by Marcus Harrison Green
Lefty-leaning magazines like Dissent layer table tops, while amateur surrealist paintings adorn the walls, and acid jazz hums through the air. Mix in the comfy sofa with the nostril-tickling aroma from java beans, and the site could be most any South Seattle living room.
This, however, is the Othello neighborhood’s newly opened Café Red and the deliberate domestic vibe is owners Jesiah Wurtz and Haley Williams doing. The two see their shop not as a coffee refuel station but a pedestrian community center.
Of course, both know South Seattle business owners espousing the virtues of community is nothing new. This communitarian chant typically rattles off South End-based entrepreneur’s tongues more than “oms” at the Shaolin Monastery.
But for Wurtz, the mantra goes beyond a mere marketing slogan. It’s an essential business model for the coffee shop located directly next to the Othello light rail station’s eastern side.
“I don’t care if people buy coffee or not,” says the bespectacled Wurtz, , his red beard stretching down to his collar, “I want to create a space for anyone to walk in and feel like they belong.”
Cafe Red, which held its grand opening two weeks ago, has done its best to provide that welcoming atmosphere in its short tenure, hosting hip-hop shows, poetry readings, board game nights, and art shows.
Wurtz says his café’s holding space for cross-cultural connections. As if on cue, an Iraqi woman living at the nearby Station apartment complex walks in flashing a toothy smile at Williams, who is behind the cash register. Wurtz says the woman and her husband visit the shop daily, ritualistically purchasing three drip lattes each throughout the day.
Wurtz and Williams, South Seattle residents for the past 5 years, are both quick to acknowledge being “two white kids in a traditionally non-white part of town.” For this reason, the couple measures success less in terms of dollars and cents, and more by the number of relationships forged.
“If we fill this place up with yuppies, then we’ve failed. I’ve seen a lot of people do really crappy things with the best of intentions. I don’t need to do something awesome. I need to get out of the way and give the community already doing great things the platform I have,” Wurtz explains.
In a city where anything less than $72,000 increasingly qualifies a household of four as low-income, the disappearance of working class places in favor of more upscale, high-end haunts contributed to Café Red’s existence.
“We’re really just trying to make rent, and pay off our student and business loans,” Wurtz says, while speaking fondly of the former anarchist collective café Black Coffee, and Beacon Hill’s The Station Coffeehouse as anti-capitalistic establishments worth mimicking, including the latter’s famed block party.
Café Red’s grand opening came after the couple spent the last year serving coffee from local favorites like Tin Umbrella Coffee on a portable coffee cart they biked between Columbia City and Othello. The two built a following from their interactions with morning commuters scurrying to the light rail stations at each neighborhood.
Wurtz, who previously worked at two different coffee shops before founding Café Red, says time spent at his previous employers’ highlighted the fact his Othello neighborhood was a “coffee desert”.
“I was looking around and thought it is really hard to get a good cup of coffee around here, and on top of that I was like I can make better coffee than either of the shops I worked at,” Wurtz says.
Quitting his barista gig soon after, he and Williams, who had begun dating a couple years earlier, purchased an ice cream tricycle they retrofitted as a mobile coffee stand. In August of 2015 Café Red served its first cup.
“Our first spot was actually a South Park Neighborhood. There was a brewery there that let us pop up every Sunday,” he says.
Three weeks, and an invitation to the Othello Park Festival latter, and Wurtz’s and William’s coffee themed tricycle with its signature heavy duty red umbrella, were fixtures of both the Columbia City and Othello neighborhoods, regardless of weather – which had its drawbacks.
During a harsh 2016 winter, Café Red’s mobile was nearly destroyed in a storm. While awaiting repairs on the lynchpin of their small business, Wurtz and Williams took a road trip, touring specialty coffee shops across the United States.
Wurtz says it made him realized how much of a bubble Seattle’s coffee scene had become.
“Even if you go into high-end shops in Seattle they still really follow the Starbucks model. It feels very retail here […] So it was really interesting to see what all of these other cities were up to,” referencing the creativity displayed in shops the two visited in Ohio and Montana.
Prior to their journey, Wurtz says the two had never entertained the thought of opening up a permanent location, but they soon threw around the possibility upon returning.
Months passed, the opening of a new mobile coffee trailer bounced between stop and go. The mobile stand eventually re-opened in the spring of 2016, with the couple splitting 6 days a week between Columbia City and Othello. It soon dawned on them that they should focus their efforts on their own neighborhood.
“We realized Columbia City just had so many places for coffee,” Williams says.
In a stroke of good timing, a building formerly housing the Whistle Stop Co-op on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr Way and Othello next to the light rail station became available. With proceeds from a five month long online crowdfunding campaign, along with business loans, Café Red was set to move into the one-time Whistle Stop Coop.
All they needed was the coffee.
Café Red ended up serving Kasalda brand coffee for all the shop’s lattes, mochas, and Americanos. Though pricier per pound than traditional Ethiopian coffee beans, the Filipina distributer empowers its country’s local farmers by fair pricing and allowing them to operate independently. This is in contrast to many international distributors who exploit local farmer’s labor.
Kalsada also only uses the ripest coffee beans in its products, Wurtz explains.
With Café Red’s opening, Othello now join sister neighborhoods Columbia City, Beacon Hill, Hillman City, Seward Park, and Rainier Beach in having at least one signature coffee house. A development many residents are praising.
“We have needed a welcoming neighborhood café again as a place to stop for coffee and a snack, as well as a gathering place for meeting neighbors, friends, and business associates. Haley and Jesiah have been wonderful in their involvement with and support of the Othello community,” says local Daphne Schneider.
Other Café Red fans expect the same quality service they’ve grown accustomed to regardless of the move from mobile to permanent location.
“If you’ve ever met them you know that Haley and Jesiah are very serious about serving high quality delicious coffee with a smile and sunshiny attitude,” says Othello neighborhood advocate Sarah Valenta.
Café Red is open 7 days a week Monday through Sunday.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, the current scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000