Espresso Vivace: 30 years of artisanal coffee on Capitol Hill

This week, Capitol Hill’s Espresso Vivace celebrates thirty years in business with a reinvention of its mission — and free shots. From its genesis as a Broadway coffee cart to its current incarnation comprising two storefronts, a sidewalk stand, and a 5,000-square-foot roasting plant, Vivace has established a reputation for technical excellence in coffee preparation. They were on the vanguard of the artisan espresso revolution, educating both industry and customers and defining expectations for high-end coffee from flavor to equipment to the foam art in your latte. At this three-decade milestone, Vivace now shifts course to emphasize their roasting capabilities.

“We’d really like to reach out to people to let them know how phenomenal this roast is,” says David Schomer, who founded Vivace in 1988 with his then-wife/still-partner Geneva Sullivan, “The precision with which you can brew coffee leads to your ability to detect where the caramelized sugars in the original flavors are at their maximum development for each bean.”

Schomer has a way of launching into deep-dive digressions about the exacting science of espresso with little provocation. He’s a student of coffee who also wrote the book on it, literally; his 1995 guide Espresso Coffee: Tools, Techniques and Theory is now in its third printing and has been translated into Korean, Japanese, and Russian. He also makes tutorial videos and teaches classes for professional and home baristas.


Vivace on CHS through the years


Schomer (favorite drink: espresso shot) has a passion for reproducible results that began in his former career as a metrologist — a precision measurement specialist — first in the US Air Force, then at the highest levels of private industry for John Fluke Manufacturing and Boeing’s Class A lab in South Park. He tested electrical instruments, controlling variables to within a millionth of a volt. When his passion switched to coffee, he unconsciously adapted those methods to the pursuit of the perfect pull.

“All this was soaking into the back of my head as a way to achieve a very precise result by isolating all the factors,” he said. “It was years after I started coffee that I realized that’s what I was doing.”

In between testing precision measurements and pulling shots, Schomer took what he calls a “detour” into music, studying as a classical flutist and receiving a degree from Cornish. “I realized that in order to make a living I needed to go to New York or LA and life was waaaay too short to consider that.”

When asked to choose between his analytical metrologist side and his artistic flutist side, Schomer answers without hesitation. “The artistry wins out,” he says, “But I find that a scientific and methodical approach, a rigorous approach, is very beneficial to achieve the art. But I’m motivated entirely by beauty in everything I do.”

Apart from the retail and wholesale beans, most customers experience Vivace through the baristas who receive his training and make drinks to his demanding standards. One might think this level of absorption into the craft would tend toward snobbishness, but Vivace baristas are marked by a friendly, professional demeanor and an almost monastic devotion to serving perfect shots. Fledgling baristas in Seattle aspire to work at Vivace, and other cafes put a premium on hiring baristas who have been trained there. Schomer thinks of his baristas as artists — not in a corny “Subway sandwich artist” kind of way, but as a sincerely respectful descriptor. He describes their customer service approach as “compassionate listening,” a philosophy developed by longtime general manager Brian Fairbrother, who died in 2011.

“Their art is appreciated, and that’s pure gold for achieving a result long-term,” Schomer says, “We believe that when a customer has not had their coffee they may not want a bunch of phony cheerfulness, so I teach (baristas) to be genuine. If you don’t thrill to make people happy with your art, find another job, because this is absolutely all about making people happy.”

To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary, Schomer will be pulling shots of Vivace’s Indian Malabar roast (“everyone’s favorite single-origin”) and Ethiopian Sidamo (“a heavy blueberry fragrance”) at Vivace’s Brix location on Broadway this Wednesday, April 18th starting at noon, and at the South Lake Union Alley 24 location on Thursday. It will be his first time working the bar in 25 years. Shots from the maestro will be free, with a tip jar to benefit YouthCare’s Orion Center.

Espresso Vivace 30th Anniversary


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5 thoughts on “Espresso Vivace: 30 years of artisanal coffee on Capitol Hill

  1. I still remember Vivace’s original location…a cart in front of what is now Chase bank at Broadway & Thomas. I also fondly remember Brian Fairbrother, who was a very sweet and friendly guy.

  2. > One might think this level of absorption into the craft would tend toward snobbishness, but Vivace baristas are marked by a friendly, professional demeanor and an almost monastic devotion to serving perfect shots.

    Professional, maybe. Friendly, never. I have never had such consistently cold, disrespectful, holier-than-thou customer service in my life. Actively sneering at perfectly reasonable special requests by customers who are already paying the second-most premium prices in town isn’t monastic, it is just plain rude.

    > We believe that when a customer has not had their coffee they may not want a bunch of phony cheerfulness, so I teach (baristas) to be genuine.

    That is all well and good, but if they are being genuine, then they are just mean people. This whole set of quotes reads like a bad attempt to justify their awful customer service that has been a constant over the last 10 years, at least.

  3. Sad to see the negative comments about the customer service. I’ve always found the folks at Vivace to be gracious and helpful. As a customer with a visible disability I’ve particularly appreciated being treated with respect and friendliness, and having my requests for assistance being treated as, well, normal. :)

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