It’s June in New York, and despite the stormy skies the 2016 Governors Ball is rocking Randall’s Island Park. Backstage in the makeshift city of white tents, Sting holds court in a cushioned outdoor wicker chair, ball cap parked on his knee, drinking a Caffe Vita cold brew from a clear plastic cup.
The coffee shop that began in Seattle more than two decades ago supplies the coffee for the massive music festival, caffeinating bands, VIPs, and hangers on who roam the tents. Sting’s here because his daughter, Eliot Sumner, performed that day. Vita’s here because owner Michael McConnell has managed to grow an upstart coffee shop that catered to musicians into one of the largest coffee companies still under independent ownership.
If you can get the famously press-shy McConnell talking, he’ll tell you, “Coffee was the catalyst to everything for me.” It took him from a high school dropout to a guy whose product pours in all 50 states, 200 locations in airports alone. It’s the brew of choice in countless Seattle bars and restaurants, everything from Lark to Linda’s Tavern, not to mention schools, the zoo, and tons of coffee shops. Vita’s own cafes—marked by red neon and its signature, slightly sinister-looking Punchinello clown—number six around the city, plus outposts in LA, New York, Portland, Olympia, and a counter at Sea-Tac that’s your last guarantee of a decent macchiato before leaving town.
There’s no mistaking a Caffe Vita. The lights are generally low—more like a bar where you might make some dubious decisions shortly after midnight than a destination for reading the Sunday Times—and the soundtrack usually involves some urgent drums.
McConnell’s 48, a guy with unexpectedly light eyes and a strong nose, prone to wearing various trucker hats over his shoulder-length black hair. Coffee also led him to a newer role as a quietly prolific restaurateur, founding pizzeria Via Tribunali, then backing promising chefs or concepts—the Wandering Goose, Li’l Woody’s, Hitchcock, and even more pizza at Big Mario’s and Pizzeria 22. It’s the reason he’s able to give so abundantly to good causes (pretty much any community group who requests a donation, and isn’t aligned with politics or religion, gets a slate of coffee and pizza gift cards) but also the reason news of his reckless driving and assault arrest in 2010 made waves across the city.
Around Seattle, just about everyone in his industry has a strong opinion of McConnell. People who’ve known him for years—musicians, chefs, denizens of Capitol Hill—praise his loyalty, his enormous heart, the quality of his product. Other people point to his aggressive business practices as proof he’s a grade-A jerk. No matter how you feel about the guy, it’s hard to argue two points: He has an incredible knack for this business, and coffee has scored his life with unexpected highs and lows.
In the early ’90s, Lower Queen Anne’s ratty apartments reverberated with the sound of Seattle. At the Laundry Room studio, owner Barrett Jones was busy recording the Presidents of the United States of America’s debut album and working with acts like Satchel, Love Battery, and Young Fresh Fellows. When energy flagged, Jones and his artists would skateboard across the barren parking lots to grab lattes (back then it was almost always lattes) at the Tower Records coffee cart. Until the very first day of 1995, when two guys who had met selling espresso machines opened Caffe Vita across the way.
The idea of McConnell as a business owner might have seemed laughable in his teen years, which he spent anywhere but school. McConnell’s parents had him young; before long, his dad wasn’t in the picture. After dropping out in the 10th grade, he dug ditches, moved pianos, worked at a seafood distribution plant—nothing lasted. He’d get fired or quit, or just go to lunch and not come back.
One afternoon, hanging out downtown with his skateboard, McConnell ended up at the coffee cart outside the former Nordstrom at Fifth and Pike. He can’t remember which of his pack of friends first suggested they check out these fancy coffees, but he does remember selling weed, then funneling proceeds into espresso drinks made with half-and-half and almond syrup: “They were ridiculous coffees, and we’d be all jacked up.”
His coffee sensibilities quickly improved. After running a pair of freestanding espresso carts, he got a job selling espresso machines. He needed the money—his first son, Andrew, arrived when he was just 19; Christopher followed three years later in 1990. By the time McConnell was 25, he was married with two kids, popping in at Espresso Vivace on Capitol Hill a few times a day to marvel at founder David Schomer and his ability to pull the sort of shots you’d find in northern Italy, roasted dark enough that caramelized sugar and the bean’s natural flavors peak at the same time.
For a guy who didn’t make it out of the 10th grade (though he later earned a GED), McConnell made a savvy observation: Sell someone an espresso machine, and that relationship is done. Sell coffee, and your customers come back.
He and a coworker, Michael Prins, were both over their sales jobs and ready to be their own boss. They dug up a little money and signed a lease on Fifth Avenue North in Queen Anne. The rent was cheap and, back then, you could glimpse downtown from the large front windows.
People told McConnell and Prins they were crazy. Seattle already had an estimated 10,000 baristas pulling shots around town: Clearly, the coffee market was saturated. Vivace’s Schomer, who had become a mentor, warned that such an oddball location would never clear $500 a day.
