Downtown Washington is Starbucks country. A brisk walk around the area, or even just a Google search, will confirm it. There are more than 15 locations that cater to caffeine-deficient downtown workers. It's coffee hegemony right in the heart of democracy.
Non-corporate coffee shops, however, are starting to invade the Green Mermaid's turf.
Compass Coffee, the local roaster that debuted less than three years ago, is leading the way. After opening a shop in the Starbucks territory of Chinatown, Compass launched an outpost in January in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, which is considered downtown real estate in Google's generous estimation of the area.
Now, Swing's Coffee has followed suit: The historic D.C. roaster opened a shop on 14th Street NW in early February. A couple of weeks later, the Philadelphia-based roaster La Colombe made its own play with a shop right off Farragut Square, directing a little more traffic away from the Seattle powerhouse.
Here's what you can expect if you steer a course for one of these new shops.
These days, Compass Coffee almost has a Starbucks air about it, emphasizing its nine custom blends based on beans from coffee-growing regions around the globe. You can still order a pourover of a single-origin coffee, whatever bean is in season, but you have to make a special request.
Compass's trajectory has the local coffee scene gossiping that the company wants to be the "Starbucks of the East Coast" or some variation on that theme. I've chatted with owners Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez multiple times about their long-term plans, particularly as they build out their Ivy City roastery, cafe, training facility and warehouse.
Once that facility is up and running —in nine months to a year, Haft says — Compass will be able to store tens of thousands of pounds in green, unroasted coffee in the space. They'll have three large roasters on premise. Compass's roasting capacity is expected to increase many-fold. Is the Starbucks comparison off base?
I asked Haft who said Compass "would certainly consider" taking on Starbucks directly in the D.C. market. But is he considering a move to open as many as, say, five locations downtown? "That's probably too dense," Haft says. "But something in that area is probably not far off."
It's not located downtown, but Compass has already signed a lease for the CEB Tower at Central Place, a 31-story mixed-used development in Rosslyn. The 2,500-to-3,000-square-foot space is expected to open in January or February of next year, Haft says. Compass has plans to open another location in downtown D.C, but the owners are still in lease negotiations on the space.
Starbucks, you've been put on notice.
Compass isn't the only shop taking a stand downtown. Swing's Coffee, the roaster that celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, opened a storefront in early February at 640 14th St. NW. Owner Mark Warmuth was thrilled to return to Washington, where Swing's debuted in 1916. The historic roaster had been absent from the District since last March, when Warmuth had to temporarily close his G Street NW location, where Swing's had been selling and brewing coffee since 1994.
Warmuth says there's a reason you don't see many independent coffee shops downtown: The economics don't work in their favor. Rents are expensive. Labor costs are rising. "You do have to sell a lot of coffee to make it work," the owner says, "which is why you're not seeing a ton of independent shops."
Behemoths like Starbucks, Peet's Coffee and Dunkin' Donuts can use economies of scale to lower costs and make such locations work in their favor. What's more, major chains typically don't buy the specialty-grade coffee beans found at shops like Swing's or La Colombe. For independents to make it work downtown, they need to find the right space and then negotiate favorable lease terms, Warmuth says.
The interior of the new Swing's echos the art-deco design of the G Street shop. It's also outfitted with some high-tech gadgetry, including a robotic pourover system (first seen at Qualia Coffee) and an Athena Leva espresso maker with a hammered-copper body. Despite the fancy pourover system, customers have been favoring drip coffee, lattes and cappuccinos, drinks that don't take much time to prepare. Workers downtown apparently care more for speed than for the nuances extracted from a pourover.
Warmuth hopes to start work on the G Street location in July. If all goes according to plan — and how often does that happen? — the shop could reopen in October or November. Which would mean that Warmuth would have Swing's locations on the east and west sides of the White House. Perhaps the president will stop by, place an order and leave behind the kind of tip he did in Miami: $83 on less than $10 worth of coffee, pastries and croquettes.
La Colombe continues its colonization of the District of Columbia with its latest store at 1710 I St. NW. It's the fifth D.C. shop for the Philadelphia-based roaster, which has been rapidly expanding its footprint in Washington since the founder of Chobani yogurt bought a share of the company in 2015. The space is small, only 990-square-feet, and its makeshift facade is barely noticeable amid construction in the immediate area.
But the shop offers the usual line of La Colombe drinks and pastries, including its sweet, creamy latte on draft (or in a can, which still sort of boggles my mind). The roaster selected the Farragut Square location not only because of its weekday bustle of office workers but also because the area is becoming a weekend destination.
La Colombe's shop, I should point out, is located around the block from Compass, which is just steps from a Starbucks, which is a block away from Filter Coffeehouse, another local specialty shop. They are all within walking distance of each other.
It's enough to make Warmuth of Swing's wonder if this I Street corridor has already hit peak coffee saturation. "Is there enough [customers] there for everybody to do well?" he wonders. "We'll see."