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Vol. 8, No. 46
Nov. 16-22, 2000
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In the Fast Lane, Espresso To Go
by Christy Grimes

In case you needed more proof ours is indeed a drive-thru world, consider this: drive-thru espresso.

Along that two-lane stretch of General's Highway that winds its wooded way from Annapolis to Crownsville, a sign with a big yellow coffee cup looms like a fabulous mirage. Next to it, a fairylike cottage cranks out a full array of coffee drinks, from a straight eight-ouncer of joe to an iced vanilla mocha frappe.

Rudy's Tavern, once the lone beacon of roadside commerce in this neck of the woods, now shares its spotlight with Seattle Style Gourmet Coffee, the area's first and so far only drive-up coffee bar, which plies its tasty wares from the rim of Rudy's lot. Just hit the brakes, swerve around and roll down your window.

"You said decaf, right?" calls manager/barista Heather Fortney, leaning out the cottage's service window. "Want to try it Americano? You'll love it; it's better than drip."

In Seattle, where Heather spent most of her 19 years before heading east last month to help launch Seattle Style, drip is dead. Americano is the way to go: full-strength espresso diluted with hot water until it's the strength of regular coffee. Heather is right: It is good. But they also brew a decent drip for those who prefer their coffee old school.

As Heather packs the Lavazza (Seattle Style's grind of choice) into the portafilter of a three-headed espresso machine, a sweat-suited lady swings a minivan full of toddlers off the highway and up the Seattle Style's drive-up counter. She orders a caramel macchiato, the daily special magic-markered onto a whiteboard bearing multicolored pastel traces of two weeks' worth of daily specials. Folks charged with small children are especially taken with the drive-through concept, says Heather. "It saves them having to unbuckle the baby from the safety seat, placing the baby into the stroller, only to have to strap him in the car all over again."

Yet the concept is nothing new. Like the friends and family who run Seattle Style, the idea is imported from - where else? - Seattle, where coffee stands are common. Shane Fortney, Heather's older brother, who had come to this area to build homes, reported to his sister the utter lack of coffee stands.

So why not start one?, thought Heather. "I really thank my brother for taking me seriously," she said. "I mean, would you ever listen to a 19-year-old?" Shane was working on Belvoir Farms, a new development off General's Highway, and he often lunched at Rudy's. "I talked to the owner, Don Atwell, and he liked the idea," said Shane, who leased a spot on the far corner of Rudy's lot. That spot had been popular with people trying to sell their cars by displaying them to passing traffic. As a result, "People think we're trying to sell the stand," Shane said.

Indeed, with the thrill of debuting an idea comes the task of overcoming local notions: In these parts, roadside stands are seasonal affairs. With the chill of November, the shutters come down and the wagon wheels roll. A coffee stand, on the other hand, thrives on cold or just dull weather. "We're not a sno-ball stand," Shane says. "We're local, and we're here to stay." To put this message across, Shane designed the coffee cottage to look as little like a stand as possible, and spent months building it with friends. With its white clapboard siding, red trim and gabled roof, it looks for all the world like a little dreamhouse. At dawn, when Seattle Style slides open its takeout windows, and again at dusk after the last cup of coffee is brewed, light from lanterns adorning the windows, boosted by a row of tiny accent lights tucked into the eaves, set the little house aglow.

A typical Seattle coffee stand is a plain white kiosk about half this size, according to Shane. "There could be five of them on the same block in Seattle, all of them doing better than I am," he says. "If I could do even a tenth as well, I'd say I'm doing good.

It's lunch, and Shane has pulled up and parked a huge, gleaming pickup containing Drake Fortney, a jolly yellow Lab who goes wherever Shane does. Shane orders a strawberry smoothie from Heather, then leans on the pickup's grill and reflects on the challenges of doing business on the highway's edge. "Some people can't get the hang of this being a drive-through," he marvels. "They park in a space on the lot and walk over."

Others can't get the hang of stopping: So far, Seattle Style does brisk trade with commuters to and from I-97, plus Crownsville Hospital staff and neighborhood construction workers. Still, says Shane, "It's funny how many cars just whiz by."

It's up to the almighty sign with the big yellow coffee cup to flag them down. About that sign: It's cute. It's retro. And it's scientific, as its maker John Prehn of Signmasters explains: "A good sign works both sides of the brain. Bold shapes and colors work one side; the written message works the other." Out on General's Highway, where drivers pass at 40mph, says Prehn, a big picture of a coffee cup registers "before your conscious mind has time to react." Prehn chose yellow for the cup because "It's a caution color. It draws the eye. That's why it's on all the safety signs."

The sign appears to have worked its magic on a little black Eclipse that darts into a space near Shane's truck. But no, the two hearty young fellows who emerge are the rest of Seattle Style's crew: Heather's friends Will Edwards and David Howard, reporting for afternoon duty. The little licorice jellybean they have just climbed out of is the same vehicle that transported the dynamic duo and Heather, plus luggage, from Seattle to Chesapeake Country in three days. "Yeah, we were pretty packed," admits Will. But what's a little circulation loss when you're 20 and stoked on the pioneer spirit."

Will and David will spend the next six hours delighting customers with their coffee-making acrobatics. "We have a lot of fun serving customers," says David. The hard part is cleaning it all up once the good times roll to a close at 7pm.

Will drive-through convenience spread to other points in the county? "We'd just like to see how it goes with this one first," says Shane. So far Seattle Style seems to be perking along just fine.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly