While it may lack the excitement of Chicago and Miami, coffee aficionados often see Seattle as an American city worth visiting.

The reason for this is simple; The iconic, international coffee chain Starbucks Coffee got their start there in 1971. A self-guided walking tour of Seattle, with stops to a few Starbucks locations presents an opportunity to understand and experience not only the history of Starbucks coffee, but also how the company contributed to global coffee culture and American cuisine. The entire Starbucks Empire was started because someone wanted better coffee. That someone was Gordon Bowker, and better coffee referred to anything other than the thin, sour, acrid liquid that Americans had become accustomed to by the 1960s. By the end of that decade, Bowker was making monthly trips from Seattle to Vancouver for freshly roasted coffee beans for himself and friends.

1912 Pike Place – The Original Starbucks

Sign at the Original Starbucks (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1971, Bowker and two others decided that a full-time store selling coffee beans in downtown Seattle seemed like a feasible idea. They based their business model on a bay area coffee shop called Peet’s Coffee founded by Alfred Peet, a man now referred to as the godfather of gourmet coffee in America. For a name to their venture, the founders wanted to establish a connection to the ocean while also benefiting from the connotations of power associated with words like “stellar” and “strength”. Ultimately, the name Starbucks managed to meet both criteria. For the logo, a friend of the founders fashioned a design based on a fifteenth century medieval image of a North European water deity.

The look of the first Starbucks Store at Pike Place Market was strongly influenced by these early elements. Due to design guidelines that govern all architecture in the marketplace, the store still looks like it did in 1971.The floor and counters are all made of dark, weathered wood; emulating the appearance of the Berkeley Peet’s Coffee location but also inspired by nautical themes. The space is small, and there is no seating since they originally only sold beans and not beverages. Due to the small size, cups need to be kept in the back of the store and tossed to the barista. This practice is reminiscent of the famous fish throwing routine not too far away at the Pike Place Fish Market.

Pike Place Market

The modern and minimal green logo now associated with Starbucks is nowhere to be seen. In its place is the original logo, in a coffee brown hue and surrounded by the words “Starbucks, coffee, teas, spices.” The store only sold coffee, but listing the other items helped create the illusion of a company importing exotic ingredients from far-off lands. Already in a popular part in Seattle, the original Starbucks attracts those seeking the experience of ordering fresh coffee where the famed franchise found its start, so there has never not been a line to enter. It’s worth taking a picture here, but ordering your coffee at a nearby Starbucks that is more convenient and also a major part of the Starbucks story.

Starbucks at First and Pike

Ten years after the first Starbucks store was opened, a sales man in New York City noticed that a coffee company in the Pacific North West was ordering what seemed to be an enormous amount of commercial coffee makers. Seattle has always been a sparsely populated city, and at that time the population was slightly more than the least populous of New York City’s five boroughs. The salesman flew to Seattle and immediately went to the Pike Place Market Starbucks after checking into his hotel. This salesman was Howard Schultz, a man whose name is now more closely linked to Starbucks Coffee than the actual founders of the company. Schultz recollects that when he stepped inside and smelled the aroma of freshly ground coffee, he knew that he discovered something special and wanted to be a part of it.

By 1984, a sixth Starbucks location was being opened. At this time, Schultz was in charge of marketing, working directly under Baldwin, the only member of the founding trio that was still actively involved in company’s operations. Schultz had returned from Milan the previous year and was enamored with the espresso bars that he discovered there. Since that trip, he was clamoring for espresso to be added to the Starbucks menu. With the opening of this sixth store on 4th Street just a few blocks away from the first store, he finally got his wish and espresso was served at Starbucks Coffee for the first time. The spiritual successor to this store has the vintage charm of the Pike Place location with the convenience of generous seating accommodations. Ideal for sitting down and planning the perfect day in Seattle while sipping a latte and pondering what the first Starbucks customers to enjoy these beverages decades ago might have thought.

Starbucks at First and Pike, a few blocks away from the Original Starbucks Store

How many of them would have even guessed that fresh espresso and foamed milk served in a white cup with the Starbucks logo would have such an impact on American culture? The first espresso cart had opened in Seattle the year before Schultz joined Starbucks, and there are records of espresso machines in New York City from shortly after World War 2. Starbucks did not introduce America to the Café Latte, but they certainly made the beverage an important element of American culture. The popularity of these espresso based coffee beverages ultimately lead to Schultz temporarily leaving Starbucks Coffee and opening his own coffee chain.

Starbucks Center

Baldwin had no interest in opening any more espresso bars, or even expanding Starbucks for that matter. Schultz on the other hand believed that the future of the company was in repeating the success of the sixth Starbucks store as often as possible. To pursue this vision he founded Il Giornalo. The name referenced the word for newspaper in Italian, suggesting a daily, morning habit. The logo for Il Giornalo was the first instance of the green color now associated with Starbucks Coffee being used in a coffee logo. Instead of the mermaid however, the circular logo featured the Roman messenger God, Mercury. This logo can still be seen at the original Il Giornale store at the Columbia Center although the store is now a Starbucks. Incidentally, that building also houses the highest Starbucks location in the city on the 40th floor.

