By Melissa Allison and Monica Soto Ouchi
Seattle Times business reporters Howard Schultz wasn't the only entrepreneur inspired by the Starbucks of old, a retailer begun in 1971 by three men determined to bring high-quality coffee beans to Seattle. Schultz ultimately led a group of investors to buy Starbucks, then turned it into a publicly traded powerhouse that aspires to have 40,000 stores worldwide.
Another early Starbucks acolyte, Jeff Babcock, took a different path and now owns a decade-old Seattle chain called Zoka Coffee Roaster & Tea that is gearing up for expansion. Next month, Babcock plans to open Zoka's third coffeehouse in the former Bibo Coffee space at Snoqualmie Ridge. He and his wife, Brenda, are giving that shop the signature Zoka look: lots of wood and stone, fresh-roasted coffee and more fresh-baked pastries than most coffeehouses offer. Zoka also is moving to a bigger, 12,000-square-foot roasting plant in Ballard that will house a second roasting machine, Zoka's bakery and corporate offices. The second roaster is a vintage Probat machine, the choice of many Seattle coffeehouse owners. Caffe Vita recently bought and is refurbishing its second vintage Probat to use alongside the 1930s-era Probat it has used for years. Babcock also hired an operations director, a former executive from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, in which Babcock was an early leader. With Zoka's revenues growing more than 20 percent a year, Babcock hopes to open one or two new Seattle-area stores a year. A new store costs $250,000 to $500,000 to launch, he said. Babcock started his first coffeehouse chain in Tampa, Fla., in 1984 after graduating from the University of Washington. He bailed out when investors didn't share his vision. Returning to Seattle, he partnered with a former Starbucks roaster to open the first Zoka near Green Lake in 1997. This time, Babcock kept large investors out and grew only as fast as his and his partner's funds would allow. It took six years to open Zoka's second coffeehouse, which is near the UW. A few years ago, a Japanese firm called M Foods signed a deal to open Zoka-branded coffee shops in Japan. It has started five shops so far, from which Zoka receives licensing fees. Babcock, who bought out his original partner several years ago, has focused on building Zoka's reputation by buying high-quality coffee beans - he visits many of the coffee farms himself - and training baristas to compete in international competitions. Earlier this month, Zoka paid $130 a pound for a rare type of Panamanian coffee he figures will sell for $8 to $9 a cup. Mary Williams, a former coffee importer who sold beans to Babcock's Florida chain and a former senior vice president of coffee for Starbucks, said she's not surprised Babcock is doing well. "Jeff is very passionate about coffee and he has really, really good food," Williams said. "It's a way harder business than it looks like on the outside, and I admire that he's still willing to do it."
- Melissa Allison