Seattle's coffeehouse culture is a secret to startup success (Kurt Schlosser photo)

Living in the Northwest, we’re far enough removed from the majority of the populace to sit back and notice the differences in our lifestyle. And from our little corner of the world, I often wonder what makes Seattle such a great place to live and work.

The answer may seem obvious to any Seattleite: It’s the ubiquitous coffee shop.

That said, I don’t think it’s actually the coffee, as much as the shop.

Having spent the last 20 years starting startups in and around downtown, two key small differences make this city’s business culture great.

First, we have a compact, walkable downtown with affordable commercial rents. That allows our startups to set up shop in the core of the city; not out in the ring-road interstates (others can explain to me why their startups are over on the Eastside, in the midst of the sprawl).

Second, we have coffee shops on nearly every corner (and not uncommonly, two).

Luni Libes

When combined, these two facts mean that there exists a place to have a meeting without the formality of one person visiting the other’s office.  It means that often it’s possible to literally and physically meet someone halfway, in a more casual setting than an office.

Add WiFi, notebooks, smartphones, and iPads, and the coffee shops fill up with people squeezing in some work in-between meetings as well. Truly, this is the “Third Place” vision popularized by Starbucks twenty years ago.

These thoughts came to me last week, having bumped into three people I knew at Cherry Street Coffee, and another at the Tully’s on Harbor Steps, and then three more at Uptown Coffee in South Lake Union a few days later.  All of these chance encounters made me wonder whether this coffee shop culture is indeed unique to Seattle.

As I hate to leave a measurable question unanswered, I sought some numbers.

According to an NPD Group study, Seattle/Tacoma ranked as the #1 coffee city with 1,640 coffee shops. That’s about 35 stores per 100,000 residents.

This is 261 more shops than San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose combined; a metropolitan area with a million more people than Seattle/Bellevue/Tacoma.

This is also nearly twice the number of shops in Portland and 8.2 times more than Austin, Texas.  In terms of density, it’s four times higher than New York City.

So, both anecdotally and quantitatively, Seattle has a penchant for coffee and coffee shops.

And beyond the double-tall, half-caff mocha vanilla lattes,  grande caramel macchiatos and venti multi-syllabic orders no whip, it’s the shops that brew this city’s special blend.

Michael “Luni” Libes is a serial entrepreneur who founded Seattle’s Ground Truth, Medio Systems, Nimble and 2Way. You can follow him on Twitter @lunarmobiscuit.

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  • davidgeller

    Eyejot’s first video message was created and sent from inside Zeitgeist in Pioneer Square and a bunch of its early developed was done there.

    • johnhcook

      GeekWire often works out of the Chocolati coffee house in Greenwood, but more frequently at the Red Door pub in Fremont. But that will likely be changing soon as we are close to getting some office space. 

      Key for us at coffee shops: Reliable wifi. 

      • christiananderson

        MyFaveRecipes is partial to the Wild Rover in Kirkland. Power, multiple wifi options and gluten free beer!

  • christiananderson

    “startups are over on the Eastside, in the midst of the sprawl” ouch, 2pac.

  • Sam Grossberg

    Overall, Seattle has the best coffee shop culture on the planet, but Epicenter Cafe in San Francisco is probably the single best coffee shop for startups – I always overhear interesting conversations and meet great people there.

  • Joe Brewer

    Fits with my descriptions of innovation scenes… I launched Seattle Innovators by arranging literally hundreds of coffee shop and pub meet-ups to carry the conversation.  Ideas were popping and many partnerships forged!

  • Ted Marlow

    where are these ring roads you are talking about?  start ups are happening on the eastside because that is where the really big software company exists.  it is almost a city unto itself.  and most of the east side cities are pretty easy to walk around in their core too. many of these coffee shops in your stats are out of greater seattle in your sprawl zone, so you need to be fair on compairing the bay area to the puget sound urban area numbers.

  • Eric LeVine

    Caffe Fiore on Queen Anne is my office of choice.

    • johnhcook

      Yeah, I’ve seen you there a few times. Good spot.

      John Cook
      Co-founder, GeekWire

  • Andrew Woods

    I like to use to explore coffee shops in the different seattle neighborhoods. but one of my favorites is Uptown Espresso in belltown. Their wifi is great.

  • Michael ‘Luni’ Libes

    Yes, I’ve been to Bellevue, Kirkland, and RTC, but I always had to drive to get there, and thus almost always made the trek all the way to the other person’s office.  Only once in 20 years did I ever schedule a meeting in an Eastside coffee shop.  Lunch, yes.  Breakfast, yes.  Even dinner once or twice.  The same goes for business I’ve done in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, New York City, Denver, Atlanta, etc.

    I’m not surprised if others who work there everyday have a different experience, but neither the Eastside nor any of those other cities have the density of choices as we have in downtown Seattle.  Even Google Maps doesn’t do this justice, as at least half the coffee shops around my office are missing:,Seattle,+WA+98101&ei=ckeJTsCcD4jiiAK8xZ24DA&sa=X&oi=local_group&ct=image&ved=0CAQQtgM

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