Biz Bio: Tin Umbrella, Coffee That Changes The World

What:Tin Umbrella Coffee

Where:  Hillman City (5600 Rainier Ave S, Seattle, WA 98118)

Hours:Mon- Fri  (6:30am-2:00pm), Sat-Sun (8:30am- 3:00pm)

“Coffee that will change the world!” This audacious response to the question of, “What do you hope to accomplish with your business?”, drips smoothly from the mouth of Tin Umbrella owner Joya Iverson, as if she were channeling the taste of the curated java she serves daily to her faithful patrons.

While it’s overly tempting to dismiss this pronouncement as hyperbole that derives from the chutzpah inherent in the archetype of an intrepid entrepreneur, that becomes almost impossible to do once the backstory of the coffee shop that could is recounted. By all accords the nearly year old coffee roastery, located in one of the more obscure areas of South Seattle, should currently be occupying a place in the rubbish heap of forgotten local businesses, whose grand opening ran neck and neck with their unceremonious closing.

Its very existence defies all of the ironclad laws of business etched in the proverbial stone of entrepreneurship. Not only does it reside in one of the most glossed over, and ethnically disparate locations that can possibly be found in South Seattle, but its founder’s prior experience in the coffee business consisted of consuming five cups a day to slog through her previous life as a virtual marketing consultant. As if that weren’t enough, the coffee shop had no product of its own to sell during the first five months of operation, and when it did, it quickly ran out of it at the most inopportune of times, as national coffee day came and went without Tin Umbrella serving a single cup. Add in malfunctioning utilities, a business partner who decided to abruptly quit, and an owner who had exhausted all of her life savings into what seemed like a sinking enterprise, while she recovered from  serious traumatic brain damage, and you seemed to have a deluge of calamity on par with various biblical plagues.

Yet despite this torrent of adversity, or perhaps because of it as its founder will tell you, Tin Umbrella Coffee has not only persevered, but flourished ,while galvanizing an area that is often referred to as the forgotten stretch between Columbia City and Rainier Beach. It effectively serves as the central hub for a community that was once the epitome of urban decay, and an enticing target for the gentrification wave that has swept through much of southern Seattle.

It’s this coffee shop that has helped to transform the community of Hillman City into a place where once jaded neighbors now discover each other as friends over a cup of joe, and its diverse residents, with origins from around the globe, no longer feel worlds apart from each other. Change the world? It already has, at least a small portion of it anyway. With all it and its founder has survived, who can doubt that it might just be able to transform the rest of it?

Emerald: What stoked the belief that  a coffee shop would be able to thrive in Hillman City? It wouldn’t be the first place in Seattle that most people would choose to establish a business.

Joya: Our dream was to build a coffee shop where there was none. I’ve lived in Hillman City for over 10 years and I love it here! In fact I live just two blocks away from the coffeeshop. I was tired of this area being overlooked, and seeing nothing but abandoned buildings, and bars on windows when I would go outside. I wanted to see if I could do my part in altering our surroundings.

I wanted to see this building (that houses the coffee shop) revitalized. I thought it would be so great to bring it back to something people could use. In my time in Hillman, it had been a troubled dumping spot where garbage cans, mattresses, and tires ended up. Just nothing good had happened here, but the building had this beautiful history and structure, and in my heart I wanted to believe that a little coffee could make a big difference. And there wasn’t a coffee shop here, something that most neighborhoods take for granted. We just assume that there’s good coffee in Seattle and here we are without coffee in walking distance of Hillman. It seemed like, well everyone else has it, except Hillman City. It’s a huge opportunity!

Emerald: What makes Tin Umbrella different from more “generic” coffee shops? Why shouldn’t someone in Hillman or South Seattle just take the “ritual” visit to one of Howard Schultz scads of caffeine hubs (Starbucks)?

Joya: Because, and I truly believe this as I see it running the shop everyday, it’s more than just coffee. Yes this is a coffee shop but it’s also a community space, and a place where neighbors can meet neighbors. I’ve seen some of my neighbors here, who I had never spoken to before, and we’ve figured out, “Oh wow we’ve lived a few blocks from each other for all these years and didn’t know it. I know this person who you also know.” And all that happens here! We of course, strive to have great coffee, you have to in Seattle, but we also think our place should be fun, amazing and enjoyable!

