A few weeks ago my friend and I visited the Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting room in downtown Seattle. Opened in December 2014, it was Starbuck’s first foray into retail sales of small batches of coffee from around world. I had put it on my list of places to visit, but with the house-buying/renovation/child-rearing, it fell to the back burner. When a friend recently suggested we meet for brunch, I suggested we meet there. Hence, my review. I was not compensated for this post. Starbucks probably couldn’t care less about me or my review. No one knew I was coming. (Except my friend of course.)
The 15,000 square feet “Reserve,” whose logo is an “R” with a star above it, is a place where you can taste “rare and exotic” coffees, as former CEO and current executive chairman of Starbucks Howard Schultz explains in this promotional video. As in the video, the place looks more like a bar than a coffee lounge. If you want the feel of a bar but don’t want to be around alcohol, this is your place.
The Reserve has a chic yet down to earth design. Traditional dark brown leather is mixed with more modern light wood elements. Pacific Northwest timber meets San Francisco airy. There are elements of a factory setting, such as the open floor plan with tubes running overhead that carry coffee from the rotisseries to the coffee “bars.” (I can only imagine the physics of making that happen.) One minute you’re at the bar chatting and the next minute sssshhhhhhhhhhh– the sound of coffee beans filling a bean hopper. (Yes, a bean hopper. I had to look that one up. It’s the clear container you put the beans into before you grind them.)
I had an image in my mind of this being a refined place, and the environment did not disappoint. It had the feel of a hip club, one of those places you wanted to be seen in. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if there was a line outside the door just to show how hip it was. Fortunately for us, there wasn’t a line, but it was pretty busy inside. The baristas display excellent customer service, but you are also keenly aware that you are in their space. My friend described the atmosphere as “corporate,” but I thought the baristas were just paying homage to the coffee gods, which, if it’s Starbucks, is saying the same thing. If you’re in an Apple store, it’s all about Apple. At the Reserve, it’s all about making, drinking, and experiencing the best coffee, which in that milieu just happens to be Starbucks.
Starbucks prides itself in showcasing roasting as a craft. Every coffee bean served is roasted in the facility and their process is open to the public. In a society that puts white collar professionals on a pedestal, walking around the Reserve made you take pride in blue collar work and the skill and professionalism that entails.
If you are into these types of experiences, I would definitely recommend visting, but I would be amiss if I didn’t also mention some negatives.
- There is no parking devoted to the Reserve. For such a marquee landmark, I was surprised they wouldn’t accommodate four wheeled vehicles. Seattle is notorious for being anti-car, i.e. making it as difficult as possible to drive into the city and find parking, but I’m disappointed Starbucks took the bait. If I lived within walking distance, I could see myself stopping by every once in a while, but without parking and Seattle having one of the worst traffic scenes in the nation, I’m probably not going to visit again soon.
- It is very loud inside. As soon as you open the double doors, the noise difference is palpable. A loud whooosh envelops you and then you’re inside of it. The acoustics probably have to do with the open floor plan- no sound is buffered. It was so loud, in fact, that when we opened the double doors to leave an hour and a half later, it was a relief to be outside. The downtown busy street with cars moving in both directions seemed quiet in comparison. To be fair, almost every seat was taken on the day we were there- a Wednesday around 11 am. Some people met with others while others worked solo on their laptops. If you’re able to block out the background noise, good for you, but personally I found it hard to concentrate in that environment.
- It is very expensive, even more expensive than your local Starbucks. Can someone explain to me why a breakfast sandwich costs $9.95? A similar sandwich is $3.95 at my local Starbucks. Maybe the inflated prices are intended to make you feel like a hot shot, or make you think the experience will be worth more if you pay more for something a little bit different. Looking at the menu truly made me feel poor. The best deal is the coffee sampler. It’s $12 and you can try three different Reserve coffees. (See a picture of our sampler below.)
- Most of the tables were taken. We ended up sitting at the bar with the occasional whhooooosshhhh or shhhhhhhhhhhh of the bean hopper. Pretty cool, just not the ideal place for conversation. If you also take into account the other noises in the background, probably no place would have been a good fit. There is a “library” which is for quiet study, but that room was taken.
- Bathrooms are open to both genders. Our liberal Seattle City Council mandated in 2015 that single occupant restrooms be open to both sexes to accommodate the transgender community. Personally, I found men using the same restroom as women uncomfortable. In my own home, my husband and I use the same bathroom, but my mind hasn’t crossed that bridge into the public sphere. Maybe it should, but it hasn’t. It just felt weird.
While Starbucks initially planned to open 100 such tasting rooms, according to their press release at the time this first tasting room opened, they have since scaled back to opening 20-30. In December 2016, Schultz announced he will step down from being head of Starbucks to focus on Roastery and Reserve exclusively. So watch out. There may be a Reserve coming to a locale near you.
Here are some more scenes from inside the Roastery and check out more pictures here.