Out of Paradiso emerged Caffe Vita — and decades of Capitol Hill coffee culture

The 60 kilogram beast of a roaster inside E Pike's Caffe Vita (Images: CHS)

The 60 kilogram beast of a roaster inside E Pike’s Caffe Vita (Images: CHS)

There had been a plan for this week to be a celebration of twenty years of coffee culture in Seattle as Caffe Vita marked its 1995 birth with a Pike/Pine street party.

But the E Pike flagship coffee shop and roaster — even with the prospect of hundreds of caffeine slingers in Seattle for The Specialty Coffee Association of America Symposium — nixed the street party plans and instead opted only to give the old cafe a much needed spiffing up.

You’ll note new floors on both levels of the building and a general scrubbing of the hard-working cafe and bean factory.

Street party or no, Capitol Hill can still celebrate Vita and the pioneering efforts of founder Mike McConnell — though marking 20 years might not be enough. Instead, one of the key milestones in Capitol Hill cafe culture should be marked to 1991.

Cafe Paradiso, where Vita was born (Image courtesy The Daily Journal of Commerce)

Cafe Paradiso, where Vita was born (Image courtesy The Daily Journal of Commerce)

Take it away longtime Pike/Pine businesswoman and landowner Anne Michelson:

The Café Paradiso had a splendid 8 year run.  I had gone out on a limb to buy the building at 1005 East Pike in 1989 for my clothing company, Crescent Down Works and then my Japanese market slumped in 1990 so I had to think of some way to earn a living and I had always admired the old coffee houses of the U District in the early 60’s like the Pamir House and the Eigerwand.  A bunch of friends were sitting around in the building, scratching our heads about what I was going to do and a friend brought up the idea of a coffee house and it was a success.  There are lots of stories and a few famous people including the great Jeff Buckley and lots of punk rock bands who played there.  My clothing business started picking up later in the 90’s and I was approached by Mike McConnell to buy me out so I did.    The original Caffe Vita is (was?) on lower Queen Anne, I think.  So that must have started in 1994, if my math is correct.  I still have a friendship with Mike McConnell, he has always been very interested in the roots of our neighborhood and proud of the history of the Paradiso.  I gave him the original sign which hangs in the roasting room at the Caffe on Pike.  I am glad that he wanted it, Café Paradiso was important to me, my family and the neighborhood.

Vita has new floors, same crew of one-of-a-kind Vita baristas. Vita pairs many of its rookies to work with  the E Pike veterans

Vita has new floors, same crew of one-of-a-kind Vita baristas. Vita pairs many of its rookies to work with the E Pike veterans.

While Vita was founded in 1995 (take note, Anne!) in Queen Anne of all places, Cafe Paradiso laid the groundwork on E Pike. Here’s how entrepreneur Bruce Pavitt described it in a conversation with the Daily Journal of Commerce back in the day when the Elysian didn’t exist yet, The Cuff was new, Kris von Oy was still alive, and the Linda’s Tavern co-founder was just starting to see his neighborhood explode with change a decade before the current wave of six and seven-story of apartment building development in the area:

[Pavitt] hopes that he and like-minded property owners can hold this kind of gentrification at bay and shelter the continuing development of a true urban village among the bones of an old industrial and commercial neighborhood.

Cafe Paradiso, on Pike between 10th and 11th, may have started the recent and rapid transformation of the Pike/Pine corridor into a real neighborhood, according to Pavitt. Moe’s nightclub, just across 10th, followed shortly after and now anchors the neighborhood.

Since then, small clubs have continued to flourish and more are on the way.

Pavitt’s plans for “a nightclub, restaurant and hotel planned for a four-story abandoned building at 11th and Pike,” never came to pass, by the way.

With growing demand for its beans, Vita's new roaster boosted production by 33% in 2010 (Images: CHS)

With growing demand for its beans, Vita’s new roaster boosted production by 33% in 2010 (Images: CHS)

Vita founder Mike McConnell’s coffee plans laid in ’95, however, fully took root. Maybe 2015 will bring another swing at a birthday party in the street though 2014 has been a good year for Pike/Pine 20th anniversary celebrations. We attempted to speak with McConnell about the start of Vita, his work to pioneer and champion of direct-trade coffee and the growth through the years that has added locations across Seattle and in Manhattan and LA. A vita representative explained to CHS that McConnell prefers not to do interviews. We did find his voice appearing here and there in write-ups on Vita through the years.

IMG_0036“In the 80’s we used to save up our money and go drink espresso at the Nordstrom Coffee Bar,” he is quoted as saying in a Virgin Airlines blog post, of all things. “A bunch of ragged teenagers with unintentionally ripped jeans sampling Italian coffees in a high end department store.”

In that same bit of journalism, we learn McConnell credits Espresso Vivace’s David Schomer with teaching him the trade and encouraging him to start Vita. Seattle Magazine tells us he originally was in the coffee equipment manufacturing business. The Vita name was chosen when “McConnell was looking for a name that reflected a passion for coffee and inspired staff to adopt a kind of devotion to it.” McConnell “settled on ‘vita,’ the Italian word for life,” the Seattle PI reports.

McConnell eventually bought the building his cafe called home from Michelson in 2006 for $1.9 million, according to county records. While he’s had some misses along the way — including a short-lived investment in Madrona’s Cremant and a reckless driving plea in 2010 — the 46-year-old has been part of the creation or ownership of Vita, Via Tribunali, Big Mario’s, Pike Street Fish Fry, Neumos, Cornuto Pizzeria, Seattle Boxing Studio, Hitchcock Restaurant, and The Crocodile. His business partner and wife Liz Weber, ex-wife of Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, is also hard at work behind the scenes. She is also active with efforts like Capitol Hill Housing’s 12th Ave Arts project.

With nine cafes in Seattle, its signature beans and brown coffee mugs in restaurants and shops throughout the region and the export of the Pike/Pine style to NY and LA, Vita has earned legendary status in the world of coffee. “By creating an environment where the customer can see, touch, and taste the coffee they purchase, we provide a unique learning opportunity that allows our coffee to speak for itself. Caffe Vita is always fresh, imported directly from the farm and roasted on-site,” the Vita web site explains. With that and the most excellent of executions of Pike/Pine culture, McConnell has let his creation do the talking.

He has also left a reminder of the past on display. Go look for the old Paradiso sign — apparently it originally advertised a Montlake dry cleaner before being hacked for the cafe — visible through the windows in the E Pike roasting room.

You can learn more at caffevita.com.

13 thoughts on “Out of Paradiso emerged Caffe Vita — and decades of Capitol Hill coffee culture

  1. I spent so many unproductive hours as a teenager upstairs at Cafe Paradiso: skipping class, playing canasta, reading, talking. When I feeling flush (which wasn’t often), I’d order the home fries, but the rest of the time it was drip coffee all the way. There was always such a great range of people there: ravers, ranters, coffeehouse intellectuals, bona fide intellectuals, older folks looking for young companions, younger folks looking for sugar daddies, pot smokers, LSD casualties, exchange students, recent transplants, the newly out, the not quite out, people who’d been out for ages, pagans, Wiccans, aura readers, palm readers, and of course, plenty of disaffected youth like me. I loved it.

  2. New floors? Are they engineered “hardwood” floors or something nicer? I remember great old knotty dark hardwood at Vita… hope they didn’t go cheap.

    • I remember Pistil. They carried a bunch of zines, so I could never go in without buying something, even though I had very little extra cash back then. They also published a zine of their own for a while, which included a section from the store’s log about the various characters who would wander in and out in. Was so bummed when they closed and went to online-only biz.

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