David's Blog

Geneva Sullivan my partner at Vivace

Geneva SullivanDear Reader,


Often I have written about how small business is so tough it will polish you to your best self, or grind you up. And, in twenty four years it provides ample opportunity to run smack into your limitations. Now in my case I’m a wee bit of a hot house flower and I wilt in the presence of excruciating detail or repetitive managerial tasks.  So, I have major help.  It has been my extrordinary good fortune to have Geneva Sullivan  as my partner.  She is my front line general in the war against entropy that is the daily reality of a coffee business. (If it was just me I would be one small shop with very arty espresso but constantly running out of napkins or the teeny light bulbs that go under the bars.)

Geneva is a founding partner at Vivace, having listened to my schemes for improving espresso since 1988.   We got to know each other doing arabic belly dance gigs together with me on flute, Geneva doing cabaret as well as ethnic classical dance. She is a natural performer with a beaming, happy stage presence.

The front line on accounting, inventory, and computers is bravely held by Geneva.  When we met she was a main frame computer repair technician  at Unisys, working nights and arriving on jobs where the CEO is leaking money at $500,000 dollars per hour because the system is down.  This was at a time when hardware repair had the whiff of a male hegemony and she would have to prove herself again and again.  Usually in two hours she had them eating out of her hand.  To say she has moxie is to refer to Mozart as a piano player. She also worked at Digital before joining Vivace full-time in 1991.

During this early time she earned a degree in vocational education at night by commuting all the way over on Bangor Navy base on the Olympic Peninsula.  She finished, while working, and assisting in the beginning of Vivace.  Might I just add serious work ethic to the moxie mix…one descriptive quip I have always liked is to say that if I was going to get stuck on a desert island with one person, it would be Geneva because we would make it back alive.

And over the years I have learned a lot about the nature of intelligence from her.  Im all flash and bang, making intuitive leaps, and abohring process, a fire mind.  Geneva is a stately intellect seeping into every aspect of a problem at her own pace, and illuminating each corner of complexity in an operation or process until it comes out whole and finished.  We like to call it her water mind.  And it is very formidable.

Recently she created a program to calculate what effect any price change on any item we sell, would have on the bottom line at the end of the year.  Her program employs our actual sales hsitory to isolate the effect of, say, raising the price of a short Americano by 15 cents.  So if we have to raise prices we just plug in options and tune until cost of goods sold and net profit line up exactly where we want them to be.  In an early audit by the State of Washington resulted in a $100 refund for Vivace and the auditor pronounced us as one of the most organized small businesses they had ever reviewed.

Her nickname at work is “Hurricane Geneva” for the sheer energy she brings to any project.  And of course, to improve a workspace or a system, you need to tear it apart first.

Dolce Blend- “Schomer’s Opus”

Dear Reader,

After twenty years of roasting and blending I feel that this year’s Espresso Dolce has all the elements I am seeking, balance, sweetness, and complexity. Please allow me the conceit to label it myself as my opus, the best art I can do.

In tasting, the perfectly pulled shot of this blend reveals salted carmel, and toast over a dark chocolate base, with leather, blueberry, and a spice note up high like Cascade Hops in the finish.

Call “1 800 get some”…..just kidding but my web site has it

Micro-particle Migration in Conical Grinding Systems

Micro-Particle Migration in Conical Grinding Systems

Let me start with an unusual apology this time….A few years ago I announced that I was partnering with LaMarzocco to design a direct dosing, conical-burr grinder. I am very embarrassed to admit that we failed to produce any machine. The “S-Grinder” project has ground (hee-hee) to a halt. LaMarzocco and I parted company on the issue of micro-particle control in the dosing system. They took the approach of eliminating static, I favor managing the coffee powder so static cannot affect the micro-particles.

Here is some background: It is well established that grinding coffee with conical grinding burrs(or mixed-burr systems such as the DRM) produces micro-particles along with larger flakes of ground coffee, macro-particles if you will…. The heavy vanes of the conical burr compress the beans until they shatter. An “exploding” bean produces all sizes of particles to enter the fine burrs for shearing. The smaller particles, pass through the shearing and make it into the powder. Then, during extraction, some of the micro-particles actually make it into the cup, giving the espresso made from conical grounds a heavier mouth-feel and more pungent aroma/flavor characteristics. So our choice at Vivace has always been conical burrs for espresso.

However, the beneficial micro-particles present us with two broad sets of problems: controlling the flow-rate of the espresso as it oozes into your cup, and preserving the integrity of the mix of micro and macro particles through the dosing process. (In the interest of scientific rigor, I admit that all my conclusions are based on the DRM mixed burr system, but I believe the following pertains to pure conical grinding heads as well.)