I’ll make coffee, and listen to other people have conversations while they’re in line, or at the table. Strangers engaging in conversation doesn’t always happen in Seattle, especially in coffeeshops, due to the Seattle Freeze. Since I had been here for so long with an established friend circle, I guess I never really knew what that meant until I’d hear it enough, from other people who would talk to each other about how no one actually talks to each other in coffee shops. Here they’re talking which leads them to becoming friends. They exchange information and make a playdate, to weed a garden, or get together. It’s just that cool things happen when a community connects, and Hillman City prior to this we were going to other places and now we have our own little nook.

Emerald: Tin Umbrella actually now roast its own brand of coffee which is named after the Hillman area, a complete turnaround from when you first opened and were serving coffee from other roasters. Can you share a little more about that?

Joya: The most amazing thing about this coffee shop was when we first opened, the goal was to just get the doors open, then to eventually roast our own coffee because roasting our own beans meant that by not paying that a mark up we would actually be able to sustain a coffee shop where there was none.

There’s plenty of traffic along Rainier (Avenue), but we needed to get people to stop and  take notice of us, to make coming here part of their daily ritual. We knew that would be something the coffee shop would thrive on, and having a roastery would help do that. When I first looked at things I thought, oh this will be easy enough, “We’ll just build a coffee shop and a coffee roastery”, and of course it was anything but easy. There were a lot of unexpected hurdles and challenges, from outdated electrical and plumbing, getting the right people and team in place who was just as excited as the community as the community was to be here, and all the things that happen when you’re first starting out, like running out of supplies. Getting the shop up and running was more than I could imagine.

That was just the shop, the roastery was a whole other beast (laughter). Its construction kept getting pushed back, so what we did for our first 6 months here was use Olympia Coffee, who was so kind to support us while we got off the ground, which also showed me just how excited people in the community where for our shop. They didn’t care what kind of coffee we served as long as our doors were open! In the meantime we kept plugging away at our roaster and had to keep working through everything from faulty gas outlets, to rewiring the electoral system, to venting and… I’m not even capturing everything we had to go through; I’ve blocked it all out. It’s too painful (laughter).  When we finally got the roaster up and running though you could smell the coffee along Rainier Avenue and within five minutes of me posting that it was up on Facebook, a local realtor, and his young son, saw the post did a U-turn from walking in the complete opposite direction and made a beeline for the shop so they could see Hillman City’s first coffee roastery for themselves. The entire community was excited!

Emerald: Can you tell us a bit about your amazing personal story, in the context of founding Tim Umbrella Coffee?

Joya: I think the funniest thing is that people always ask me what my background is in coffee. To which I reply, “nothing!” I was a five cup a day coffee drinker because I was a virtual consultant for various companies and lived on coffee and in coffee shops. One of the perks of the job was that I could work from anywhere in the world, so I ended up living for months at a time in New Orleans, then Mexico, surfing between work breaks. Then I went off to Indonesia, learned Indonesian,  and would just followed my heart to wherever. It was great! I found a real passion to travel. I could actually live in a place working Monday thru Friday  on my laptop, and on the weekend I could just connect with everyday people from these different places, blogging about my day to day experience off the beaten tourist path. I visited Ethiopia and Istanbul, not realizing at the time that I was picking out the best coffee producing regions in the world to visit. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee after all

I had came back to Hillman for a bit and had decided to rent out my house for a year and head back to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, then onto Kenya. I was learning Swahili and sponsoring a girl at the Daaja Academy in Kenya. I had written to her that I would be there soon. But before I left I had decided to head up to Mt. Baker as I’m an avid skier. So as I headed up on a two lane mountain highway another car lost control and I had a head on collision at 60 mph. The other car flipped completely over and I was doing 360s down the highway. My life was flashing before my eyes, and I was saying goodbye (in my mind) to all my friends and family. I kept saying that I wanted to live but if this was it, I lived a beautiful life. Then the airbag slapped me in my face.

Even though I had made it, it didn’t feel like it, because I had hit my head during the accident, and on top of the concussion I suffered from a traumatic brain injury, amongst a long list of other health issues, as my brain struggled to get along. I went from traveling the world to being unable to leave my house in Hillman City. I could hardly open the door, or go to the grocery store.  When I got there I would have panic attacks, break downs and all kinds of other problems. I couldn’t listen to the radio it was too scary. I couldn’t listen to music, I couldn’t read, all those things were too intense.