Shortly after starting Il Giornale, Schultz was given the opportunity to acquire Starbucks Coffee. The year was 1987, and Baldwin was finally ready to part ways with the company he helped found. Schultz folded Il Giornalo into the more well-known Starbucks and integrated the green color into the mermaid logo creating the modern Starbucks Coffee logo. This acquisition deal saw the number of Starbucks stores more than double, and the next few years would see consistent growth. By the early nineties, there would be over one hundred stores, and all across America, a phenomenon was being noticed. Pedestrians would hold their cups in a manner so that the Starbucks logo was prominent, seemingly advertising their good taste in coffee.

In 1992, Starbucks was traded on the stock market for the first time, giving the company the capital to pursue even more growth. Three years later there were now more than 700 stores, many of which were regional coffee chains that were acquired and converted into Starbucks outlets. With these acquisitions came new inputs and ideas, and some of these coalesced into another iconic Starbucks beverage, the Frappuccino. The word was a portmanteau between cappuccino, and the term used by Bostonians for a thick milkshake. The actual beverage was developed by Starbucks baristas in Santa Monica who realized that locals craved cool drinks on hot California afternoons. The beverage was an instant hit, doing over fifty million dollars in sales within the first year. Frappuccino alone is now a billion dollar brand that includes blended iced beverages as well as bottled iced coffee.

The growth of the company came with increased criticism. Detractors said that Starbucks was no longer improving American coffee culture. They were now selling sugar laden drinks that masked the coffee behind generous doses of flavored syrups. They were also using their clout to out-compete locally owned coffee houses, causing them to close or forcing them to sell to Starbucks. The Starbucks cup was simultaneously a fashion accessory and a symbol of a corporation controlling American culture. The structure that best symbolizes this, and in a sense sums up Starbucks during this decade is Starbucks Center. With a 150 foot tall clock tower crowned with the Starbucks mermaid identifying this building from afar is easy. It can be spotted from many points in Seattle, including the sight-seeing cruises that leave from the harbor near to the Pike Place Market Starbucks location. If one wishes to actually visit, they would encounter the Starbucks Gear Store, the largest collection of Starbucks merchandise including items only sold to staff. Constructed in 1915 by Sears, this building was the largest office building west of the Mississippi when completed.

Starbucks Center behind the Port of Seattle with Mount Rainier in the background.

A gigantic Starbucks logo atop a corporate complex symbolizes the simultaneous status of Starbucks as corporate powerhouse and cultural phenomenon during the nineties. Within these offices, the company would continue to focus on growth. Outside of these walls however, criticism of the company would continue to increase.

The First Starbucks Reserve Roastery

Much of this criticism was focused on Starbucks increasingly representing crass commercialism and the erasure of local culture, something that each store seemed to embody. In 1994, the company enlisted a design team whose goal was to ensure that no two Starbucks outlets looked the same. These efforts were based on nurturing the concept of Starbucks as the third place. A space less formal than the office, but not as laid back as the living room. The company wanted to distance themselves from fast food chains and better meet the needs of each community. Locations near college campuses would be more conducive to study groups while a Starbucks in a business district would be ideal for a quick business meeting. To combat the accusations that Starbucks erased local culture, the company made an effort to instead embrace it. While certain unifying themes of the company are maintained, individual stores often feature local art, and furnishings that pay homage to local culture and industry.

Stores near to the original Pike Place location often pay tribute to the nautical heritage, and early brand history with seating made from material like shipping palettes and rich brown décor reminiscent of the first six locations. A few blocks over at 23rd and Jackson, the store has earth tones, posters of coffee growing, and a mural from local artists that pays homage to the district’s jazz heritage.  

More recently, Starbucks has designed a new initiative to compete with coffee shops who attract a more conscious customer. These smaller shops specialize in small batch roasting and brewing and try to highlight the terroir of different coffee growing regions in each beverage.

The answer to this is Starbucks Reserve Roastery, an immersive experience that showcases how the company sources single origin coffee and crafts it into the perfect beverage. The first of these was opened in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in the year 2014. At this location, coffee connoisseurs can enjoy a beverage brewed according to the method that the barista believes best unlocks the character of the coffee bean.

While enjoying this beverage, one can observe beans being roasted. These might be sun-dried coffee beans from Uganda’s mythical Mountains of the Moon, or Guatemalan coffee aged in Whisky Barrels. These Starbucks Reserve Roasteries, which still number less than ten, play an important role in the company’s commitment to sustainability. They all utilize sustainable packaging and support reforestation efforts in the places where the coffee is grown. While they all serve the iconic Starbucks café latte, the flavor come less from the added syrups and more from the character of the coffee beans.

Café Latte at Starbucks Reserve Roastery Seattle

Many of these Starbucks branches have recently become unionized. This is against an interesting backdrop of events. The notably liberal company is increasingly being accused of union busting. Howard Schultz has also retaken the reins as CEO, a role he has only held once since the year 2000. Beyond Starbucks, Seattle seems to be experiencing serious issues, and conversations over café lattes increasingly shift towards discussions on climate change and coffee.

What these events represent is the next chapter in the half a century saga between Starbucks and Seattle. Whatever the future of Starbucks holds these iconic stores that represent the ultimate Starbucks experience in Seattle that charts the trajectory of the company within their first fifty years will always be a part of global coffee history.