by Sheri Boggs

It was just a flash of corrugated metal, a silvery blur out of the corner of my eye, and two of my favorite words in the English language: "coffee house." But I didn't think anything of it; in fact I figured that while the metal sign was for real, I was probably hallucinating the coffee house part. After all, this is North Washington, I reasoned, nothing but pizza, office buildings and the wedding chapel. But a few of my colleagues reported seeing it, too, and like a crew of UFO hunters, we headed for the "North Bank" neighborhood not too long ago to go check it out.

Sure enough, Coffee House is for real. We must commend them on the utilitarian simplicity of their name and, in fact, wish other businesses had the Richard Scarry-esque sense to call themselves "Grocery Store," "Hair Salon" or "Chinese Restaurant." Upon entering, we immediately appreciated Coffee House's informal-but-inviting groove. Neither too cozy nor too edgy but somewhere in between, the place is done up in warm, yellowy tones, with framed modern art prints, more corrugated metal and exposed duct work. We counted about a dozen tables, plus a corner with big overstuffed chairs and plenty of windows for traffic and people-watching.

We headed up to order and right away got distracted at the counter by the Barista Action Figure, which comes with two heads, tattoos and lattes in tall and grande sizes. We learned from the back of her packaging that the action figure's name is "Nico," and that she lives in Seattle and gets grumpy sometimes, but it's worth it because, "without her you'd be forced to drink the coffee back at the office." Ah ... a sentiment we've often used to reason away our sometimes-exorbitant weekly coffee expenditures.

Pia went for a scone ($1.70), and promptly declared it not only "enormous" but also "really fresh, with a homemade taste." We admired the plump berries and decided that the sugary substance on top wasn't icing but rather the light sweetness of sugar water. From there our attention turned to Amy's banana bread ($1.60), which delivered a strong banana presence, as well as the de rigeur dark banana threads that indicate real bananas were not only used, but harmed, in the making of your morning loaf. And finally, we had high hopes for my slice of bacon-and-cheddar quiche ($2.95), which was okay, but nothing we couldn't get at various coffee shops around town. The crust's outer rim was hard and not very flaky.

The coffee, though, was excellent in the various forms in which we encountered it. Pia's latte was just right, while Amy and I got our double short Americanos as ordered, with enough room for a decent slug of cream.

One thing we couldn't help noticing is that the guy helping us behind the counter seemed periodically overwhelmed both by catching all of our requests and by getting through the whole ringing-up-and-making-change procedure. It could do with the fact that while owner Gregg Sowder has spent a great deal of time in coffee houses, he has had no previous experience working in one. From 1989 to 1997, Sowder was the owner of the Mt. Spokane Ski Area, after which he took some time off to write music in Nashville and relax.

"I got the idea down there that I could make a nice coffee shop happen," he says. "And even just hanging out writing music gets old after awhile, so it seemed like the right time." Sowder opened Coffee House in November after seeing the property for sale last fall. To prepare, he went through an intensive training program via the Thomas Hammer Company.

"I knew as much about the coffee business as you can know before actually opening a place yourself," he says.

Coffee House has enjoyed good business from the very beginning, due largely to its auspicious placement across the street from a big glossy office complex. They don't bake their own goods but instead offer a selection from a handful of local bakeries. The lunch crowd has been fond of the ready-made sandwiches (courtesy of the Viking) and the recent introduction of soup on the menu. Future plans include the completion of a meeting room that can accommodate up to 30 people, opening on Saturday nights for live music, and even firing up the ol' grill every now and then.

"One of the really fun things we've got planned is to have a couple of Fridays when the weather gets better where we're going to be barbecuing out on the patio," says Sowder, adding that Coffee House has a 600-square-foot patio on the south side of the building. "It will be a laid-back, party kind of atmosphere and all the businessmen who are out playing hooky on Friday afternoons can just come and do it here."

Publication date: 02/06/03

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