It’s been almost 11 months since a natural gas explosion ripped a hole through the heart of Greenwood’s small business community. Many of the restaurants and boutiques damaged in the blast have spent the last year haggling with insurance companies and Puget Sound Energy, which the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission alleges is responsible for the damage. And while many of them have reopened, Neptune Coffee never will. The building in which it was housed was leveled, and a local developer wants to replace it with a six-story mixed-use project.
Owners Baltazar Soto and his wife, Christine Esparolini, have only been back to Greenwood a handful of times since; seeing the vacant lot where Neptune used to stand is too painful. In his first interview since the explosion, Soto talks about the surreal experience of showing up to find the business gone and why relocation may be out of the question.
What has the last year been like for you and your wife?
People say, “How’s it going?” or “What are you doing?” It’s difficult to relay the impact because not a lot of people have a business devastated by such a weird occurrence. We lost our entire staff because they, of course, needed to get other jobs. We lost the location. We lost all of the equipment. We lost all inventory. Everything. There was nothing that could be salvaged.
How much help have you gotten from your insurance company? Can you talk specific dollar figures?
I’d rather not. But I can say generally that it is a fraction of what our total loss was. We have not been made whole, by any means. My wife and I probably spent 60 hours a week combined, for six weeks straight, working with the insurance company. And we had an attorney helping us. I do want to note that the community supported us significantly, especially financially. And anything that was contributed has gone completely to legal fees.
Have you thought about rebuilding?
That was our first instinct, but we quickly learned that it’s a lot bigger than that. Seattle is such a saturated coffee place, and that location was unique. We did feasibility studies at other locations, and it took a few months, I would say into July, before we realized there was no way we could get what we had in Greenwood. It’s not like you can just open it up seven blocks into Ballard and do the same thing. It’s a completely different situation.
If your insurance company or PSE came to your door and handed you a check for every last dollar you lost, would that change anything?
My wife and I bought the business when it was on its way down, almost four years ago. And my wife spent 15 hour days for a full year to get it move-in ready. The second year she spent almost every day there. The Sunday before the explosion was the first Sunday we had off together. And then it blows up. So there’s a whole lot more than the value. You took away years of our income. You ripped a career away from us. You ripped away our ability to expand or grow or benefit from all of this time and success that we were working toward. So a check may appease us financially, but there’s an emotional hole that I feel and my wife feels a hundred times more.
You said, “You ripped a career away from us.” Who were you directing that comment at?
You saw the [Utilities and Transportation Commission] report. Within a few hours of that coming out, PSE said something like, “Yes, we agree it was devastating, but we disagree with the findings.” I kind of expected that. I’m an engineer by trade, and I’ve worked on forensic cases where there is culpability and money involved. So I thought, A report is going to come out, and if it blames PSE, PSE has a template written up already.
You seem so Zen.
That’s just my demeanor; I’m pretty calm and mellow. But to be frank with you, I’ve never felt as horrible as I did during this time. I was there within 10 minutes of the explosion, and it was very surreal. It took my wife and I three months before we could go to a cafe—any cafe. It’s a little bit better now, but we tend to just stay home and brew coffee.