Making it in Seattle's Independent Coffee Shop Industry
Small Business Spotlight on Jill Killen, independent coffee shop owner
Fifteen years ago, Jill Killen opened Cloud City Coffee, an independent coffee shop in the Maple Leaf neighborhood of Seattle. At the time, she wasn’t thinking much about craft coffee or coffee culture. She lived in the neighborhood and was motivated to create a space for community gathering.
It was a bold choice—opening a coffee shop in the shadow of Starbucks in a city with one Starbucks for every 4,000 people. But Cloud City gained a loyal neighborhood following, a host of café regulars, and it succeeded as a location where people were eager to connect with friends and neighbors.
Fast forward to today, and Killen has expanded her franchise. She now owns three independent coffee shop/cafes in North Seattle: The original Cloud City, plus two additional cafes—El Diablo Coffee Company in Queen Anne and her newest project—Royal Drummer Café in Ballard. Each café has a unique look and feel and serves its own coffee drinks and craft menu items, with some overlap.
Building an independent coffee shop business
I recently sat down with Killen to learn more about her experience as a café owner. I wanted to understand when and why she had expanded. I was also curious to know why she had chosen to give each café its own distinctive character rather than creating a recognizable local brand, akin to some of the local bakeries or sandwich shops in the city.
It turns out that Killen never intended to own multiple stores. After Cloud City was fully established, it wasn’t as satisfying to run day to day. She even considered getting out of the industry altogether. But then, in 2012, an unexpected opportunity fell into her lap. Within weeks, she was the new owner of El Diablo Café, an established neighborhood coffee shop in an upscale area filled with retail stores and foot traffic.
“Each of my coffee shops represents a different point in my life,” Killen explains. “In 2002, I was working at a tech company and I hated it. Cloud City was my way of finding work that was meaningful to me. Plus I was seeking out a place to talk to my neighbors. Buying El Diablo represents my recommitment to the industry after I flirted with getting out.”
El Diablo is located in an old building with huge windows, wooden floors, and tons of character. When Killen bought it, in 2012, it already had a loyal following. Killen was surprised by how devoted Diablo’s patrons were to the existing format and Cuban theme.
The walls and tabletops were covered with colorful murals depicting devilish characters, untamed animals, and swirling, steaming cups of coffee. In keeping with the theme, the café offered Cuban coffee preparations—cafés con leches, cortados, and yanquis—as well as Cuban culinary specialties—empanadas, grilled Cuban toast, classic Cuban sandwiches, dulce de leche cookies, and a signature coconut bread.
Killen realized early on that if she had tried to remake Diablo in the image of Cloud City, the regulars would have rebelled. Plus she wanted to remain true to the original concept of the place, which had been in the same location for more than a decade.
“It can be challenging when the space is in an older building,” explains Killen. “We ended up having to buy all new equipment and re-do the kitchen. Although it is nice in some ways being in a first-generation building,” she notes. “It’s original, funky, and cool, and we like that about it.”
Still, she did decide to cover some of the murals and lighten the walls, because the paint had become dingy, and she wanted to refresh the interior.
Lessons from an independent coffee shop owner
Four years later, in 2016, it was time to expand again. Royal Drummer came about because Killen wanted to experiment. “As an owner, you get restless,” she explains. “You want to try new things, but it’s really hard to change the format of an existing space.”
Royal Drummer was Killen’s first time building out a new space. It was also her first full foray into the art and craft of coffee roasting. One key innovation here is the availability of brews from several hand-picked local roasters. Killen and her coffee director Neil Oney selected their purveyors after multiple rounds of cupping and sampling. Royal Drummer also offers flash-brewed single origin coffees and seasonal coffee drinks that change on a rotating basis.
Killen has learned that she can gain some efficiencies of scale by using the same equipment across all three shops. That way she can stock the same spare parts and conduct standardized trainings for her employees. Plus she also features some of the same baked goods and savory dishes in all three shops. This also grants some efficiency, despite having three individual properties with distinctive identities.
For her next chapter, Killen is looking to expand her Royal Drummer brand. She’s currently in the market for new storefronts. “It’s challenging, though,” she admits. “Everything is very expensive. Especially in downtown Seattle.” Killen also plans to open a communal roastery, which will be yet another innovation for her and undoubtedly a valuable addition to the discerning coffee culture in Seattle.