Musicians came in, then brought their friends, their bandmates, their guitar techs. Word spread until the shop’s regulars constituted a Sub Pop fantasy draft: members of Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Afghan Whigs, Pearl Jam and its predecessor Mother Love Bone. Before long, says McConnell, Vita had bested that $500-a-day benchmark. “Six months in, we were flying.”
McConnell’s sons weren’t old enough to work for Vita, but seven-year-old Andrew could already pull off perfect rosetta latte art. Eventually they’d both find their way into their dad’s business, when it grew far beyond coffee.
Caffe Vita’s space on Capitol Hill now seems fundamental to its identity, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the company found a home in the neighborhood where McConnell roamed the streets as a teenager. He and Prins wanted a location in the area and heard Anne Michelson was selling Cafe Paradiso, which took root on Pike Street around the time Seattle, as she put it, “started realizing there was something happening there socially and intellectually and artistically.” Vita had begun roasting its own beans about six months after opening that first cafe, eventually building a reputation for buying beans direct from farmers—a righteously complicated process that today involves regular visits to 11 different countries. By the time Prins sold McConnell his share of Vita in the early aughts, small businesses all over town were pouring Vita coffee.
In 2005, two people who grew up on Capitol Hill began planning their wedding, and the guest list quickly got out of hand. Which wasn’t surprising. She was Liz Weber, a green building consultant active with the Huntington’s Disease Society of America; he was Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam.
The couple decided to avoid the madness and just go ahead and get married that following Sunday. Weber needed 100 bottles of champagne for the reception, and a friend knew a guy who might be able to help; he’d recently opened a pizzeria down the street from his coffee business on Pike. McConnell showed up with the bottles that weekend, meeting the woman who would eventually become his wife—on her wedding day to a famous musician.
Weber knew Vita’s Capitol Hill cafe well; she spent many a high school afternoon cutting class to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes there when it was still Cafe Paradiso. She never imagined she’d show up to this same building every day as an adult, running a coffee and restaurant empire with her second husband.
Via Tribunali was in the midst of its Wednesday-night dinner rush on March 31, 2010, when diners got treated to an unexpected spectacle. A suite of Seattle police officers filed through the front door and headed for McConnell, who was sitting with his attorney and having a drink at the end of Tribunali’s marble-topped bar.
They hustled him out of his restaurant as customers gawked from the dark wood booths; he remembers being pushed, spread eagle, onto the sidewalk as the cuffs went on and he was arrested on suspicion of DUI, assault, and hit and run. He refused a breath test at the East Precinct and waited for Weber to bail him out of jail.
McConnell had spent the afternoon at power lunch mecca Carmine’s, taking some meetings alongside his lawyer, but also “blowing off steam,” he says, which included a good amount of wine. He was going through a divorce with his first wife, staying up nights working on restaurant projects, and at raw ends over his older son, Andrew. The 22-year-old was struggling with heroin, a drug whose ruinous powers McConnell well knew from the music scene of the ’90s. Business got better every year, says McConnell, but “it wasn’t the highest point in my life.”
He certainly shouldn’t have been driving, he allows, but after leaving Carmine’s, McConnell hopped in his Mercedes and headed for Capitol Hill. He was on Broadway just before James, where low buildings give way to Swedish Medical Center and the Hill’s south end. A driver was stopped at the light. McConnell rear-ended him. The two men pulled over in front of the old Yasuko’s Teriyaki. McConnell’s lawyer, Brock Gavery, who’d been behind him, did the same.
The other driver said McConnell’s breath smelled of alcohol. Gavery and the driver each told police the other man made the suggestion: A trip to the ATM and $1,500 cash would make this all go away. Both accounts concur that a pissed-off McConnell refused to give any money. McConnell vehemently denies reports that he punched the other man in the chest with both fists or made any physical contact before walking through the Seattle University campus, leaving his car outside the teriyaki shop. “None. Zero. I told him to fuck off from one foot away from his face, then I walked off. That’s it.”
Ultimately McConnell was charged with reckless driving and did community service; the other charges were dropped. As the owner of one of the city’s best coffee companies, not to mention his stakes in high-profile bars and restaurants, McConnell’s very public arrest was news. Anyone with a passing interest in coffee or pizza was talking about it.
One local woman was fascinated for a different reason. As blog coverage started to wane, McConnell got a Facebook message from a woman, Maggi McConnell, who saw his photo online. They obviously shared a last name, she wrote, and he looked so much like her younger brother Mark. Maggi had inklings her father had a son long before he got together with her mother. Was it possible they were siblings?
McConnell waited a month before replying. He sent her a photo of the bottom of a coffee cup, hand-painted with a little holly leaf. He asked, Does this look familiar? It did. Maggi had a similar coffee cup, painted and signed by her grandmother Helen, who goes by Holly.