Flow Rate

When the barista hits the switch and pressurized water begins to percolate through the packed coffee, it begins to carry micro-particles with it. Towards the end of the shot these particles can form a mat across the bottom of the coffee basket and slow down the flow-rate of the espresso entering the cup. And as you know, with the high-tech, temperature stabilized espresso machines, such as the Synesso, controlling the flow-rate has become even more critical to capturing the fragrance with any fidelity. Preparing espresso with conical burrs make the control of flow rate more difficult for the barista on the bar because of the micro-particle migration within the packed coffee..

COffee ground with a flat burr grinder. (Magnification is x60, Mazzer M-100) Coffee ground with a flat burr grinder. (Magnification is x60, Mazzer M-100)

Coffee ground with the DRM conical/flat burr grinder. (Magnification is x60) Micro-particles are visible between larger clumps. Coffee ground with the DRM conical/flat burr grinder. (Magnification is x60) Micro-particles are visible between larger clumps.

Note: The grind on the machines used for comparison was set to achieve the same flow-rate for the espresso.  It is interesting just how different the particles are in each photo.

(It used to be, on the “old-tech” espresso machines where temperature wandered around a five degree range that shots from 24 to 30 seconds were all OK, never great. With precision temperature control, shots less than 23 seconds are sour-astringent, and shots over 27 seconds are hollow, almost flavorless. In our system, the best shots tend to pinch off just as the volume is reached and begin dripping between 22 and 25 seconds.. Shots that fall into the 25 to 27 second range, have dozens of flavor profiles. None are defective, hollow or sour, but within the range of acceptable there are so many different espresso coffees. Shots brewed for 27 seconds tends to be heavier on the carmelized sugars but with less varietal nuance. Shots brewing for 24 seconds feature a lighter body and perhaps more varietal nuance such as hopiness from the Brazils or blueberry from the Ethiopian. Ahh, but Vita shots that are in the bull’s eye, (25 or 26 seconds to reach our volume) taste of caramel, toast, blueberry, dark unsweetened chocolate, hops, leather and salt…each flavor competing for your attention in the aftertaste. A perfect balance of these flavors is very rare, and usually one of the varietal flavors becomes more prominent with minute differences in flow rate.

In fact, flow-rate, temperature, and pressure are a intimately connected when it comes to seducing the fragrance into a cup. If the temperature is a little low, say 201 instead of 203, and you extraction time for a shot is 25 seconds with pump pressure at nine bar, you get sour/astringent flavors from a Northern Italian roast. Similarly, if the temperature is right at 203, pressure is nine bar, but flow is fast, say 22 seconds to hit your shot volume, viola, sour astringent. And, if pump pressure is low, say seven bar, and flow rate temperature are spot on you have the same defective espresso: sour/astringent. )

Dosing the Powder

The Italian dosing hopper has within it an impeller system that forces the grounds through a small apeture into the dosing hopper. It is a series of paddles mounted on a flat disc, that spin within a circular chamber around the burrs and impact the coffee in a few milliseconds after it exits the burrs to push it towars the apeture. The effect is to grab the powder in a gentle clumping and once fixed, the distribution of micro and macro particles is preserved. (I really do not know if this is a happy accident or if Italian engineers were aware of particle migration).

However, if a grinder design is attempted to eliminate the clacking doser mechanism you must avoid “free-fall” of the powder. If the coffee is allowed to drop in a “cloud state” without being clumped, even for less than one second, the micro-particles separate and begin to migrate towards any metal surface. The resulting powder, lacking the micro-particles, makes a sickly-yellow espresso without full aroma and flavor.

To address this problem and eliminate the Italian dosing hopper you need to retain the paddle system to impell the ground coffee towards the apeture and into the doser. But that is not enough by itself. About a year ago after giving up on Marzocco I took it upon myself to modify our fleet of DRM grinders. I followed the lead of Malkoenig and Mazzer, and combined a simple polished cone with a wire mesh screen on the exit from the apeture leading to the grinding head. . I found that without the screen the coffee sprayed out of the grinder and micro particles adhered to the vertical, stainless steel wall.

If coffee "sprays" out of the apeture into the cone, the smallest particles adhere to the side of the cone due to the effect of static electricity If coffee “sprays” out of the apeture into the cone, the smallest particles adhere to the side of the cone due to the effect of static electricity

This is the coffee that is clinging to the cone on the left.  (Magnification is x60) This is the coffee that is clinging to the cone on the left. (Magnification is x60)

Simple two-wire grate provides just enough back-pressure on the ground coffee exiting the apeture to gently hold the micro-particles in place within the powder.  It tumbles straight into the porta-filter. Simple two-wire grate provides just enough back-pressure on the ground coffee exiting the apeture to gently hold the micro-particles in place within the powder. It tumbles straight into the porta-filter.

