by Chetanya Robinson
Nevzat Cankaya’s green drive-through espresso stand in a Skyway parking lot has been the community’s only coffee shop for years and a staple for commuters.
With luck, Cankaya will be able to fulfill a longtime dream of opening a sit-down cafe this summer. While construction has been delayed by the pandemic, the eventual space will be a game-changer for Skyway.
“It will basically fill a big void in the community,” Cankaya said. “People can come and congregate and meet and have some food and meet friends. It will definitely be something very big for the community once it opens.”
As Ryan Quigtar puts it: “We don’t have a social gathering space in Skyway. We do not.” Quigtar, who grew up in the community, is founding director of Renton Innovation Zone and worked as program director for Skyway Solutions. He is excited to see Cankaya’s stand open.
“It’s so beautiful to see. I grew up going to Nevzat, I’ve known him since probably the first grade. And he is such a community person. He knows all his customers by name, he knows the family, he asks personal questions, how are they doing, even nicknames.”
Cankaya has set up in the same spot along Renton Avenue South, in one of Skyway’s main business districts, since 1995, two years after he came to the U.S. from Turkey. Cankaya is from Istanbul and worked as a research assistant at a university there before emigrating.
At the time, espresso was seeing a surge in popularity, but Starbucks still hadn’t opened a drive-thru.
Cankaya saw an opportunity. At first, he ran a mobile espresso cart with no shelter. Every night he would store it by a nearby grocery store then wheel it back in the morning, plug it in, and wait half an hour for it to warm up.
Business started small but picked up and stayed steady. “I got lucky,” Cankaya said. “I think it was a good fit for me that I really liked the business and continued the same way. The community was really supportive from day one, so it was definitely a good fit for me and for the community.”
He chose Skyway because the wholesale coffee roaster he was buying from was located there. Now Cankaya buys his beans from Caffé D’arte but has stayed in Skyway. He likes that the community has a diversity of cultures and economic backgrounds.
“I myself am an immigrant from Turkey, so when you are in a place that supports the business like that, and community is very diverse, it’s a good fit for me,” he said.
Cankaya eventually upgraded his mobile cart to a drive-through stand in 1999. A zoning law banned drive-thru businesses in Skyway, but former King County Councilmember Dwight Pelz helped push through a zoning variance that allowed Cankaya to skirt the ban.
The zoning law reared its head again when Cankaya wanted to open a sit-down coffee shop in 2017, a story reported by Patch. He had already bought the building across from his stand, a former fast-food place with a drive-thru window.
He hoped the zoning variance would allow him to keep both, but at the time, former Councilmember Larry Gossett said the zoning law would be hard to get around for the new business.
Cankaya tried to resolve the issue with the County. “I told them that I’ve been operating the drive-thru for 21 years, and without drive-thru, the business wouldn’t survive, because that’s my ace of the business,” Cankaya said.
The West Hill Community Association started a petition asking Councilmember Gossett and County Executive Dow Constantine to make an exception for Cankaya’s shop, because it filled an important need in the Skyway community. The petition got 1,500 signatures.
About 150 Skyway community members showed up to a community town hall with King County and County department directors to ask the County for a solution.
After hearing the community’s voice, Gossett introduced legislation that amended the zoning to allow Cankaya to open his drive-thru. The Council passed it unanimously in October 2017.
After Cankaya was in the clear for the sit-down business, he hired an architect, who spent six months drawing up plans. Cankaya got his building permit in 2018. It took a year to find a contractor who was a good fit for his vision, but he found one in summer 2019. After Cankaya decided on a larger design for the front of the business, he sought a revised building permit, which he received in November 2019.
Soon after, the pandemic hit. It delayed construction for a few months, and business slowed for Cankaya’s drive through stand, as fewer commuters came by for their coffee. But construction has slowly continued, including repairing the roof, building outdoor seating, and installing electricity and plumbing.
Opening a sit-down business will allow Cankaya to offer more than coffee and pastries. He plans to draw inspiration from his and his wife’s Turkish background. “We’d like to offer a Turkish food variety in the mornings and lunch time, along with American food,” he said.
Every day, people ask Cankaya when the cafe will open, but he doesn’t have a definitive answer.
“The plan to open is when COVID becomes almost no problem, or very little problem for the community,” Cankaya said.
Cankaya wants to have a grand opening celebration for the community, a nod to their help in making the sit-down cafe possible. But of course, “COVID has to go, first.”
He hopes it can happen in summer 2021, when enough people are vaccinated.
“I cannot wait for it to open, I hope there’s a giant celebration for him and for the expansion,” said Quigtar. “That’s going to be a beautiful thing for the neighborhood, for sure.”
Chetanya Robinson is a freelance journalist and managing editor at the International Examiner newspaper in the Chinatown International District. He enjoys reporting on the rich variety of life in Seattle, including the hyper-local stories of individual communities and neighborhoods. Born and raised in Seattle, he earned a degree in journalism from the University of Washington. His work has also appeared in Real Change News, Crosscut, Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, and the Muckleshoot Messenger, and he reported for Awoko Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone as a student journalism fellow. Chetanya currently serves as vice president for the Society of Professional Journalists Western Washington Chapter. In his spare time he enjoys exploring nature and the city, learning languages, reading, and cooking. You can find him on Twitter at @chetanyarobins.
Featured image by Alex Garland.
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