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Friday, March 26, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Finding Niche Brews Big-Time Success For Small Coffee Roaster -- As Wholesaler, Caffe Vita Finds `Perfection' Pays

Seattle Times Business Reporter

Thousands pass by it daily, but most probably don't even realize it's there.

Tucked below the monorail tracks at Fifth Avenue and Denny Way in Seattle, Caffe Vita, a 4-year-old coffee company, roasts about 1,000 pounds of coffee a day in a storefront the size of a two-car garage.

Bags of green coffee, each about 130 pounds, are stacked four-bags tall, surrounding the counter. Buckets of roasted coffee waiting to be shipped to customers are stored by the windows. The hum of the two roasters seems to be a constant.

For smaller coffee companies, such as Caffe Vita, competing on the same turf as Starbucks, Seattle's Best Coffee and other larger roasters requires hands-on attention to every detail, said co-owners Michael McConnell and Michael Prins, both 31. That means supervising everything from purchasing the green coffee and finding the right blend to the timing and temperature of the roast.

"Anybody can take a bag of coffee beans and throw them in a roaster," McConnell said. "We focus on quality."

And their perfection seems to be paying off. Caffe Vita counts more than 250 local restaurants, cafes and bars among a growing list of customers. It recently made news when it bought Cafe Paradiso, a longtime cafe on Capitol Hill where it operates a retail store and plans to relocate its coffee-roasting operation. The Fifth Avenue store and another on Queen Anne will remain open for retail sales only.

By going after wholesale business with restaurants - many of which cater to a younger, alternative crowd - Caffe Vita is carving a niche in a business full of competitors. Business continues to almost double each year. Sales last year were more than $3 million.

Caffe Vita's retail stores sell only a few food items - biscotti, lowfat muffins, maple-nut and blueberry scones - because they want to focus on the coffee.

"If you do one thing, you do it incredibly well. We don't want to try to do too much," Prins said.

McConnell and Prins, who met while selling espresso machines for a local company, got into the business because they didn't think there were many good coffee roasters in Seattle, "as crazy as that sounds," Prins said.

They set out to educate themselves by going to trade shows, visiting coffee growers and traveling to Indonesia, Italy and throughout the U.S. talking to roasters, friends and sampling coffee.

"I've never had so much fun," said McConnell, who said it took a year for their company to be profitable.

Although some upscale restaurants such as Flying Fish and Blowfish Asian Cafe carry their coffee, it's more often found in places such as Wallingford's Asteroid Cafe and Belltown's Lava Lounge.

McConnell said they've found a niche with alternative businesses that like to support other small businesses. "Because we're small, we appeal to businesses like our own - that focus on quality, that are small, specialized and independent," he said.

Sharon Luke, co-owner of Cool Hand Luke's cafe in Madrona, hascarried Caffe Vita for about six months.

Luke said she likes the idea of "one small business supporting another. They take their coffee business seriously, and it shows."

Caffe Vita isn't the only small roaster going after a slice of the restaurant business.

Paul Odom, founder of Fonte Coffee, another small Seattle coffee roaster, said every company has its niche.

"They're really appealing to the Generation-X crowd," he said. "We do fine dining."

Customers say Caffe Vita's main appeal is service, quality and price.

"It's rich. It's got a nice roast. It's just where we want it to be," said Eli Forman, manager of the Pink Door restaurant in Seattle, which had carried Starbucks until switching to Caffe Vita about two months ago.

Julie Hearne, owner of Seattle's Hoopla! cafe, said since she started carrying Caffe Vita, coffee sales have increased dramatically.

"They have great coffee, and they roast in small batches," Hearne said. "It's a nice combination because they focus on small (businesses) and quality, too," Hearne said. "That's why we make such a great team."

Tamra Fitzpatrick's phone message number is 206-464-8981. Her e-mail address is: tfitzpatrick@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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