Ground coffee pushed through the grate retains it's even distribution of micro and macro-particles. Ground coffee pushed through the grate retains it’s even distribution of micro and macro-particles.

(It is worth noting that micro-particles can migrate within the powder without sticking to the wall of the doser. The problem can be very subtle and requires a barista that really knows the coffee to detect when the migration problem is slight.) But with a wire grate the powder featured a very nice consistency and tumbled straight down the cone, into the porta–filter. I had to play with it a bit. At first I begin by installing a three wire grate, (two vertical and one wire horizontal in a rectangular apeture of about 1.5″w x 1″ tall) and got very cakey, hard-powder clumps. I then tried two wires and the powder became perfect. This back-pressure gate is the key to allowing the powder to tumble into the porta-filter, through a polished cone, with no particle migration or sticking to the side.. In fact you are tuning the powder for optimal density and manageability. Too much back-pressure and you get dense “caking” of the powder. Too little back-pressure and it can spray in low humidity conditions.

How Does It Work?

We have used the system for over a year with the simple two-wire gate pictured and a couple anomalies appeared. First, we learned that if the grinder burrs get dull the powder enters the hard cakey stage. Easy to fix with new burrs. But we also have a wee mystery…the grinders enter the cake stage on their own for no apparent reason. They will cake-up for 20 minutes, then resume delivering a beautiful consistent powder And this certainly bears out what I have learned in the last four years. Espresso is infinite in it’s complexity but grinding is easily the most complex part of the lovely process. And in this case, I think the machines might be accumulating micro-particles in the paddle area, due to wide manufacturing tolerances creating gaps. Then these particles break loose and clog the chute leading to the dosing cone like point release avalanches….maybe…


Dear Reader,

Something new under the sun…the “Foam Knife One” from Espresso Parts NW is a steam tip with a slit on the end, about 6mm in length, and a 1.2 mm hole in the center of the slit. It fits on LaMarzocco and Synesso machines. I recieved it in a sample pack of three innovative tips and it is the best tip I have ever steamed milk on.

In my micro-pitcher (1/3 L) I was able to foam very small quantities of milk with the best texture I have ever gotten off that wand. It is my training station at our Brix location,  I steam there every day and this tip produced the the finest foam texture I have ever seen come off that wand.

Thanks to Terry Z. and Espresso Parts NW.

Espresso Theory-Water Purity and Mineral Content

Dear Reader,


Let’s revisit a factor I have not written up for 15 years.  Water purity and mineral content.  For about a year in 2006 we had water formulators to “tune” our brewing water to a specific mineral content.  The effect on the flavor of our coffee and tea was sublime.  But what is the best water for espresso,  saturation method coffees, and tea?  In my opinion, it is water with a TDS of about 150ppm.  Ok, that is a mouthful…TDS means total dissolved solids and is also refered to as mineral content, and ppm means parts per million. (Water tuned to this mineral content will have a slight oily taste in the back of the mouth when you drink it. Water in most E. Coast cities will weigh in higher, around 350ppm and up, and features a very oily feel and taste and usually will be filtered with a reverse osmosis filter just for drinking.)

As I said we worked with this water for about 12 months in 2006 and 2007, using a very sophisticated mixing computer and mineral additives to formulate the mineral content in our water at all our bars..  Unfortunately, the company was owned by a brilliant scientific visionary with no idea how to build a company to service these high tech gizmos and eventually we had to remove them.  But during this time I discovered many characterisitics about espresso and tea brewed with this water that I will share with you.


Really the effect on espresso and tea was remarkably similar.  Let’s make a comparison with Seattle water that has been run through a carbon filter only and has a mineral content year round of about 50ppm TDS.  First the flavor of the espresso lacked a sharp point over the top of the pallette that is similar to making espresso on equipment that is new, or recently cleaned with detergent without seasoning the machine. Literally it is metal molecules that leach out of the boiler (or teapot) when water is heated up and it tastes metallic.. Molecules leave the metal through osmosis because of the low concentration of minerals present in the water. (This water tastes great for drinking as does most mountain states water. In Vancouver BC the water often contains as little as 10ppm of TDS.) So the flavor was softer with no harsh point. The same was true for macha, the concentrated green tea made with only the baby tea leaves and whisked to a foam during many tea ceremonies throughout Japan. The macha tasted sweeter with no harsh point.

The other effect on the flavor of espresso was to open up a multi dimensional layering of distinct flavors. I could taste the blueberry from the Harrar, caramel, dark chocolate, honey, anise, and “hoppiness” from the Brazil, very clearly, stacked up on my tounge in distinct flavors that were much easier to perceive than espresso brewed on 50ppm water.   This was quite remarkable and made cupping a very clear affair even using the espresso method to sample coffees.  (….and I struggled for months before ripping out these systems..floods, lack of supplies, it was a plauge of amateurism and marks the first time Vivace has ever backed off on improving a factor.)

