A Seattle Authority on Specialty Coffee Tools Talks Coffee Culture
Espresso Supply, Inc. has grown along with American tastes.
Behind every perfect cup of coffee is a set of first-rate brewing tools. For over two decades, Seattle-based Espresso Supply, Inc. has armed baristas with all the products they need to accomplish the task, from carafes and filters to kettles and grinders. After years of serving only businesses, the company broke into the consumer market with Bonavita in 2013. Today, it has grown into a full-service specialty coffee supplier for professionals and amateurs alike. Quiddity spoke with Laura Sommers, president and founder of Espresso Supply, Inc., about her foray into the industry, evolving consumer tastes, and how making coffee is more than just a morning routine.
Let’s start with a bit of background on you and Espresso Supply. Where did you grow up, and how did you first become interested in coffee?
I grew up in the Northwest and attended UW [University of Washington] where I earned an art degree. After graduation, I worked at one of the very earliest Seattle coffee houses: Uptown Espresso. The coffee shop scene was significantly different in the early 90s than it is today and Uptown was a trendsetter in terms of previewing the café culture that was to develop. Seattle was on the forefront of creating the specialty coffee café that we know today. At Uptown and other early cafés, latte art was born, coffee was celebrated, and quality and customer service defined the experience and created a true sense of community. I went so far as to construct a cup-and-saucer costume which I wore to promote the business. My art degree came in handy after all.
What led you to found Espresso Supply?
While working at Uptown, I became familiar with the operational supplies and tools needed to operate a coffee shop. Espresso Supply emerged as a specialty restaurant supply company, providing smallwares and accessories like steaming pitchers, tampers, and knock boxes. We created a one-stop shop for necessary but hard to find items. The market supported us and we grew to be an industry leader.
Can you describe your company’s growth from a small operation out of your basement in 1993 to today?
Well, I used the time-tested strategy of being in the right place at the right time. When we started my son was just a toddler, playing on the floor and napping while I worked out of our basement. Now he is 27. It wasn’t too long before we just couldn’t support the business with the space we had available in our basement. (We worked around the washer and dryer.) We found a location in the industrial area of Ballard and have been happy here ever since. Originally a fishing and maritime neighborhood, it is now home to many food and beverage companies including coffee roasters.
You entered the consumer market in 2013 with Bonavita. Why move in that direction?
As the coffee industry grew and consumers’ knowledge of and expectations for quality coffee grew, we followed them home into their kitchens. Excellent results are easy to achieve at home; however, you must have a quality brewer and brewing method. When we saw the opportunity to create an affordable, workhorse at-home brewer, we jumped on it. The SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) Certification confirms that the brewer performs to the standards established by that organization, which is a huge milestone and reassurance to consumers and retailers alike that the performance will be there long into the future.
You’re headquartered in Seattle. How does the local coffee culture influence your brand?
I hate to admit that the coffee culture in Seattle is somewhat tribal. The relationships go back 25 years and together we have all experienced the growth of the industry and the changes it has brought. It has created a bond that is hard to describe. With access to other coffee professionals, it was relatively easy to get feedback on products and determine market needs. The products continue to evolve as the industry changes. A good example is the Rattleware Cupping Brewer, which addresses the need of how to share cupped coffee outside the professional cupping environment. It makes it more accessible so more people can participate and increase their coffee knowledge. For use in a café, it provides a simple way to cup and share coffee with the general public that replicates the traditional method.
How important are international markets?
The international markets are very important. Specialty coffee is a relatively young industry, having come of age after the invention of the internet and revolutions in freight transportation and air travel. As a result, it is truly a global industry. The international markets have adapted to the American café experience and Espresso Supply is helping export that cultural phenomenon around the world.
Quiddity.com selected the Bonavita Connoisseur 8-Cup One-Touch Coffee Brewer as part of our top 10 automatic drip machines. Can you talk about the Bonavita’s unique design and features?
To some degree it is innovative due to its simplicity. It has everything necessary but is not overburdened with bells and whistles, which don’t have a direct impact on the brewed coffee. We try to keep it affordable by not including features which drive up the cost and complexity and add nothing to the brewing quality. Overall, the important feature is that it’s quick, brewing eight cups in approximately six minutes. Brewing coffee should not be a time-consuming process. The powerful 1500-watt heater keeps the water at the ideal temperature of 195-205 degrees fahrenheit throughout the brewing cycle and the large shower head uniformly saturates the grounds. In addition, we have a pre-infusion feature that allows the coffee to “bloom” and facilitate even extraction during the brewing process.
What major shifts have you seen in the coffee industry since 1993? How do you stay abreast of contemporary trends?
We have seen consistent improvement in the quality of roasted coffee and brewing execution to bring out the best in each coffee.
This of course exists alongside single-serve brewing, where convenience and variety are the primary drivers. Although convenience can be highly attractive, unfortunately the quality suffers. With the Ekobrew single serve filter we tried to strike a balance between convenience, quality, affordability, and sustainability.
Coffee brewing is following the larger trends which are focusing attention on the home environment and particularly the kitchen and entertaining. We have seen and will continue to see coffee not only as a staple for our morning routine, but as an increasingly personal expression of our values and ethics.
Frances Thomas is a writer based in New York City. She recently graduated from NYU.