On Dec. 28, Victrola Coffee Roasters will open its second Capitol Hill location, near the Six Arms on Pike Street. The space, a former auto-repair shop, will house their growing wholesale roasting business, along with a room for sampling and "coffee education." The 30-seat cafe will enjoy natural lighting from massive panes running up the 16-foot walls, plus a view into the adjoining roasting area, testament to the upscale tastes of husband-and-wife proprietors Chris Sharp and Jen Strongin, who opened the original Victrola on 15th Avenue East back in July 2000. Like true coffee aficionados, Sharp and Strongin go to great lengths in pursuit of the perfect cup, from purchasing raw beans at world-class auctions to roasting under a skylight, so as to gauge the hue of the roast with optimum fussiness.
The opening of the new space is vindication for those who fear that corporate caffeine purveyors are using their vast reserves of investor capital to tamp down local businesses. But it's still capitalism, which means the new Victrola—or V2, as Strongin calls it—will vie for customers with other coffeehouses, most notably Bauhaus, just one block away on Pine Street. Before opening Victrola, Strongin worked as a barista for Bauhaus owners Michael Klebeck and Joel Radin at their University Book Store outpost. When Strongin and Sharp decided to open their own operation, Strongin's former bosses gave them guidance and contacts to help get Victrola off the ground. And now they're going to be in direct competition with one another.
"Will it dip into our tip jar?" says one Bauhaus barista who asked not to be identified. "That's where everybody's really concerned."
But the barista says Radin is acting like he's not concerned. (Radin declined to comment for this story. Messages to Radin's partners at Top Pot Doughnuts went unanswered.) Strongin says the Pike Street location was the only one they could find to suit their needs: an old building, one story, the right square footage, and not too far from the original cafe, which will rely on deliveries of freshly roasted beans each day from V2. Strongin says she's not happy about encroaching on Bauhaus' territory. But she also doesn't think V2 will hurt her benefactors.
"Bauhaus has been there for a long time. They do a great job. It's a really great atmosphere," Strongin says. "I think that they'll continue to have the clientele that they've always had."
Strongin also points to the fact that two cafes have opened within a two-block radius of Bauhaus during the past couple years. "Faire, they opened up and competed with Bauhaus," she says. "Uncle Elizabeth's is down the street, and it doesn't seem like it's raised anybody's dander that they opened up a place near Bauhaus, so I don't feel like it should be any different for us."
If anything, this all shows how experience has taught Victrola the realities of competition. About a year after Victrola's first store opened, Caffe Ladro leased a space on the same block, which so frightened Strongin that she complained about it to the press, a maneuver she now regrets.
Ladro proprietor Jack Kelly, who calls the perceived feud between Ladro and Victrola "hilarious," sees Victrola's idea to expand the same way he saw his: a simple business decision. "In this coffee market," says Kelly, "you can't go anywhere without stepping on anyone's toes."