Jeff and Julia Postlewait operate seven Rocket Bakery coffeehouses, the Rocket Market, and Bottles, a boutique wine and beer shop. They spoke with us in the Millwood neighborhood where they launched their business 19 years ago.
S-R: Did either of you have lemonade stands as kids?
Jeff: I did some of that. My friends and I had a little lunch delivery service – tried to do some packaged cookies in a can, like Pringles.
Julia: You were mowing lawns as soon as you could walk. And you opened your first restaurant when you were 21.
Jeff: Yeah, 20 or 21. I went to get my beer and wine license, and they were like, “Are you old enough to actually get this?”
Julia: He said, “How old do you have to be?” They said, “Twenty-one,” and he’s like, “OK.”
S-R: What was the restaurant called?
Jeff: Geoffrey’s Deli and Coffee Bar.
S-R: How did you two meet?
Julia: I got a summer job working at Geoffrey’s right out of college.
Jeff: My sister hired her. We went and had coffee, and we’ve been together ever since.
S-R: What inspired the idea for the Rocket Bakery?
Julia: We’d had two other restaurants, one in Spokane and one in Seattle. And a friend of ours had a coffee bar in Seattle. We sold the restaurant in Seattle and were helping him run the bakery in his coffee shop, and we felt like we’d never be able to afford a house in Seattle. So we took the idea and said let’s go home to Spokane, because there’s nothing like that here.
S-R: What was your basic business strategy back then?
Julia: Make good coffee, bake good pastries to go with it, and be open every day.
Jeff: And just make enough to survive. We figured if we could make 150 bucks a day between us, that would be perfect. But after a couple of months the paper did a story about us, and that’s when it went ballistic.
S-R: Has the recession forced you to adjust your strategy?
Jeff: We’re super, super careful, even when it’s not a recession time. This is a tough business, period.
Julia: Food margins are itty-bitty, so we’re always trying to refine things. Our strategy has morphed a little bit since we opened. We’ve added lunch. We’ve tried new salads, new pastries, gluten-free, vegan. We just try to do things better.
S-R: What makes Rocket Bakeries special?
Julia: We’ve always focused on being a coffeehouse, not a drive-through, because we like the idea of people having a place to chill and be part of the community. We think we can serve you just as fast if you park your car and come in for some social interaction.
Jeff: We want to show you the theater and magic of coffee.
Julia: Dang it, you’re paying three bucks for it. Shouldn’t it be a nicer experience than sitting in your car and getting a lid with a straw in it?
S-R: Are you hiring?
Jeff: We just went through a nice little hiring period for the bakery and a couple of the stores.
S-R: What do you look for in prospective employees?
Jeff: Customer-service skills. We want people who can talk to people. We’ll teach them the other parts of the business.
S-R: How would you describe each other’s management style?
Julia: Jeff leads by example. He’ll do whatever it takes – he’ll plunge the toilet, he’ll make the coffee, he’ll cook the pastries.
Jeff: I think Julia’s the same way. We’re not in people’s faces. It’s more like, “Let me show you how to do this.”
S-R: What is the key to a successful husband-wife business partnership?
Jeff: Staying involved. All decisions are made by the two of us, not by one of us. We always defer to the other one, asking, “What do you think?”
S-R: What advice would you offer other entrepreneurial couples considering launching their own business?
Julia: If you’re passionate about something, your job isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle, and you do it together.
S-R: How do you relax?
Jeff: We love cooking, so we go home and do it all over again.