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Seattles’s Best has just joined the rest

by David Chester

It must be something in the water. What else could account for the fact that three of the most popular gourmet coffee chains in Japan originate in Seattle, Wash.? First there was Starbucks, then Tully’s and now Seattle’s Best Coffee has brought its “pleasing to the palate” brew to Shinjuku, minutes from Takashimaya department store in Times Square.

Considering it was third to get here, you might think it’s a bit presumptuous for it to use “best coffee” in its name, but the reality is SBC was established before Starbucks (both of them opened within months of each other in 1971 in Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market) and has been maintaining its caffeine level quite nicely ever since.

SBC, which describes its beverage as America’s “Coffee House coffee” was originally known as Stewart Brothers Coffee, named after Jim Stewart, founder and chairman, and his brother/business partner, Dave. In 1988, when it was discovered that there was another coffee company with “Stewart” in the name, SBC was rechristened Seattle’s Best Coffee.

It is certainly someone’s best coffee, as the lines of Takashimaya shoppers, locals and office workers would attest to. Offered the now standard range of lattes, espressos and coffee flavoring shots (including blueberry and coconut), customers can essentially design their own coffees.

While the choices are fun, it might be difficult at first to distinguish SBC from any other hip new coffee hangout. But as readers of this column know by now, it’s all about how one approaches the coffee beans.

According to Takao Niimura, SBC’s director in Tokyo, Starbucks tends to roast its coffee slightly dark and Italian (sounds sexy!), which, he says, makes the coffee “a little bitter.” But at SBC, the four roasting “styles” (North European, Vienna, Italian, French) and the three roasting “degrees” (dark, medium and light) help give its coffee “distinctively bold, rich flavors combined with a smooth pleasing finish.”

Well, it’s one thing to talk the talk, but Stewart, after 25 years at the helm, still takes his java very seriously. He actually owns his own coffee farm in Costa Rica, which he visits often with his Costa Rican wife, so he knows firsthand the way of the bean. He also continues to search the globe for the best of the best, going directly to the coffee farms in Central America, Jamaica and Africa, choosing only the high-grade arabica beans (as opposed to robusta beans, which are used in cheaper, less flavorful coffee).

Still, no matter the quality of the beans, any contender in the crowded coffee market knows it has to do something extra to attract customers, and SBC Shinjuku, which opened in November 1999, is impossible to pass by without at least taking a peek inside.

A beautifully manicured Japanese-style garden designed by Kogei Kobayashi draws you in, past the expansive wood and glass exterior. A wrought-iron chandelier floats down from the high ceiling, balanced by SBC’s prominent coffee and cream-colored logo in the center of the floor. Orders are placed at a dramatic circular counter in front of a huge color-drenched mural of coffee farmers.

The result: a comfortable place to conduct business or have a quiet chat, even during the late afternoons when shoppers come in for refreshment. Unlike other hot spots, the BGM at SBC is acoustic and peaceful, and the chairs and tables are spaced generously apart so there is no danger of accidentally picking up someone else’s mocha and muffin.

Another plus is there is a small covered area outside where smokers are free to do their thing, while inside is strictly non-smoking. “Smoke easily gets into the ground beans,” says Niimura, “and destroys the taste of the coffee.”

Hear, hear!

Though SBC is confident about its product, whether it could succeed in Japan was a concern. Starbucks recently celebrated the opening of its 100th store in Japan, but SBC took three years just to open its first shop here. “Howard Schulz [Starbucks' marketing and finance man] is a wizard,” Niimura admits, “but Jim Stewart is more of an artist.”

Apparently, though, Stewart has now clued in to Japan’s potential, and plans are underway to open other SBCs in Shibuya and Ikebukuro.

Prices are competitive and the food selection (croissants, bagels, panini) comparable to other cool coffee chains. But SBC has an extensive list of creative “house blends” that put other coffee makers to shame. There’s the full-bodied, aromatic “Henry,” named after a Seattle feline who used to hang out whenever beans were being roasted; “Post Alley,” a “slightly wild” blend which is also “downright jazzy”; “Grand Central A.M.,” which is “teeming with exotic tastes” and “Saturday’s Blend,” which is sweet with “spicy notes.” That’s just for starters.

Like I say, it must be in the water. For anyone visiting Seattle anytime soon, I suggest bringing back a small container of that great Northwest Pacific water. After you send it off to the lab for analysis, take the results and immediately open up your own cool java pad. Who knows? You might be Tokyo’s next “best coffee.”