A similar effect took place with the macha, bringing out a rich “umami” with a note in it, believe it or not, like a great steak.  The flavor of the macha was layered as well like a springtime breeze with underlying richness.  (Interestingly enough, my friends favorite old iron tea pot produced the desired TDS of about 150ppm when Seattle water was boiled in it for a few minutes. I got the biggest kick out of that.  The old tea masters in Japan had intuiitively chosen this style pot long before the modern era,  as creating the best tea, or perhaps it was a lucky shot.)


So, how to you measure your water?  get a  TDS meter from the Myron L Company like the one pictured below. It is called an Ultrameter II and I recommend picking up the calibrating fluid shown as well.


How do you tune your own water?  For areas like Western Washington, that have pure mountain runoff water with a very low TDS I do not have an answer.  I am hoping someone knows of a water tuning computer made somewhere that is supported by a professional company.  If you do please e-mail me at info@espressovivace.com attn: David.

For most of the country where the mineral content is high, I would filter the tap water through reverse osmosis, producing literally zero ppm of TDS,  and then re-mix to the desired mineral content.

I consider water formulating a final factor to bring into an espresso program that is already very tight.  The effect, while delightful, is subtle on espresso, perhaps more noticeable for saturation coffees and tea.

Espresso Theory-pressure profiling

Dear Reader,


Pressure profiling essentially describes the abilityof the espresso machine to change the brewing pressure during the extraction of a shot and then save your changes in a program to be repeated on the bar.  The hope, of course, is to improve espresso coffee.

I see no increase in espresso quality through pressure profiling.  My opportunities to play on these new machines have been for just a few hours here and there. However, espresso requires extreme temperature stability for these fragrant molecules to be preserved into your cup. I hereby postulate that stable pressure is also extremely important in the preservation of these unstable molecular structures that constitute coffee flavor/aroma. It is purely an espresso geeks intuition…but I bet I am right.

Also, it seems like the machine companies just want a new bell or whistle on their equipment.  This is not led by better results in the cup but by manufacturers wanting to market additional complexities in their equipment.  Kind of like Illy’s blizzard of scientific analysis, and chemistry terminology, in an effort to obscure the simple truth that only fresh coffee is good coffee.  Preparing espresso is complicated enough without pressure profiling.  C’mon machine gods….give us a grinder.

Equipment-direct dosing grinders

Dear Reader,


After many efforts to assist in the manufacture of a new grinder with no Italian-style dosing hopper (read: air/coffee mixing device that contributes annoying clacking sounds to the espresso bar) I decided to just outfit my own DRM grinders with Mazzer cones. (I use the mixed-burr model with the rubber drive belt.) A few months into it I will cautiously announce success.



The trick is to manage the powder to avoid micro-particle migration as it tumbles into the chute. The powder coming from the DRM mixed burr does contain substantial micro-particles along with larger particles. These micro-particles give the espresso crema a heavier body and more intense flavor, but if  the powder is allowed to “float” for even a fraction of a second after it exits the grinder port, static will draw the micro-particles to the edges of the “cloud” of ground coffee ruining the extraction.  The trick is to provide just the right amount of back pressure on the stream of powder as it exits the grinder port so it tumbles into the chute in a manageble, cake-like consistency.  Too much back pressure and it is too hard of a cake, not enough back pressure means it sprays into the chute and micro-particles stick on the sides.  I had to try several different designs of gate systems on this port to achieve just the right powder. Even among my eighteen DRM grinders different gate designs are required due to the individual characteristics of each grinder.   And, I suspect that throughout the year we may experience the need to change the gate configuratiuons to accomodate different weather.  Complexities upon complexities…I love this.


The advantages are many: 

1. We see better espresso due to a more homogenous powder.  Forcing the powder through my gate system breaks up the natural lumping that occurs in fresh coffee as it is  pushed out the port.  Flow rate inconsistencies are also minimized in the pour. 

2. We can go faster on the bar.  Grinding is now hands-free for the barista. It takes some getting used to….installing the empty porta-filter into the mount before hitting the grinding switch changes the rythym of the barista but my staff is unanimous that it is a much faster system once you get used to it.

3. No gawd-damn clacking sound in my shops.

Artisan business-structure and philosophy

Dear Reader,


Once again thank you for your patience waiting for my infrequent posts.


Back when I was reading everything, the early 70s, the book that I was the most influenced by was a philosophical tome by Robert Pirsig.  With a pink cover and the pop title of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”,  I had assumed that the book was mere hippy-pablum, this is not so.  (It wasn’t until years later I learned that Pirsig is highly respected in philosophical circles.)