The worst part about the whole injury was that it was all in my head, literally, so it was something no one could see. And because I couldn’t see it, I just kept thinking this was silly. I was in denial. And then within the next couple months, still concussed, I was involved in 2 more wrecks (that were thankfully less serious). The police officer at the last one said, “I think you should just go home and hide.”

That’s pretty much what I did. I just sat on my couch playing the ukulele wearing an eye mask because the light hurt my eyes, trying to make the best out of what I still had. Moment to moment was hard, but with a lot of help and time, finally my mind got calm and I was able to do more, and I asked  how can you make meaning of this?How can you take something good from this? I want to choose to do something, because while I was alive I was no longer able to do my chosen profession. So I thought, “Well I like coffee, I love Ethiopia,” I love my time there and I still want to get back there,I loved my neighborhood, and I also had a background in online data analysis and marketing, and so I created these business models of what it would take to open a coffee shop, and then I texted a friend, who was coffee person, and I said, what do you think about, “Coffee to change the world?” Starting with Hillman City, and just do something big?

The world had just done something Big to me. This was my one chance, my life had flashed before my eyes and all I saw was the beauty of trying things. Things I didn’t know would work. I had already done hard things like traveling, often alone, to places that I didn’t know and learning new languages. I thought  about how every step I took connected me to a person, a place or thing or a memory, and how beautiful that was, never in that slideshow (of my life flashing before my eyes) was there any regret for anything I had tried and so I was like,  “You can die at any second so what are you going to do with your life?” So to me it was like, you get one big flying leap! You can do anything right now, anything! Because the only thing I’m really scared of is death. So I’m like, even if I fail, at least I would have tried  and you can walk away knowing that you tried something that you didn’t think you could do. So why not open a coffee shop that was going to be only two blocks away from my house, which was about as far as I could walk at the time! My life has become about a routine of trying and trying and trying again.

Emerald: Have you applied that ceaseless trying to the operation of Tin Umbrella Coffee?

Joya: Hopefully with all my heart, yes! I have to keep reminding myself that we’re here to try, and not everything is going to work, but we’re going to try and we’re going to do what feels good and fun, and just encourage the people around us. It’s neat how many people have shared in my dream of having a coffee shop here. I live in the most amazing neighborhood! I can use anyone of the 5 or 6 languages I speak. Just the other day I ordered chai  in Somali. Opening this shop has been kind of like finding my own community.

Emerald: Speaking of community, how have they supported you?

Hillman City's own blend of coffee.
Hillman City’s own global blend, made of beans from around the world, inspired by Hillman City’s global Community.

Joya:  The support we’ve received has been wonderful!  When you take a step in the direction of your dreams it’s scary and hazy, but everyone around me has been so supportive, and it’s neat to see how many others are doing something cool. There’s this positive energy, even when I don’t know if I have what it takes.

One example is that I had been working for months straight without a day off, and as a girl with a brain injury I have to sleep ten hours a day.  so there’s a windstorm, and our newly installed sign blows down and it’s the only day I’ve had to truly sleep in months, and the girls at the shop text me and say : “We don’t want to bug you but this sign has blown down, it’s hanging by a thread” and it’s a metal pointy sign so I tell them, “I’ll be there in a second”, my ladder was already at the shop since I live two blocks away, and so I hop in the car thinking that  if that sign hits someone that could hurt a customer and we need every customer we can get! (laughter)

So in the time it takes for me to get here, which isn’t too long, I see two regulars, a husband and wife, who ran home to get their own ladder, and she’s holding it as he is fixing the sign. They’ve taken it upon themselves to do all of this!  I’m like “Wow!” That probably never would have happened at another coffee shop. People just jump in and contribute, I can’t explain it!
I tell everyone about International Coffee Day, when our coffee grinder broke, so we didn’t even have coffee for International Coffee Day, because by the time we got our grinder working we had ground through all the coffee that we had, so everyone was like: “You know I’ll have hot chocolate, or tea.” One woman said, “You’re more upset about this than I am,” and I was like, “Yeah, because you’re coming to a coffee shop and I’m telling you that we don’t have coffee on International Coffee Day!” but everyone of our customers was fine! People want us to succeed!

Featured Image Courtesy Tin Umbrella

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