When Sam Cone arrived in Seattle from Eastern Europe more than 100 years ago, the young immigrant was alone and he didn’t speak English. So he began his entrepreneurial journey in the city by opening 1915’s version of a convenience store.
Cone & Steiner Meats & Groceries was located where the Starbucks headquarters building stands today south of downtown.
When Dani Cone was growing up in Seattle, an old photograph in the hallway of her home showed the business that her great grandfather started. The image stuck with her over the years as she entered the coffee business, started her own independent coffee shop and, in 2014, re-launched Cone & Steiner.
Cone opened her own convenience store to tap into the sense of community that her great grandfather sought at the turn of the century. And now, five years into her latest entrepreneurial journey, as Seattle continues to grow and the definition of retail continues to evolve at the hands of Amazon and others, Cone is further tweaking her brand and approach.
“Anytime somebody says, ‘Oh, retail is dead’ — I feel like the phrase ‘retail is dead’ is dead. I’m tired of that. It’s not,” said Cone, who first started Fuel Coffee in 2005. “You just have to double down on the things that you do best and that you do well and that you stand for. There’s something about creating that experience.”
The experience at Cone & Steiner — now with three locations in Capitol Hill, downtown and Pioneer Square — is one where both commodity and specialty goods are offered, and a cafe setting enhances the ability to connect with people in a neighborhood.
“These brick and mortar spaces — no matter how many ways, especially these days, we can be connected ever more so with technology — nothing takes the place of that in-person, sharing of place,” Cone said.
To further share the convenience, Cone introduced online ordering and delivery at the start of this year. Right now those deliveries are only being offered from the downtown store on First Avenue, near Madison Street, and the delivery footprint is relatively small. Cone and one other employee handle the orders within two miles or less.
The plan is to include the other stores and increase the radius around each as demand grows. And Cone is already realizing that potential. While there are many individual orders out there, Cone & Steiner started feeling especially noticed when calls for an office lunch for 30 or box lunches for a convention or a happy hour spread at a co-working space would come in.
“I feel like we really struck a nerve in the marketplace,” Cone said. “I’m not an innovative person. I haven’t come up with the next Uber, but what I do focus on is the basic things that are a part of all of our daily landscapes and doing them well and creating these places for people that I think just are timeless.”
And with the proliferation of co-working spaces in Seattle such as WeWork, The Riveter, Impact Hub, Cloud Room, Makers and many more, Cone has seized on what she calls a “micro-model” plan for Cone & Steiner.
“Almost in an offhand, joking conversation where there was a happy hour spread, some of the folks that I was talking to there were like, ‘Oh, it’s so great when you guys are here. We love this. It’d be great if you were here all the time,'” Cone recalled. “And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, wouldn’t it?’ And then something about that just launched right in my brain.”
If her typical store is 2,000 square feet, Cone now envisions a shrunken, 300-square-foot version with a counter, espresso machine, a couple taps, sandwich bar, coolers and shelves. The mini Cone & Steiner, staffed by an employee, could live inside co-working spaces, office buildings and elsewhere. It would provide a branded experience and an additional point of community interaction and activation that so many co-working spaces are already based on.
An even smaller, unstaffed stand-alone idea, without the need to run plumbing and electrical, is already in the works and has attracted interest, with the launch of four such offerings planned for June. Cone will use these smaller kiosks to work out kinks, collect data and feedback and decide when to go the distance on building out bigger models.
It will be worth watching as Cone & Steiner seizes on these co-working spaces and tries to further differentiate the proven retail model of the convenience store. Amazon is certainly already doing that with its cashierless Go stores. And the tech giant earns praise from Cone as a small business owner.
“I think it’s great. I mean, shoot, [Amazon Go] is very, very convenient and I think it definitely checks a box for sure. That’s like really taking the convenience store to the hyper modern age,” she said. “We are that modern convenience store, but with the cafe elements. We’re checking the box of the third place. For us, we’re very much at the forefront of a curve of this modern store — a 7-Eleven, a Starbucks and Instacart.”
And the woman who got her name from a pioneering Seattle shop owner evokes the name of another longtime family business when further discussing the city’s retail landscape and competing within it. It starts with creating value in the experience.
“Nordstrom does that in literally ‘the Nordstrom way.’ Nobody else can do that. It’s the Nordstrom way,” Cone said. “And so creating that is just something that doesn’t die. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to evolve and change as we all do. It also doesn’t mean that with Amazon nothing else can exist.
“It just means that you have to kind of sharpen your pencil and figure out — knowing that Amazon can do all of the things — what do you do?” she added. “And if you can answer that question and execute on it in the best possible way, then you’ve got something.”