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Sunday, July 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vivace founder, David Schomer is a coffee prophet

Seattle Times business reporter

David Schomer


Early career: Worked as a metrologist for the U.S. Air Force, Boeing and John Fluke Manufacturing in Everett. He has a bachelor's degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Washington and a fine-arts degree in classical flute performance from Cornish College of the Arts.

First taste of good coffee: The Pier 70 location of the Wet Whisker, which eventually became Seattle's Best Coffee.

Start of Espresso Vivace: In 1988, with an espresso cart on Capitol Hill.

Family: Wife and co-owner Geneva Sullivan and sons Andre, 10, and Taylor, 15.

Coffee with a story: Caffe Nico, a 4-ounce mixture of espresso, steamed half and half, orange and vanilla syrups, orange spritz, cinnamon. Named for an itinerant calligrapher who was so excited when he tasted it at the coffee cart that he ran into traffic. "Get back here, and I'll name it after you," Schomer told him. Price, $2.45

A few feet into a dark corridor alongside Espresso Vivace's walk-up coffee bar on Broadway East, visitors come upon The Sacred Shrine of Caffeina, Goddess of the Waking Day.

The goddess is painted on a rock embedded in the wall where Caffeina "visited upon the lonely globe the gift known as Java," according to a maudlin tale in small type by the shrine.

The shrine is an apt symbol for the espresso Mecca that Vivace and its founder, David Schomer, have become to coffee connoisseurs and baristas around the world. While Seattle-based Starbucks brings high-quality coffee to the masses, Seattle native Schomer is determined to perfect the beverage on a smaller scale for true believers.

Schomer, 50, is an odd prophet for the coffee set.

A former engineer with an intense, bespectacled gaze, he opened a mobile coffee cart in 1988 in front of a Washington Mutual branch mostly because he wanted to be part of the energy of Capitol Hill.

At the time, he had no great love of coffee. Schomer had spent years calibrating and repairing measurement machines for the U.S. Air Force and Boeing. He viewed the coffee cart as a temporary diversion from his goal of becoming a professional flute player. He holds a fine-arts degree in classical flute performance from Cornish College of the Arts.

The coffee cart was called Espresso Vivace as a play on the musical term "vivace," which means to play with great life. Schomer translates the company name as "excitement for coffee."

The cart was unprofitable for years, but Schomer gradually gained a passion for espresso that supplanted his musical ambitions.

"Coffee became my art, and I was obsessed," he said during an interview at Vivace's third and newest location across from REI near the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle.

Seized opportunity

Partly, Schomer saw the opportunity to make a bigger difference in coffee than in music. During a trip to northern Italy to learn about coffee making, Schomer realized the world of coffee was missing crucial scientific research that he could provide.

"I entered a field that's fairly soft," he said, a business that "attracts the type of person who romanticizes the life of the coffeehouse."

Although he can be understated to the point of shyness, Schomer becomes effusive and eloquent when detailing the elements of good coffee. He's also evangelical, producing a book, two videos and countless articles for trade publications on his exacting techniques.

A 2001 article captures his elation at finding a way to maintain steady water temperature for espresso, which helps make the coffee taste sweeter:

"I just lost it. It was very emotional for me. I will never forget seeing the slight waves in the graph lines on the computer screen. A faintly undulating blue line of electrons, a timeless processional at once ancient and modern, mesmerizing like the surface of the Blackfoot River in the deep tail-out below the riffle."

Geneva Sullivan, Schomer's wife and business partner, said Vivace probably will not grow beyond three locations — two on Capitol Hill and the new one near REI — because she does not want to spread her husband's talent too thin.

"We're talking about somebody who actually has a gift," she said. "David has a talent with coffee, and there's only one David, and he has only so many hours to give."

Sound Transit is expected to buy Vivace's Denny Way site on Capitol Hill by 2008 to make way for a light-rail station, and the couple hope they will have enough money to replace it nearby. Schomer is looking to the location across from REI, which cost about $750,000 to open, for a boost, saying it could push Vivace's annual sales from about $1.5 million to more than $2 million.

Sullivan and Schomer met as street performers playing for tips at the Fremont Fair in 1985. He played the flute, and she was a belly dancer.

She supported Vivace for several years with a mainframe computer-repair job, and she now oversees the company's accounting systems, inventory and other administrative duties.

Vivace might be more profitable without Schomer's exacting standards — for example, shipping beans to customers from an 11th Avenue roasting plant the same day they are roasted. But by following that vision for perfect coffee, Vivace is "a better place to be, a happier place to be. We're not here to run a big business; we're here to have fun," Sullivan said.

Schomer's efforts have attracted an international following.

Enjoys accolades

The Financial Times' restaurant columnist considers Vivace the finest coffee bar in the United States, as do dozens of baristas and coffee-bar owners who have flown from as far away as Australia and the United Arab Emirates to learn about coffee from Schomer.

Even some competitors are acolytes, including Joe Monaghan, president and co-owner of Caffe Vita, another well-known Seattle coffee bar and roaster.

"We make no bones about the fact that we've adopted David Schomer's methods," Monaghan said. "He's one of the individuals most responsible for where espresso is today in Seattle and all over the world."

Some Vivace customers are devoted enough to want a franchise, something Schomer and Sullivan have resisted.

Tiffany Jung, who lives in Seoul, South Korea, became enamored of Vivace espresso during a visit in January and has returned to Seattle twice to learn more about coffee from Schomer.

"I'm fascinated by this place," she said during a visit in May, when she attended one of three espresso courses he holds each year. The three-day, $1,000 course also included baristas and coffee-bar owners from Florida, California, Oregon and Canada.

In true evangelical fashion, Schomer teaches the elements of making a fine espresso. He also demonstrates latte art — making hearts and rosettes in milky foam — something for which he is well-known.

Bridgehead, a coffeehouse chain in Ottawa, Canada, has sent four employees for the training, including operations manager Trevor May, who now wants to customize his grinder the way Schomer does.

"I'm going to buy a brand new one and hack it apart," he said, eyes twinkling with Schomer-esque zeal at the possibility of improving his coffee.

The spirit so moved Brian Fairbrother, a Vivace employee dating to the coffee-cart days, that he commissioned the shrine to Caffeina 14 years ago.

"I'm an urban pagan, and I see the goddess emanating in all sorts of ways," Fairbrother explained.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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