Anyway, he wrestles with defining the word “quality”…and admits defeat.  Then he postulates that the pursuit of very high quality in all aspects of life, from economic through social,  will lead to a fulfilling existence and general happiness.  I embraced this as the song of my ancestors….

Now at age 54 I see that Pirsig’s philosophy, when applied to a business, leads not only to individual fulfillment and happpiness, but it is amplified and creates beauty, meaning, and happiness that radiates out from the business.  The effect is mostly on our local communities. Staff and owners making up one community, and the customers comprising a larger community, all united by the beauty of the idea -making espresso that tastes just as good as the ground coffee smells.  (Although we are small, the pursuit of perfection also does good on a larger scale when you consider sustainabliity.)

This month in london at Cafe Culture I will be presenting “ESPRESSO VIVACE:  an Artisan Business Model” in two parts.  The first, based on this small essay, will be the structure of the actual business after 22 years, and the effect on building customer community,  standing the test of time,  and sustainability.  My assumption is that anyone reading this, or attending in London, is interested in creating a successful artisan business of their own.

The first aspect to consider if you want to build a business this way is to know thyself.  Ultimately it is your own nature that determibnes if you stand the test of time doing art for a living. And, do you have the capabilities to be the one that makes the decisions and hires and fires people. Often artistry and leadership ability do not exist in the same person.    For this to succeed the owner has to have (and maintain) the passion, and he or she must be the boss.

I have described owning a small business as being analagous to living in a rock tumbler.  Small business is so tough it will soon strip away all your cherished illusions about who you really are and either polish you to become your perfect (and hopefully beautiful) self, or it will destroy you and you become the grit that polishes your competitors.

It is very easy in modern life to hang onto half-baked philosophies until life challenges you sufficiently to jettison the existential baggage and acknowledge your true nature. What this means in a practical sense is that it is difficult to know who you really are (at least for some) until you are truly tested.  So if you have the idea of starting an artisan business because it is a very durable form of small business, or is trendy…you will be stripped down to your core values by the endeavor.  If you are a marketer at heart you will spend your energy on marketing over time.  If you motivated by money that will become your focus as your business develops and you face the challenges it throws your way.  It does not work to wake up and decide you are an artist so the artisan business model is for you.

Conversely, success can often lead away from artistry.  Most coffee companies (including the ‘Bucks) start out with a kernel of passion.  But, success allows their true nature to assert itself…and in the case of the Starbucks they blindly follow money and power to become the biggest.  Most of the micro-roasters in the US do the same thing, but not as well.  They start out small and gather a reputation for beautiful coffee, then run out and start opening multiple stores, and soon they are making crappy coffee.  (Universally they fail at management…but that is a different story. )


When I was studying music at Cornish I was impressed by the fact that the true musicians were compelled by their nature to do music.  It was not an option.  The true musicians either make it professionally or live as paupers doing the music they love…it is not a concious choice, it goes much deeper.  Myself I wanted to become a professional flutist because I romanticized the life that might become and really wanted to bring beauty into this world full time.  I gave it a good try but in my  heart I am a coffee artist…something I would never ever have “figured out” without the experience of owning and running Vivace for 22 years.  Now when I look back I see the thousand of decisions I have made as CEO have never been in conflict with our charter: “to research, develop, and prepare caffe espresso as a culinary art”.  I am, happily,  compelled to create beautiful coffee and become very unhappy if the coffee is not at it’s absolute best. It still really pisses me off to see a bad pour on one of my bars.


As an perveyor of culinary art I face the same problem as any long run professional artist-how to keep it fresh and interesting?  An artistic nature can be fragile and the art becomes boring or routine if you are out of balance emotionally.  In my case, I am prone to mild manic/depressive swings, require a lot of time to myself, I am self absorbed and easily bored. 

Out of this nature the structure of Vivace has eveolved. My managers are akin to the front line generals, they protect me from chaos and overly mundane tasks that need doing.  I am in the shops and roasting plant daily but the only structered routine I follow is my training schedule…weekdays at 9am.  My art is expressed and satisfied in teaching, roasting and blending new coffees,  and of course moving the coffee forward through technical innovations.

After training,  I hit all the shops and check coffee quality, machine calibration, and service.  I’m usually off by 2pm on a long day.  And, I struggle to keep my meetings to a minimum.

How is this schedule accomplished?

First, the size of the business mast be considered.  We have three stores and the roasting plant…all within walking distance because I do not drive a car, it pisses me off to be blocked all the time.  Vivace is about 48 people, from managers to baristi.  

