Once a Seattle coffee titan, Snohomish man roasting again

SNOHOMISH — Heading north on Bickford Avenue, right around the Snohomish Business Park, it’s quite possible to suddenly be beckoned by a warm, rich, smooth aroma.

Hang a left into the business park and follow your nose to Vista Clara Coffee Co., where Dave Stewart, three or four days a week blends and roasts coffee beans, sending an awakening aroma into the Snohomish air.

Vista Clara at 1822 Bickford Ave. is owned and operated by Stewart who, being one of the founders of Seattle’s Best Coffee, knows a thing or two about coffee. Stewart and his brother, Jim, deserve a huge nod in having a hand at making the Seattle area the coffee cosmos it is today.

“It’s a great business,” Dave Stewart said. “Really fun.”

The road to Vista Clara in Snohomish began in Coupeville on Whidbey Island in 1969 at The Wet Whisker.

Jim Stewart was studying optometry and during the summer serving 18 flavors of ice cream from the store. The brothers began selling coffee beans by the pound and ground them for customers, too.

When Jim Stewart took a trip to California he checked out The Coffee Bean &Tea Leaf, a Los Angeles-based coffee and tea retailer, and took a keen interest in roasting coffee beans. He ended up working at that business for a few months.

“My brother was roasting and fell in love with that right away,” Dave Stewart said.

In 1970, the brothers began their own roasting at The Wet Whisker. The following year they decided to add a store in Seattle at Pier 70.

Dave Stewart had just graduated from high school. It was 1971 and the same year that the first Starbucks store opened in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

But the Stewart brothers were roasting their coffee onsite as well as continuing to sell ice cream at Pier 70. This, Dave Stewart said, was before Starbucks began roasting coffee beans.

The Stewart brother’s business grew and soon coffee was being sold at 12 Wet Whiskers in the greater Seattle area with one in Portland, Ore., and another in Steamboat Springs, Colo. During that time the University District store began selling espresso.

In the late 1970s, the Stewart brothers hired a high school friend who began selling their roasted coffee beans to restaurants. They also had a front in the food court at The Seattle Center and had their biggest year in sales in 1978.

“It was because of the King Tut exhibit,” Dave Stewart said.

During the 1980s, a Chicago, Ill., business that had been trading under that name for 40 years, challenged Stewart Brothers Coffee. The Stewart brothers held a brainstorming session with employees and wanting to keep the SBC logo came up with the name: Seattle’s Best Coffee.

Business was thriving but it was getting a bit too big for Dave Stewart and during a fairly long process in 1985 he sold his shares to his brother.

“It was starting to require a suit and ties at that point,” he said.

In 1994, SBC was sold to a group of investors and the company grew tenfold.

“It went international,” Dave Stewart said.

Three years later, the investors sold the company to AFC Holdings, an Atlanta business that owned Church’s Chicken and Cinnabon. Starbucks bought SBC in 2003.

During those years, Jim Stewart, the older brother, began encouraging Dave Stewart to roast coffee. Dave Stewart took the idea and started roasting on Vashon Island. In 1998, Vista Clara was born.

“It means clear view in Spanish,” Dave Stewart said.

Stewart opened the Snohomish roasting operation on Memorial Day weekend 2008 when he took delivery of his roaster. Seven days later he was roasting coffee in Snohomish County and stopped roasting in Vashon.

“What motivated us to do this was commuting to Vashon three days a week,” Dave Stewart said. “I was up at 3 a.m.”

He and his wife, Joan, have lived in Snohomish for more than 30 years.

“I learned that you can’t get away from the coffee business,” Stewart said. “It’ll get you back.”

Vista Clara is not an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. six days a week operation.

But if customers are passing by and want to a buy a pound or two of freshly roasted coffee, Stewart will grind, bag and label it for them.

“We want everyone to have good fresh coffee,” Joan Stewart said.

Roasting takes places three or four days a week with the bulk of the almost 5,000 pounds done on Mondays.

“We are at about 25 percent of production capabilities,” Dave Stewart said.

Since working under the Vista Clara name, business has grown steadily for Stewart. “We’ve had no exponential growth,” Stewart said. “We hope for that.”

He sells his blends at $8.50 for a pound of coffee.

Mike Milton, a delivery driver for The Green Room in Auburn, drives to Snohomish to deliver green coffee beans to Vista Clara and had his first cup of Stewarts roasted blend on one of his first visits. Milton left with his cup of joe for his drive.

“I called from further down the road,” Milton said. ‘I said, “I got an issue with this coffee. It’s the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.’”

But the blend and roasting is an art and most competitive part of the coffee business is selling products, Stewart said. He does a lot of door knocking and business comes via word of mouth.

Vista Clara has three full-time employees including Stewart, and three part-time. Three years ago, Joan Stewart moved the office from home into the Snohomish building.

“Just being here it has blossomed tremendously,” Dave Stewart said. Vista Clara coffee is served locally at Bickford Espresso and House of Brews in Snohomish. Stewart creates his blends with green coffee beans coming from many locations such as Brazil, Kenya, Colombia and his sister-in-law’s plant in Costa Rica. The bags are sold to businesses locally and as far away as Pennsylvania to a chain of coffee houses.

Back on Whidbey Island, the Stewart brothers were honored last year in Coupeville. People came from across the country to celebrate the two and remember their beginnings at The Wet Whisker.

Throughout the years, the roasting, the business and the blends Stewart has learned a lot. He and his wife have raised three children and enjoy seven grandchildren.

Many things have changed in the coffee business since the Wet Whisker days in 1969. Dave Stewart does not profess to be a computer person. His art is in roasting and his roaster is automated. He has all his blends in his head and scoops a cup full of beans from this bag, another from that bag to create them.

He also makes a mean brown sugar latte.

“For 43 years I made coffee with a No. 6 cone,” Stewart said. “Drip. I think it’s the best.”

Vista Clara

Learn more at www.vistaclaracoffee.com.

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