The Good Coffee Company's Joseph Kittay. Audio & photo by Chris Kornelis.
You'd think that as crowded as the coffee market is, Joe Kittay would stop at nothing to bring more customers through his door. Instead he's doing the opposite. There is no "open" sign. No welcome mat. No hours posted. Just an ancient awning you'll only notice on the walkway from First Avenue to the ferry terminal.
But perhaps Kittay is onto something. His low profile—you've never heard of The Good Coffee Company, have you?—has kept this fiercely independent coffee roaster in business since 1971.
"The fact that no one knows about me is, how should I say it, deliberate," he says, looking at me above his spectacles. "Because we don't want to lose sight of who we are or what we do. If you're too exposed, why, the next thing you know you don't have any control of your business...the outsiders have control of your business. And pretty soon you're just a cog in the wheel. You're nothing."
Kittay's business is beans, tea, and equipment. Walk by his Post Alley front doors (next to the Owl 'n' Thistle) at roasting time and you're liable to be blown back by a cloud of the heavenly aroma. Walk inside, past sacks of beans from more corners of the globe than Good Coffee has employees (Kittay's son, Carl, makes two), and you'll find a museum's worth of machines for making coffee. He doesn't sell coffee by the cup—only beans. True, he has an espresso machine behind the counter. But as the sign clearly indicates (directed squarely at the King County Health Department), the impossibly smooth shots of espresso are not for sale. To get one, you must be a friend, loyal customer, or annoying reporter.
His office window, partially obscured by postcards from customers around the world, indicates that Kittay has perhaps never thrown away a scrap of paper in the 20-plus years he's been in his current location. He's been on the edge of Pioneer Square his entire career, starting, in fact, in the National Building, now home to the newspaper you're reading.
"In the early days, I used to go down to the waterfront and watch the fish coming in," he says. "We had machine shops. We had a welding shop here. This was really a working neighborhood. I liked it." Back then, Kittay had more of a wholesale business. But with the explosion of micro-roasters across the country in recent years, his business now is mostly just selling beans by the bag to longtime customers.
Kittay, born in 1926, hasn't always been in the coffee business. After his two-year Army stint ended in 1946, he went to work in Alaska in "various capacities," and later worked in construction, logging, and accounting. Though he cites no particular cup of espresso as the one that sent him down the path to the coffee business, he was introduced to a quality cup by his father, Theodore Kittay, an opera singer who traveled around the world and brought cappuccino home to Chicago.
"Now you know my whole life history. But don't write a book. Don't write too much. And don't make it too appealing. I don't want people breaking the door down."—Chris Kornelis