As a roaster in a city with a coffee scene as dynamic as Seattle’s, it can tough to stand out. But Steve Smith, roaster for Fonté Coffee, knows the secret to success: a high-quality product. As one of Starbuck’s first roasters back in 1979, Smith was trained by the company’s original three owners, quickly rose to the top, and was named a Master Roaster. Smith left Starbucks in 1991 and joined Fonté in 1992 when it was started by Paul Odom. Fonté Coffee and Tea, about a year later. Smith’s techniques adhere to the strictest standards and work to maintain the integrity of the coffee flavor during the roasting process. It’s been more than 20 years, and business is thriving. The brick-and-mortar Café Fonté celebrated its fifth anniversary in September with a four-course anniversary menu. Smith told The Daily Meal via email what it’s like to be a roaster in Seattle, how consumers’ tastes have changed over the past few decades, and what the future holds for coffee.
So, what's it like being a roaster in Seattle, a city renowned for its high-quality coffee? Seattle continues to be a very respectable coffee city, which makes it a prime city to be a roaster, but the city is by no means the only beacon on the West Coast like we used to be. The world shrinks with the ease and spread of industry communication, and things are not so location-specific and dependent as they used to be.
That being said, every region has their claim to fame; Seattle has jet airplanes and coffee, which is largely due to the coffee pioneers that happened to live here when the specialty coffee industry started booming 40 to 50 years ago. The civic pride in our city is genuine — Seattle loves its coffee, which makes it a perfect place to be a roaster.
Since you started working, how has what the consumer wants from coffee changed? I started in 1979 and at that time people didn’t guzzle “big milk drinks.” A 12-ounce latte didn’t exist in those days and there was maybe one shop in Seattle that offered espresso.
There were also only three roasters in Seattle then. To most people, light roasted, pre-canned grocery store coffee was the standard. It tasted so bad that sugar and cream became standard accompaniments to coffee. Our mission at the time was to showcase the difference between these bulk, canned coffees and fresh, craft roasted coffee.
In terms of impact and consumer expectation, the development and subsequent popularity of American-style espresso-based milk drinks overwhelmed the existing specialty industry. This was a double-edged sword; it was a distraction from our focus on presenting the world’s finest coffees, but it also served to fund our sourcing and promotion of those coffees.
The single most exciting thing that has happened in my time has been the development of single origin coffees that are at a level of quality that the world has never seen. We are living in this privileged time. Communication has opened up between the coffee growers/producers and buyers in a way that never existed in the past.
As your company has grown, how have you maintained quality control? Quality control is maintained through controlled growth and small-batch, craft roasting that is done to order. We continue to roast and ship the same day, just as we did when we first started over 20 years ago. Roast to order is hard to administrate and it takes a lot of extra effort, not just on our part, but with our customers too, to ensure not only freshness and consistency, but also excellence in preparation.
How have you stayed competitive in a highly competitive market? We do what we do, what we have done since day one, is let the chips fall where they may based on how we run our business, which goes back to a foundation of small-batch, craft roasting shipped the same day. We are confident that what we founded the business on continues to be relevant today.
What does the future hold for coffee? The future of coffee will be somewhat tumultuous and inclusive. I do think that there will be a lot of change, and it will be swift. Climate change will have a huge effect — it already is being felt. Consequences we can’t foresee at this time will become factors. Places that haven’t produced coffee will suddenly be able to. Places that have produced coffee for a long time won’t be able to. In many cases, the coffee trees just haven’t developed a resistance to traditionally lower-elevation pests …
I also think that people will drink more coffee at home rather then going out for their morning lattes or drip coffees. Single-origin coffees will continue to rise in popularity. In addition, coffee preferences are extension of people’s curiosity and investigations into the flavor profiles of coffee — what flavors do I prefer, from where, etc. — which will continue to be explored. This gives rise to more opportunity for people to experiment at home with coffee profiles and not just drink the same cup day after day.
What should the average consumer know about what goes into one of your cups of coffee? There are a lot of people involved in the creation of that cup that you drink every morning, from seed to cup, and each of them has an interesting story. It’s a pleasure for us to share those stories, but we don’t presume that every coffee drinker wants to go that deeply into a coffee’s provenance.
What are the biggest factors that shape Seattle coffee's scene? The bulk of Seattle’s coffee scene is the average drinker. It’s a very trend-driven city, however, so there’s a lot of attention paid to coffee fads that come and go. Meanwhile, the average drinker continues to develop a more and more sophisticated appreciation of coffee and is increasingly willing to pay more for a better cup, especially when he or she can perceive that it’s a better cup versus just being told that it’s better.
Anything else you'd like to add? Enjoy your coffee.