Espresso Vivace Roasteria
David Schomer’s Blog | Cutting-edge espresso technique and equipment review

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.