Withthis structure I have developed a trainer to work with me, Don Jones.  We had two stores forever and the move to three was necessitated by Sound Transit seizing my flagship- The Roasteria, in 2006 under eminent domain.  To my great surprise three stores has improved our coffee quality, because of Don, improved our accounting department, and facilitated the emergence of a general manager, Brian Fairbrother.  And my arty little self has more time for pure research, QC, and training.  I expected three stores might spread me too thin and quality would suffer, but the opposite occured. We were forced to become a better orginazation by Sound Transit…what do they say?  Every cloud has a silver lining?

However, that is the limit.  Three stores means almost 40 baristi and barbacks to keep trained, and Don and I are in agreement that any more would result in incomplete training and coffee quality would suffer.  As it is we train five days a week, usually one-on-one.  Don has institued speed training in small groups.  We also have a latte art trainer-Teal Allan.

Each store has a manager, we suggest that the manager pull four shifts/ week max to keep them in touch with the customers. For us the manager has always had to be developed from experienced staff.  Our experiment with an outside manager did not go well (come to London for the gritty dirt).  To have a store run well the manager is absolutely key and represents the face of the store to our customers.


In the roasting plant, we have a head roaster position, manned expertly by Dan Reid for the past eight years or so.  We have a shipping manager,  Tara, who also does accounts receivable.  Accounts payable and payroll are run by Jen, with my partner Geneva, doing quartely analysis, inventory management and taxes.

Getting to the right size requires developing people into positions of responsibility.  Here I am following in the footsteps of my father, James, who always was a boss at Boeing, running teams of engineers to develop stealth technonogy towards the end of his career.  We are natural people managers and leaders.  Like artistry, this has to be an innate skill with the owner wishing to create an artisan business.  In larger business models the people virtuoso (the CEO) can be hired in, but often the skills required are at a conflict with artistry. 

So the perfect sizes also creates real opportunity for the best to become career at Vivace.  None of this was feasible at the two store size.  But in my opinion three stores is the maximum size for an artisan coffee company to be doing espresso as a true culinary art.


The fidelity to our coffee has had some remarkable effects on the other side of the counter as well.  With no advertising customers are our advertising.  When they tell their friends about us it means that the people that truly love coffee are in our line which has a great effect on our ability to create culinary art.  Whatever you look at daily, looks back at you.  Good appreciative customers are essential if you are asking baristi to care about the coffee they make.  The baristi need the appreciation for their art.


But the fidelity to our coffee also engenders absolute loyalty, and yes even love among our customers.  Take for example the Sound Transit transition. We closed in early July 2006 and re-opened on September 26thwith no marketing at all.  My new place did not even have a sign out front yet….We broke even the first day and the following day, a Saturday, it was packed and we never looked back.  The store has out performed the Roasteria from it’s 6th week of business.


The point is that if your goal is to be in business for life, an artisan coffee business is extremely durable.  We live in Seattle people’s hearts and imaginations precisely because we have never “sold out”.  Each decision has always been looked at for the effect on coffee quality first and foremost…in a world of McDonald’s and Starbucks this means a great deal to a lot of people and makes Vivace an unsinkable entity.  There is a real community built around our coffee shops.


As I have mentioned many times the unwavering focus on perfecting coffee also naturally facilitates sustainablility, social justice, and environmental integrity.  You cannot produce mild arabicas at the highest level without natural shade-tree type coffee farms.  The traditional method allows for a very diverse and healthy ecosystem on the land that is being farmed.

Similarly for treating your employees well.  Unhappy, exploited workers are never going to be able to pick and process coffee at the highest level.  Like anything, unhappy people cannot care about what they are doing.  And coffee processed without care is never going to be the top coffee. 

In part II of my lecture I will illuminate the company culture that has developed around this beautiful idea…coffee that tastes as good as it smells.



A home machine capable of perfect espresso

A home machine capable of perfect espresso

Right now I think it is fair to say that the espresso machine world is in the midst of a revoloution.  The march toward the stabilized brewing water temperature, employing digital controls and improved group head designs, is no longer the sole domain of Synesso and LaMarzocco.  That means I may not be aware of excellent equipment that is on the market and I can no longer state that something is “the best”.

Now that I have done my back-pedaling I can say that the Lamarzocco GS-3, marketed as a home machine, is a very, very good espresso machine.  It is capable of perfect espresso, making a Northern Italian roast such as Vivace’s, taste sweet,  and brings out the varietal flavors with incredible fidelity to the fragrance.  With the GS-3 I can taste the hoppiness of a Brazil or the blueberry of a nice Harrar in my blends. (It has been my pleasure to brew my morning coffee on this machine for about a year now.)  And, it plugs into a standard 110V outlet and requires no plumbing.

The steamer is capable of rolling the milk in a 1/3L pitcher, producing perfect foam in enough quantity for a true cappuccino. Order the “fine” tip.

