by Mark Van Streefkerk
Coffee professional Geetu Vailoor had never thought about owning a café, but in February the idea was pitched to her by the owner of Union Coffee, who was looking to pass the business on to someone else. After some rigorous soul-searching, Vailoor said yes. Previous owner Zach Reinig closed the shop on March 15, and on March 19 Vailoor reopened the Central District café as her own. The turnkey operation happened right as Washintgon imposed a stay-at-home mandate. Seated service was put to a halt by March 22. For some cafés, COVID-19 has meant temporary or even permanent closures — but Geetu has remained open for takeout coffee and pastries throughout the pandemic.
“I never expected anything like what is happening right now,” Vailoor remembered. “I think I wanted to be super optimistic. I reached out to SBA to get a small business mentor, and all of them were like, ‘Don’t do this. This is crazy. You should not be taking over a small business right now, especially one that’s a commodity product.’ I just believed it would work out. I just had a feeling.”
As the former coffee educator and wholesale manager for Renton’s Boon Boona Coffee, Vailoor was in the midst of a career transition, and in the process of moving, when Reinig first approached her with the idea. Reinig had originally contacted her about wholesale coffee through Boon Boona. When he learned Vailoor was leaving the company, Reinig revealed that he was looking to step away from his own café and offered to work with her on a price.
“I thought about how many transitions I was doing at the time, and I thought ‘That’s too much. I can’t go through all of this at once.’ Zach really wanted to walk away from his café. He was in a time constraint, from what he told me. I had to make a super-quick decision, which felt really scary and hasty,” Vailoor said.
“I never expected to be a café owner, but I also realized that there’s not really a lot of spaces for a queer woman of color to really suceed and make more than minimum wage for a lot of labor, or make a space that feels safe. I’m still trying to figure it out. Even though I own this space now, I’m struggling with finding my voice,” she admitted.
In 2016, Zach Reinig, spouse of Molly Moon-Neitzel of the local Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream chain, founded Union Coffee in the then brand-,new multi-use Stencil Apartments building at 24th Avenue and East Union Street. The café’s Scandi-inspired design is typical of most third-wave coffee shops: a movement started in the 2000s that focuses on higher-quality, often directly-traded coffees, as opposed to the Folgers and Starbucks of the first and second waves, respectively. One of the unfortunate effects of a new coffee shop is the role it plays in gentrification, something many took note of as Union Coffee set up shop in the Stencil building in an already heavily-developed Central District.
Taking over a previously white-owned café in a historically Black and gentrified part of Seattle has led to a lot of reflection and dialogue for Vailoor, as well as a commitment to make the space more welcoming and accessible to the community. One of her first steps was bringing in a consultant for antiracism training. Noting that specialty coffee is a predominantly white industry, Vailoor prioritizes making the space inclusive for everyone. “For me that’s super important because I’ve been on the other side of the table where I’ve walked into spaces that don’t feel like they’re inviting me in, and that doesn’t make me want to return,” she said.
When it comes to coffee, Vailoor is thrilled to support ethically and equity-minded roasters “that are making this coffee community and industry better,” such as Mother Tongue, Lüna Coffee, Olympia Coffee Roasters, and Looking Homeward. Union features in-house baked croissants, cookies, and scones, as well as goods from locally and POC-owned businesses such as bagels from Westman’s Coffee and Bagels, vegan golden milk ice cream from Sweet Alchemy, and chai from Portland’s One Stripe Chai Co.
At the end of June, Union welcomed Juice Club as a permanent bottle shop in the space. This local “natural wine party” has been hosting pop-ups in Seattle since 2018. Recently, Juice Club has organized free wine pickups at Union Coffee for BIPOC-only Zoom wine tastings.
Slowly but surely, Vailoor says she’s stepping into what it means for her to be a café — and business — owner. Part of that shift will include a change in name and branding. While a few ideas are on the table, she hasn’t settled on anything yet. “I’ve been trying to work through having the courage to pick a name that might be Tamil, and might not be super easily anglicized, but rolling with it. I like what it invokes in me. This is my space that I want to invite people into.”
“I feel so grateful for the space I’ve already created,” she continued. “My two baristas are queer people of color, and I’ve never worked in a space that had all queer people of color working behind the bar. The people I work with have so much ownership mentality and so much grace for the work I’m doing, and that’s been helping me find my voice too.”
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image: Union Coffee has stayed open for takeout coffee and pastries, and now natural wine, courtesy of Juice Club, throughout COVID-19. (Photo: Mark Van Streefkerk)