The McConnell siblings planned to meet at Frank’s Oyster House. McConnell brought Weber for support, but he and Maggi and Mark soon found they shared more than a chin. Mark was in the early stages of planning a food truck, Off the Rez. Maggi had strong opinions about coffee. Through them, McConnell even renewed a relationship with his dad, an act of forgiveness that’s admittedly at odds with the retaliatory reputation he has among some competitors.
People are disinclined to share their concerns about that reputation on the record, but many of them stem from the traffic incident and McConnell’s decision soon after to open a Caffe Vita on Phinney Ridge, maybe 100 feet from where his former business partner Michael Prins roasts coffee in Herkimer’s sunny sage-green quarters. There’s also the Vita location in Fremont that’s just four blocks from another cafe and roaster, Lighthouse, and a long-voided agreement with Portland roaster Stumptown not to compete in each other’s cities (to be fair, Stumptown came to Seattle before Vita arrived in Portland). It does begin to look like a pattern.
Roasters like Lighthouse, Herkimer, and McConnell’s espresso mentor Vivace make a point to stay small and hands on. McConnell unabashedly wants his business to grow. “[Mike] can be acerbic and challenging,” says David Schomer of Vivace, who coached McConnell on the finer points of espresso all those years ago and counts himself as a fan. “I think he came up tough and so he’s tough, you know?”
In collegial Seattle, McConnell’s a rare operator willing to compete head to head. “I don’t believe we’ve been aggressive,” he says. “We do our thing. We’re not for everybody, we just do what we want.”
These days he’ll only open locations in the sort of neighborhood where he’d actually enjoy living. “Otherwise I’d never go there.” This has meant pushing out of Seattle, into New York City. McConnell opened a Caffe Vita and Via Tribunali on New York’s Lower East Side in 2012. By then both his sons worked for the business making pizza; Andrew, with shoulder-length hair and eyes like his dad’s, moved to New York to help open the new Tribunali. It eventually closed, but Vita thrived. Andrew got a pizzaiolo job at a new pizzeria in Queens and in 2014 came home for Christmas to see his family, which now included Liz Weber—she and McConnell got married in 2012.
On the morning of January 13, 2015, not long after Andrew returned to New York, Caffe Vita regulars on both sides of the country showed up for their morning coffee to find every one of its cafes unexpectedly dark.
Word had reached Seattle that Andrew had died of a heroin overdose.
McConnell shut down all operations for the day, then stepped away from his business, not returning full time for nine months. He’d seen plenty of heroin overdoses through the years; it felt entirely unrecognizable when it happened to his son.
“It took me a while before I could get out of bed and do anything,” he remembers. “My values changed.” Since he returned, he says, McConnell makes a point to spend time with “the right people,” the ones he truly cares about.
It’s Friday morning and a curly-mopped roaster named Eric Farrugia is releasing a batch of Caffe Luna French roast from the drum of a 1930s-era German Probat machine that looks like an Industrial Revolution–era railroad engine. Aside from the laptop charting temperatures inside the 80-year-old behemoth, the setup is unexpectedly low tech; even the cast-iron scale where Farrugia and Vita’s elder roaster Wade McIntire measure beans is from 1952.
Every batch of Vita coffee served between here and the Mississippi River (except for the Portland market) comes from this room. Vita’s roasting facility in Bushwick supplies the rest. Farrugia shakes the beans into the mesh cooling tray. A warm, toasted chocolate aroma rushes into the air, the result of a process that’s part precision, part intuition.
“It’s kind of like a dark art,” he observes.
Roasting begins at 4am, before the cafe out front has served its first French press—before the screenwriters and spreadsheeters and regulars show up, seeking community and creative fuel, just like the wild musician days of yore, except with more laptops and strollers. Many of the artists who populated Vita in the beginning took its coffee on the road. Word spread. Now it’s been part of the backstage concessions for an eclectic lineup including Willie Nelson, Alice Cooper, Kate Bush, the Dandy Warhols, and, yes, Sting, not to mention the late David Bowie, whose face gazes up from the swimming pool at McConnell and Weber’s house on Vashon Island via a massive mural.
Some people joke coffee is what makes life possible; for McConnell that’s truth. That once-aimless dropout with ripped jeans now runs a company based on lessons learned far from any classroom. He’s made an indelible mark on the nation’s most acclaimed coffee town, built one family and reconnected with another, and had the entire city privy to his lowest moments. All these things happened, one way or another, because of a cup of coffee.
Most of the other independent roasters that defined coffee’s third wave aren’t so independent these days; San Francisco’s Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia in Chicago, La Colombe in Philadelphia, Portland’s Stumptown have all sold to bigger companies or received venture capital infusions. McConnell’s had offers, but none that justified giving up the fun of doing things exactly the way he wants. Vita’s still here—growing ever bigger, yet somehow sustaining coffee’s connection to Seattle’s counterculture past.
Maybe that’s the real dark art.