupid name, but after 10 years, we’re stuck with it,” Smith told The Seattle Times in 1993. “If I’d known we were going to last this long, I’d have come up with something better.”
The Lost Vuarnets played off and on at local venues and festivals for close to 40 years. It was at one of those gigs Mike Gastineau of Freeland met and befriended Smith a decade ago.
Gastineau said the Cafe in the Woods was an important gathering spot and a “neighborhood beacon” for the South Whidbey community. It was there locals enjoyed a meal and chit-chatted. He said Smith embodied “the idea of the old time proprietor” by going table to table visiting with guests.
“Gary was like an approaching thunderstorm,” Gastineau wrote in a Facebook post. “You usually heard him before you saw him. He knew everyone who came into his place, and if he didn’t know you, he introduced himself.”
On several occasions, Smith cleared out the coffee roasting area in his warehouse to host live music, like his band and out-of-town artists.
“He nicknamed it ‘Bean-a-Roya Hall,’ which I loved,” Gastineau said. The makeshift performance hall “wasn’t fancy at all, but it was cool.”
In recent years the Smiths shifted focus away from the cafe to prioritize their roasting business. As of last year the space was leased to Seabiscuit Bakery. And while Mukilteo Coffee Roasters out lives Smith, the loss of its founder is deeply felt in the community.
“He was so loved,” Gould said. “It’s hard to replace somebody like that.”