For most of us, getting an email out of the blue from AT&T probably means that our bill is due. For Danielle Hulton of Capitol Hill’s Ada’s Technical Books, an email from the telecommunications giant this spring was an invitation to talk about a life and business changing opportunity.
“They’re evolving and want to be considered more of a tech company,” Hulton said of the conversations that started with that email. “In order to reach customers in places like Capitol Hill, a traditional retail store isn’t going to work.”
So, in the rare case of a corporate giant making a mutually beneficial pact with a locally focused neighborhood merchant, Hulton, her husband and business partner David Hulton, and the growing crew at Ada’s joined up with AT&T and a champion barista for a coffee-focused adventure in small business that pretty much only could play out here on Capitol Hill.
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Later, this month at 800 E Thomas just off Broadway in the newly constructed Vertex apartments building, Ada’s Discovery Cafe will open inside The Lounge by AT&T, a one of a kind experiment from AT&T to create a new retail environment that is focused as much on hanging out as it is two-year deals, data plans, and new hardware.
“It looks like us,” Hulton says. “It’s meant to be a hangout space.”
CHS first reported on the project from AT&T after discovering permit paperwork for the retail experiment in April. “AT&T has been busy opening up its new ‘entertainment store’ concept around the country — but this one lined up for Capitol Hill appears to be different,” we wrote at the time. We were right.
Hulton describes the project as a “really beautiful modern cafe space” with concrete floors, black and white tile, exposed lighting, and a lot of seating. One of the few clues besides “The Lounge by AT&T” sign out front that you are in a newfangled retail experience will be the couch up front where you’ll find a small, unobtrusive screen tuned it to AT&T’s DirecTV, There will be no sound — to hear what is happening, you’ll want to tune in with your phone.
The center of the new Ada’s won’t necessarily be books — though you’ll find a few shelves. Instead, Ada’s Discovery Cafe is an opportunity for the Hultons to focus on the coffee end of their business. The cafe bar here will be large — bigger than at Ada’s 15th Ave E location. It will be a showcase of technology with David’s increasingly sophisticated coffee robots playing a role. One is a cold brew coffee tower based on the Ada’s original where the robot in the equation adjusts the drip rate once per hour with precision the typical by-hand method can’t match. The other coffee robot, the Syphon Bot, turns the vacuum coffee maker concept up by eliminating the heat and using the tech to do the Hoovering and draw out the fresh brew.
For a more human element to balance out the Mystery Science Theater 3000 end of things with the robots, Danielle and David brought in 2018 US Barista Champion Cole McBride to manage the cafe. Danielle said they first worked with McBride when he taught them “everything they know about coffee” as he ramped them up for the opening of Ada’s on 15th Ave E. In addition to being a great trainer, McBride also hopes to keep the menu creative with new coffee “discoveries” to try at the bar. Danielle said she also wants to create a connection between all of the elements of coffee from the farmer to the cafe.
Coffee, she says, just might be what any future expansion and growth around Ada’s will be focused on. Danielle says she thinks Ada’s Technical Books with its focus on printed books and old school retail along with community and events is likely destined to be a single child.
“We weren’t going to expand on Capitol Hill or in Seattle, maybe ever,” she said. “The flagship is my first child. I’m really proud of it. But it’s also a beast.”
Ada’s Technical Books opened its 15th Ave E location in 2013 after starting business just off north Broadway in The Loveless building in the summer of 2010. The flagship Ada’s added coworking space above the shop in 2014 and a new event space called The Lab in 2016.
The AT&T link up now gives Hulton a chance to experiment, too, and maybe build a version of the Ada’s business that can grow outside the city. Danielle is calling the link up a “longterm popup” with plans to be in the space a minimum of three years. “After that, if it seems to align well with our values and vision, we may continue, or we may choose do something different… it’s all part of the experiment,” the announcement on the new project sent to customers this weekend reads.
For AT&T, meanwhile, the global giant gains hyperlocal credibility, not to mention a strong eye for design — the 15th Ave E Ada’s designed by Capitol Hill firm Board and Vellum is a gorgeous shopping experience. The Lounge will have a bustling Ada’s Discovery Cafe to draw in Capitol Hill’s increasingly affluent, and equally increasingly difficult to efficiently target residents and visitors as its front. Only toward the back, beyond the seating and the DirecTV couch, beyond the big coffee bar and the coterie of coffee robots, will a visitor find a selection of AT&T devices laid out on tables and displayed on a back wall. Will the neighborhood buy it? That’s one question. Another is how patient AT&T will be with its experiment in soft commerce.
Hulton tells CHS the signs are good that AT&T is willing to grow into its part of the neighborhood and let the just-off-Broadway experiment play out. “We are really strongly about Capitol Hill,” she said. “And they’re cool about that.” She wouldn’t have gotten involved if they weren’t.
Ada’s Discovery Cafe and The Lounge by AT&T are set to open softly on Wednesday, September 26th with a grand opening to follow in October. You can find it at 800 E Thomas and can learn more at discovery.adasbooks.com.