He was lost in thought on a bike ride at Riverside State Park and seeing the surrounding water when “it all clicked.”
Sean Tobin had been searching for a word for something that moves forward – “like a ship,” he said – and also contains meaning – literally holds something or some things or an abstract idea or both.
He was a student at Whitworth University at the time – still is, actually, for another semester – and working on a business plan for a coffee company for a competition. It needed a name.
“We wanted to create a space that cultivated community and creativity and felt we could be a vessel for that movement, for that change,” the 19-year-old explained.
The strategy took third place last spring in the 2015 Inland Northwest Business Competition – they were marked down for “being too generous” and using too much of their money to finance micro loans for coffee growers in developing countries.
But, just over a year later, Tobin and business partner Ike Bubna are opening a coffee shop and roasting company based on the proposal from that competition – with a few tweaks.
Vessel Coffee Roasters opened at the end of June on North Monroe Street. The new coffee shop and roastery focuses on coffees grown sustainably and without chemicals, as well as helping neighborhood youths receive job training and people in countries where their coffee is grown.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment is earmarking 10 percent of profits for micro loans instead of the initial 30 percent. Vessel isn’t a nonprofit. Rather, “It’s a business that wants to make a social impact,” said Bubna, 31, a Whitworth alum.
He and Tobin met through mutual friends last summer, founded the company over coffee at another shop and began roasting in December as renovations took place around them. They gutted the old corner building that once housed a motorcycle shop, converting it into a small-batch, boutique roastery and coffee shop.
Decor is modern, minimalist and slightly industrial – with clean lines, exposed wooden beams, a polished concrete floor and garage-style roller door. The feel is bright, open and airy. “We wanted as much natural light as possible,” Bubna said.
But, there are pockets of coziness. Look for a pair of couches set alongside a gas fireplace and marble-topped coffee table underscored by a second-hand cowhide rug from the Tossed and Found antique store down the street. The rest of the seating is a mixture of stools, chairs and benches matched with custom wooden tables and windowsill counters.
But the focal point of the room is a white quartz waterfall countertop with a pour-over station and shiny new espresso machine by Kees Van der Westen in the Netherlands. Milk – whole and nonfat – comes from Pure Eire Dairy in Othello. Soy, almond and hemp milks are also available along with small-batch organic syrups made by Holy Kakow in Portland.
Drip coffee starts at $2.25 per cup. Lattes run from $3.75 to $4.75. Mochas are $4.25 to $5.25.
Coffee varieties will change seasonally.
“We tend to veer toward light roasting all of our coffee,” said roaster Jeremy Williamson, 29. “We buy really nice coffee, and we want to try to preserve the characteristics that are in the coffee by not covering it up with roasting. We don’t want people to taste that bitter burn. We want it to taste lively.”
The Expo, one of two signature blends, is meant to be an “all-purpose” coffee.
“We want it to be something you throw on your autodrip in the morning and get a good cup of coffee,” Williamson said. “It’s really milk-chocolaty with a touch of cherry.”
Components for it – as well as the 509 Seasonal blend – will change, but the flavor profiles should be about the same. The 509 is meant to be “a touch darker” than the Expo.
Williamson likes the single-origin Kenya Othaya Peaberry for drip, pour-over or iced coffee.
“It’s really fruit forward with a pretty nice peach note,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in the cup, a lot of fruitiness, fruit and citrus.”
Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Williamson moved to Spokane from Portland in 2012 and went to work at Coeur Coffee. But he fell in love with coffee before that, in Bend, Oregon, where he worked at Backporch Coffee Roasters. Once in Spokane, he ran his own short-lived coffee company, Manners Roasting, as a one-man show before joining Vessel in Spokane’s Emerson-Garfield neighborhood.
Bubna, director of coffee, handles internal affairs. He moved to Spokane with his family in eighth grade and got his start in the coffee industry 11 years ago, working at the Starbucks on 29th Avenue in Spokane as well as Indaba Coffee and Coeur Coffee. Later, he served as executive director of Street Bean, a nonprofit that provides jobs and training for street youths in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. That work inspired him to do something similar in Spokane.
“I saw producing quality coffee could be a way to produce quality internships,” he said, noting that Vessel expects to start its internship program this summer in conjunction with Project Hope, a nonprofit that aims to “create environmentally friendly and restorative entrepreneurial opportunities” for youths in the nearby West Central neighborhood.
The internship program is geared toward young people ages 17 to 24 who want to work 12 to 18 hours per week at $10 per hour for up to six months.
“It’s a gateway for people to experience a job and get the skills,” Bubna said. “Working in coffee, you’re learning customer service, hospitality, how to pay attention to recipes and standards, and the basics of showing up on time for work.”
Bubna studied philosophy and theology at Whitworth and completed his master’s degree in ethical leadership at Claremont-Lincoln University last year.
Tobin, the creative director, handles external business. He hails from Milwaukie, Oregon, and moved to Spokane to attend Whitworth. In addition to the roaster, he and Bubna have hired a bookkeeper and five baristas, starting at $15 per hour.
In addition to coffee drinks, they’ll serve tea and pastries from Batch Bakeshop and Common Crumb.
They would like to serve doughnuts, too – “not grocery store doughnuts,” Bubna said – but doughnuts akin to Blue Star Donuts in Portland. But, he said, so far they haven’t been able to find a local, artisanal doughnut maker that delivers.
Meanwhile, they’re hoping to expand distribution. They already have regular customers in Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Boise and Tampa Bay, Florida. They’ve also signed a 10-year lease with an option to buy the building, Bubna said, noting, “We’re not planning on going anywhere.”
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