The machine is high-stylin’ and looks vaguely 1950’s retro as LaMarzocco has been doing for awhile.  I like the look. And, like all LaMarzocco machines, it is built to last.


As I said above, the brewing system is very good.  It uses a dedicated boiler with PID control, and a very improved group-head designto bring all that stability to the coffee bed. The machine is easy to fill and has a removable drain tray that holds at least a liter.

Drawbacks..the machine is annoying at times.  The control buttons are tiny and frequently do not engage without a focused attempt, which is in short supply at 5am.  And, it buzzes and rattles due to the internal pump. 

Now that Franke is out of the picture I can wholeheartedly recommend this machine with LaMarzocco’s excellent domestic distributors ready to stand behind your purchase.


Against all reason and better judgment the SCAE has asked me to speak on espresso bar design at the world barista contest this June in London.

It is true that Geneva and I have designed our bars ourselves, employing the architect to bring our vision into reality.  In general, Geneva specializes in back-bar design (the detailed part) and I do aesthetics and customer flow.

To organize my thoughts for my talk I will blog about it.  Our Gran Bar design flows from Vivace’s mission: to research, develop, and promote caffe espresso as a culinary art.  And of course to promote it we serve it.  Espresso preparation is unique in that it combines performance art, the fluid dance of a talented barista pouring latte art, with the joy of sweet coffee and silky milk textures.  The closest thing is the sushi chef who creates intricate sashimi in full view of the customer at the sushi bar.

The reason for the art however is the customer.  Without someone in front of us to please, what is the point of preparing espresso that actually tastes as good as ground coffee smells?  In this way we are not too different from the ancient Japanese tea school, “Yabunouchi-ryu” , an art practiced by my friend , Chiaki.  I have attended a few Japanese tea ceremonies over the years, and several performed by Chiaki, a master.  To be truthful I always felt like the stupid gaijin (foreigner) being scrutinized for minor gaffes as I bumbled my way through as “the guest”.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Because in the Yabunouchi school the entire reason for the ceremony is the pleasure of the guest.  And of course, nuance of movement and placement of utensils, choice of flowers, and cups are all stylized and refined to a very high degree.  So, I was happily shocked that I mattered, and that my pleasure and happiness enjoying the tea are paramount.

So it is inside the Vivace “school” of espresso.  At it’s best, the coffee, the ambience, and the performance combine to transport  the busy urbanite into a moment of  reflection upon being human.  For myself that is the promise of any art form, be it performance, culinary , or visual, I want to be taken out of the ordinary, even for a moment, to enter a plane of existence where beauty infuses my existence.  Where I can peek, just for a moment, behind the curtain of bills past due,  roofs that need repair, or clogged toilets, and glimpse the impossible beauty of the universe around me..  A Vivace espresso bar is a sanctuary . Every aspect of the design, and performance by the baristi, is for the pleasure of our guest.

In our designs I also need to facilitate the historical mission of the coffee house as an intellectual petri-dish for the exchange and fermentation of ideas among very different people without academic constraint.  (We differ from the pub in this regard because after a coffee fueled debate everyone can still remember what they said the following day…)

So the design of a Vivace Gran Bar has a twin purposes, to enhance the beauty of the coffee and to bring people together.

A customer’s journey…


Let’s follow along as our customer enters the door. First contact is the signage.  The text within the Vivace logo “ESPRESSO VIVACE una bella tazza di caffe” translates as “excitement about a beautiful cup of coffee“.  The shape is round because I perused many logos when designing the Vivace mandala and round seemed to have the most integrity. It is rendered in heavy copper to suggest longevity and tradition.  Well made espresso is a culinary classic because it enhances flavor and offers more gentle caffeine.  It is also healthy and loaded with anti-oxidants.  In this way it will become a new tradition and our logo tries to convey that.


Then we follow our customer in.  The entrance area is designed  to be spacious, provide a sweeping view of the bar, and have some kind of intellectual stimulation to pass the time while waiting.  Waiting is a very psychological activity because time passes much slower if the mind is stagnant. 


 At our new Brix bar we use a poster service to cover the entire wall next to the line with posters announcing community performances.  In Seattle, this is the best way to find intimate chamber music concerts and fringe theater.  It changes every three weeks and is quite dense with information.  And guess what?  It stimulates conversation among our customers, a double win…community connection and mind food while waiting.

As they shuffle forward they are also paraded past our retail display case.   Again, the wait is “shorter” if you have something to do or look at.  And while waiting they might decide that a set of Vivace porcelain cups is just the thing for their Mamas birthday.

Next they proceed past the pastry case to the grinder area where the barista working shots takes their order.  The Vivace machines are set low enough so that the customer gets full eye contact with the barista making the coffee to enhance communication.

