Higher Grounds

David Schomer's espresso empire is built on an obsession with quality

Slide Show >>

David Schomer had spent 16 years working toward this moment. It was February, 2001, and Schomer, owner of Espresso Vivace Roasteria in Seattle, was demonstrating an espresso machine he had fitted with a device that solved one of the biggest problems in espresso-making: water temperature fluctuations that can make coffee taste burned or sour. A half-dozen industry veterans waited eagerly as Schomer pulled the first shots from the rejiggered machine.The espresso flowed smooth and thick as honey. "I had tears in my eyes," recalls the wiry, blunt-speaking 50-year-old. "I just could not believe it."

Conquering the temperature problem was the coup de grâce in Schomer's long struggle to create the perfect cup of espresso. The former Boeing engineer and musician had rethought every aspect of brewing espresso, from the freshness of the beans to the patterns baristas make in the espresso's crema, the foam topping created during brewing. Along the way, Schomer documented his discoveries in trade journals and eventually a book and videos that were the first to promulgate standards for espresso making.

Schomer's manic devotion to quality and his willingness to share what he has learned have made him an icon in the clubby world of high-quality coffee. "What he did so well was the research in espresso making and creating the first training materials on standards and techniques for the industry," says Don Holly, director of quality at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Vermont and former administrative director for the Specialty Coffee Assn. Says Willem Boot, president of Boot Coffee Consulting & Training, who works with small U.S. roasters: "He is a true espresso professor."

Not surprisingly, Schomer's guru status has been very good for business. In a city awash in coffee, Vivace has gone from selling lattes and espresso from a street cart in 1988 to a 48-employee company that includes two Seattle coffeehouses. A retail arm sells coffee beans, as well as Schomer's book and videos, in its stores and online. Sales hit $1.7 million in 2006.

That may be a pittance in the $11 billion gourmet coffee industry. But Schomer is no Howard Schultz wannabe, and he harbors no desire to turn Vivace into the next Starbucks. Making coffee that meets his standards can't be done by a chain; it is far too labor-intensive and costly. "David's pursuit of perfection touches a customer base that's looking for that idealism and the expression of craftsmanship that Starbucks can never satisfy," says Holly. Instead, he aims for "manageable and sustained growth." As Schomer puts it: "I make coffee for people who love coffee. And I like that."

Schomer's espresso odyssey began after a few of his other passions fizzled. In 1987, weary of his long commute, Schomer quit his job as a measurements engineer at Boeing and studied classical flute at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. He woke from his dream of becoming a professional musician as bills mounted and he and his wife, Geneva Sullivan, had their first child. At the time, Seattle was becoming coffee-crazed, with coffeehouses cropping up everywhere and residents becoming connoisseurs of a type of rich, intense coffee that most of America had yet to taste. In 1988, Schomer and Sullivan, who now handles the company's accounting, used $12,000 in savings to start Vivace as an espresso cart on Broadway Avenue in the city's hip Capitol Hill neighborhood. At first, the Broadway Chamber of Commerce opposed the idea, but Schomer persuaded them by promising to provide classical musicians to play for his customers.


Four years later, Schomer borrowed $120,000 from a bank to open a 1,000-square-foot coffeehouse down the street from the cart. He began roasting beans in the back of the store in batches small enough to allow him to keep them fresh and capture the essential oils that create a sweet caramel taste and thick crema.

Vivace's coffee quickly won fans in Seattle and beyond. But Schomer was by no means satisfied. Frustrated by the inconsistent quality of his espresso shots, he tore apart the process in an approach he describes as "scientific precision guided by artistry." One by one, he tackled the problems. "Espresso took over my imagination," he says. Fresh beans, for example, are needed to create a rich crema, so Schomer began buying wholesale beans from brokers. He settled on a blend of high-quality arabica and robusta beans. "Robusta is not as elegantly flavored as arabica, but it produces a better crema," Schomer says. "It's a structural thing." He developed techniques for latte art in which baristas manipulate the cup and milk pitcher to create intricate ribbon patterns of leaves, hearts—even butterfly wings—in the foam atop lattes, cappuccinos, and macchiatos.

His biggest challenge was stabilizing an espresso machine's water temperature, which Schomer discovered varied from the ideal 203.5F by as much as 8 degrees. He modified machines by adding water tanks to hold the pressure steady, and then a digital probe to determine when the water was at the optimal temperature. Then came his 2001 breakthrough: Schomer fitted a machine with a precision temperature control device adopted from the aerospace and manufacturing industries, limiting fluctuations to two degrees. "It was the high point of my career," he says.


Schomer's reputation spread largely because he shared his knowledge. As soon as he mastered a step in the process, Schomer documented his technique in articles published by trade journals. In 1996, he collected his research in Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques. He also produced two instructional videos, Caffè Latte Art and Techniques of the Barista. Although the book and videos account for only 4% of Vivace's revenues, they've been valuable tools for crafting and boosting his image.

As Schomer's standing in the industry rose, so did sales of his coffee beans to other cafés. Schomer now roasts about 3,000 pounds of beans a week to use in his shops and for retail sale, accounting for 25% of revenues. His high profile comes in handy when he negotiates a purchase price for the beans, as brokers often give him the best beans available, something rarely done for small companies. Schomer is now testing a coffee grinder he designed with an Italian company, La Marzocco, to be called the S Grinder. He will get a percentage of sales and 18 grinders to use in his stores. "My marketing clout is so much bigger from the writing and the videos," he says. "I have the credibility and the reach, and that's why La Marzocco is partnering with me."

To find baristas who share his passion, Schomer tries to create a culture that will appeal to independent people with a creative bent. "You have to have artistic individuals making the coffee," he says. "You have to capture their imagination and allow them to feel special, but you can't let them run over you." Training is extensive: Newbies can pull shots only after six months of instruction, and even then they must be supervised by a veteran barista. "I can't have fools making this coffee," says Schomer. A full two years of training are necessary before a barista goes solo, an occasion Schomer marks with a brief ceremony in which he gives the newly certified espresso maker a Vivace jacket. He holds monthly meetings with all employees to talk shop. "I loved that we would just talk about the quality, humidity issues, bad beans, maintenance of the machines," says Chad Smith, who was a Vivace employee for three years and is now a barista at another Seattle coffeehouse, Herkimer Coffee. Smith concedes that Schomer struggles with turnover because he is demanding, and many of his best people go on to start their own shops. "But it eventually trickles back to him because his competitors talk him up," says Smith. "You have people competing with him but who also tell their customers that he's the man."

Schomer woos employees with tangible benefits as well. Vivace pays baristas between $8 and $12 an hour, which is high for the industry. So payroll accounts for about 35% of operating costs, well above the industry average of 25%. Schomer tops it off with health benefits, a 401(k) plan, and paid vacation.

Last March, Schomer opened a second Seattle store, on Yale Avenue. The 2,000-square-foot space, financed with a $362,000 loan and $250,000 of personal funds, is an homage to espresso. A mural on the front of the bar counter illustrates the history of espresso and is painted with coffee pigments. Scattered across the rainforest-green and coffee-brown marble floor are mosaic tiles with renderings of latte art patterns. And Schomer has commissioned Kurt Wenner, an Italian painter, to create a mural entitled Vivi Vivace i Vizu e le Virtu ("Live intensely your vices and virtues"). It has worked well for Schomer.

By Stanley Holmes

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.