Coffee Culture

Higher Grounds

Fonté goes to the source to give you its best shot. But first, a few questions.

By James Ross Gardner September 16, 2009 Published in the October 2009 issue of Seattle Met

PAUL ODOM IS CAREFUL not to smack talk other Seattle coffee shops, but you get the sense that he’s had it with the slacker vibe meted out by the city’s tattooed legions of disaffected tennis-shoe gazers. “We’re providing great coffee without the attitude,” he says. That’s true. In fact, the drink slingers at Odom’s Fonté Coffee Roaster and Wine Bar (1321 First Ave, 206-777-6193;, which opened in August in the Four Seasons building, could have been lured from the One Tree Hill casting couch.

No inglourious baristards here. Approach the counter and the servers swarm, tripping over each other to be the first to ask not only what’s your drink, but your name, your job, and your plans for the evening. It can be a bit much. Then again, you’re there for a perfect cup of coffee: bold, clean, earthy flavors with a velvet mouthfeel. And despite nearly two decades of selling beans to high-end hotels and restaurants, Paul Odom is taking his first toe dip into the service side of the Seattle coffee scene.

He caught the beverage biz bug from his father Milt, head of the Odom Corporation, a Seattle beer and soda distributor renowned for being the first to sell Coca-Cola in a can. After Paul graduated from college in 1991 he had an idea. Why not take a raw material—like the coffee bean—source it, package it, and ship it without interference from the corporate overlords his dad had to deal with? He hired former Starbucks roaster Steve Smith and struck deals with coffee farmers from Guatemala to Ethiopia—anywhere on the planet where that little bean grew. “We’ll tell a farmer in Brazil, ‘We don’t want your first pass of beans. We want your second or third pass,’ ” Odom explains. “There’s less fruit on the trees, so the bean is more flavorful because it has less competition for resources and nutrients.”

He scored contracts with Wynn Resort Las Vegas, Four Seasons hotels, LA’s Chateau Marmont, and a handful of high-end restaurants, sending them sealed bags of coffee beans just a few days after Smith tumbled them in German-engineered roasters. The name of the business: Fonté—Italian for source. The logo: a tiered fountain fit for a Roman emperor.

Meanwhile Seattle’s coffee culture mushroomed into something Odom didn’t like. “It became this culty thing,” he says of the tattooed, pierced, and style-trumps-quality café scene that emerged in the late ’90s and never went away. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but going into a dark, dank coffee bar is not as pleasant as going to a place with exceptional food items.”

Aside from a few coffee shops and restaurants that served Fonté blends, the company had virtually no profile in the city. Then Odom opened the bar on First Ave, imagining a café that would elevate coffee in Seattle and allow Fonté to show off its stuff for the hometown crowd. Odom assembled a team, demigods of the Seattle foodie scene: Tysan Dutta, an ex-sommelier at the Herbfarm restaurant; Crush chef Jason Wilson, fresh off his James Beard nomination; and Dismas Smith, who won the 2002 North American Barista Championship with a whip-topped chocolate drink served in a sherry glass.

The team dreamed up a menu: a dozen wines, 16 beers, and dishes with decidedly Crush-like ingredients, like Moroccan beet salad, artisan cheeses, and a breakfast sandwich made with orange-yolked eggs from Wilson’s mother-in-law’s Bainbridge farm.

Atop a milky white counter, shining like a showroom Maserati, sits the Mirage, a chrome and black espresso machine custom crafted by Dutch metal artist Kees van der Westen. From this comely contraption baristas pull shots of Fonté’s impossibly smooth espresso. So what if you do have to answer a series of penetrating questions before you put lips to java. It’s a perfect cup of coffee. And you’ll be back.

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