As they order the barista repeats the order and hits the grinder switch.  Let’s peek behind the bar now.

The grinder station is designed to have three grinders side-by-side for Vita,  Dolce, and D-caf.  The “dump box” for spent coffee is just a steel reinforced rectangular hole with a rubber bumper that empties into a 33 gal. trash can beneath the counter.

Under counter Vivace has no cabinets, only MetroRack shelves that can be re-arranged and are mildew resistant.  The design is easier to keep clean, can grow with the business and is considerable cheaper than built-in cabinets.

The back bar counter is New Imperial Brown granite.  We use granite because of it’s durability and it absorbs the noise of preparation. Tamping, thumping the milk pitchers, and general high frequency noises like dish clatter  are muted by the stone.  The counter top is 33” high for best ergonomic packing posture for the average employee.  And, this height allows us to just slip in an under-counter refrigerator.

One step away we have a tiny bar sink with carbonated and filtered water taps, all syrups, extra porcelain cups, retail coffee, shopping bags and back-up bar coffee.

One step away we have a tiny bar sink with carbonated and filtered water taps, all syrups, extra porcelain cups, retail coffee, shopping bags and back-up bar coffee.

Stocking priorities behind the bar are determined by frequency of usage.  The most used items, porcelain cups are on top of the machine with back-ups right behind the barista on, you guessed it, MetroRack. To-go cups are in spring-loaded tubes right behind the barista, a turn and reach maneuver. Back-up coffee beans are one step away, as are rags, syrups.  So the theme of the entire back-bar design is to prioritize items that are used the most so that they are closer to the barista.  You must not ever waste the customers time with extra movements necessitated by haphazard storage. Also poor placement of high use items makes a difficult work environment for my staff. (Let’s face it no matter how good your coffee, or beautiful your shop is, there is nothing more tedious for the customer than dealing with unhappy employees.  For more dig up my “Culture of Excellence’ articles in my archives.)


Now we arrive at the milk presentation area. At Brix they are presenting  on the brown granite but the main bar is cut away to reveal the area as a stage.  The raised Italian stand up bar is higher and made from Caffe Forest brown marble.  The effect is to frame the lower granite counter and create a stunning visual presentation of caffe latte art being poured and offered to the guest.  The lower bar also accommodates wheel chair guests and satisfies the American Disabilities Act for a counter at their height.  Our wheel chair customers are right at home in the big show, not relegated to the end of the bar.

At the presentation counter we also have our cash register. Here the design of Vivace sacrifices a tiny bit of speed for the benefit of my talented baristi.  It is true you can go faster if the cashier is a separate station and the baristi do not handle the transaction.  This is the standard in Italy for high volume bars. But I learned from big time illusionist Lance Burton in Vegas,  that when people are amazed they are very generous.   They pour out of his show and pack his shop eager to spend $10 for a little coin slide trick that costs 25 cents to make.  I applied the lesson to Vivace.  When the barista  pours the drink and tops it with beautiful latte art, tips increase.  It is a win-win situation. To have talented people taking this art seriously, they must earn as much as possible, and tips are very important to them.


Here we separate into two groups, customers taking their coffee to go, and customers using the seating area. To go folks have a free standing condiment bar in the middle of the entrance area so they can keep the flow going and are out the door.  It is located just off the main bar area so they do not have to shuffle through the seating.

Customers enjoying coffee at the bar have room to stand a moment, read the paper or chat.  The horseshoe-shaped Italian stand-up bar is a design that has it’s genesis in the coffee itself.  Espresso and cappuccino are delicate foams.  They should be enjoyed immediately or they lose that silky mouth-feel.

Customers here to relax awhile venture into the seating area.

The seating  is designed to facilitate solo customers with long window bars up front that look out on Broadway.  Groups have a choice of  two-person or six-person tables.  The entire shop is about 2000 square feet with about 950 going to preparation, storage and a tiny office.  The rest is seating and holds about 85 people in total, with room for 15 more on our street tables..  For tables and chairs, we use dinette style to encourage people to be comfortable and break up the “marble palace” effect of our bars. (Window bars are all stone as well as the main bar.) Lighting is intimate but always just enough to read by.  We have one long (6’x18”) free standing marble bar for group discussions.  Also we have a glassed in meeting room that seats about 24 people. Our seating area has no flat screen  monitors or even a public telephone.  I want a Vivace to be an escape from all the information that bombards us daily.

Art is brought in by a professional gallery owner and rotated seasonally.  Wireless is free.

Finally, the seating area also has a children’s corner with drawing supplies and toys.  The corner is designed to be a small corral so harried parents can keep them in control and grab a moments peace.  For adults Vivace has chess sets and go-boards available.