BY: JEN ST. HILAIRE
This is the story of how lesbians got me into coffee roasting.
It was the early 90s and I was living on Capitol Hill in Seattle, where all of us gays and lesbians lived back then, before Amazon moved in and made it totally unaffordable. There were lots of gay and lesbian establishments within stumbling distance of my tiny studio, overlooking the Space Needle, along the Pike-Pine corridor. There was a gay dance club called Neighbours, a lesbian bar called The Wildrose, a cool lesbian dance club called The Easy, a leather bear bar called The Cuff, and… as I would soon learn, Espresso Vivace – the lesbian (and gay) mecca of coffee shops.
Grunge was just beginning to wipe out the poppy boy bands of the late 80s and early 90s, and the riot grrls weren’t far behind. Lesbian music had also hit big time, with Melissa Etheridge, Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, Phranc, Ferron, Meshell Ndegeocello, and KD Lang topping charts and hearts, and bringing lesbians out of the closet (yes, I finally got the courage to come out when I found out Melissa Etheridge was a lesbian, but that’s another story). Flannel and authentically-ripped jeans were the uniform in the Pacific Northwest, which was great news for lesbians like me. Ellen had her TV show and we watched and cheered in awe as her character came out on national television. Living Single was a hit even though it was years before the Queen was out (did she ever officially come out?). There were lesbian bookstores, bars and businesses up and down the East and West coasts. It felt like a revolutionary time!
As a relative newcomer to Seattle in 1992 and a coffee hater (believe it or not!), I had never stepped foot inside Espresso Vivace until my ex-girlfriend told me to check out “Cute Girl Coffee Café”, as she had nicknamed it, when I’d asked where all the cute lesbians were. They were pretty much all there, apparently. So, one day, I gathered up my courage and went in to check out the situation, while wearing my coolest outfit (of course). The young women behind the counter serving me were definitely of the lesbian persuasion, and they were CUTE too! It was like hitting the Lesbian Jackpot. My mind was suddenly a little scattered. I’d almost forgotten my cover story of buying coffee.
I pulled myself together and ordered a hazelnut latte, having only experienced the very bitter Starbucks style espresso and figuring I needed to load my coffee up with sugar. I sipped my drink and BAM! What was this amazingly delicious beverage?!! Not sure if the hot girls behind the counter had an effect on how the coffee tasted, but it was not only the prettiest drink I’d ever seen, with the beautiful rosetta art on top, it was also the best damn latte I’d ever tasted, and resistance, as they say, was futile.
After that, I stopped by every chance I got, chatting up the cute girls who worked there, shamelessly flirting, and savoring every cup of the most delicious coffee in the world. Every other gay and lesbian who lived and worked on Broadway was there too, doing exactly the same thing. We all wanted to date somebody at Vivace. Eventually, one of the baristas mentioned that they were hiring, and that I should apply. Wow, I thought – working with the amazing, cute and talented lesbian baristas of Vivace! I mean… it would practically be like working with rock stars! Well, out of sheer luck and maybe a little bit of charm…I nailed the interview, got the job, and my life changed forever.
Around this same time, I had unfortunately become estranged from my very Catholic parents because they had started attending an ex-gay organization similar to Exodus, believing they could save my soul from Eternal Damnation.* So when I was hired at Vivace, and surrounded by all these lesbians and gay men, it was just what I needed. These people totally accepted, supported, and loved me, and over time, they became my family. And family is definitely what it was like, with all the fun, love, and drama attached. Everybody was dating each other or somebody they shouldn’t be dating. There were breakups and makeups, fallouts and freakouts, and in the middle of it … we were changing the entire world with our coffee.
I just want to emphasize this part for a second though. Lesbians and gays. Changing the world with our coffee. That’s definitely a brag but we deserved that title.
Espresso Vivace is credited with popularizing latte art and elevating espresso in the U.S. to a culinary art. We had modified temperature-stabilized La Marzocco machines in our shop before that became the industry standard because our team was continually perfecting the craft of espresso. People came from around the world to see this new thing called latte art, and to taste the coffee that was as sweet and delicious as it smelled. It was a revolutionary time in coffee too.
While I was serving my time as a lowly barback, I would revel in hearing the stories my coworkers shared about the latest dramas, because there was always at least one, and usually multiple dramas going on at the same time. Dear Readers, if you’ve ever worked in a majority gay or lesbian place, you know what I’m talking about. There was The Tuesday Night Make Out Club, Cute Girl Credit Union, Queer Patrol, rumors of orgies in hot tubs, a little bit of Vegas gambling, and all of that shit. In conjunction with everything else I learned at Vivace, I realized that even the Rock Star Baristas were just ordinary people, trying to get through life like anyone else. But we were all a special unit, a team, bonded together in our love of coffee… and cute lesbians. Don’t forget the cute lesbians.
Amy V was one of my heroes, even though she was only a couple years older than me. Everyone knew she was the best barista there. She was a cool, tough-talking tomboy, kind of like Jodie Foster in her earlier days. She had a super-sharp sense of humor and could have been a stand-up comic with her talent – she was that funny, fast and clever with her jokes. She had a sensitive soft side too, of course (as tough-talking tomboys usually do), and would do anything to defend other people’s civil rights. And last but not least, she listened to all the best music. She had a huge record collection in her basement room, where she introduced me to Neil Sedaka and other strange and interesting artists I’d never heard of. Everyone on Capitol Hill, including me, had a huge crush on her.
One year, a few of us decided to start a band. It was me, Amy’s sister, Katy, and Holly, a friend from work. We begged and badgered Amy to play drums for us. Amy, who was good at anything she put her mind to, was a great drummer. Can’t say the same about Katy and I in regard to our own instruments which we had picked up two seconds ago. Thrilled to have an intact all-girl band at last, we went over to Amy’s place, where she had her drum kit set up, and she put on some records to get in the mood and figure out something we could play along to. She put on “Nights on Broadway” by the Bee Gees, which I’d never actually heard before, even though I’d been in love with the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever since the 70s. To this day, I’ll always think of her when I hear that song. We practiced a couple of times, playing Heartbreaker by Pat Benatar, and some songs by KISS, but eventually, Amy got bored of playing with us (duh!) and quit the band.
DRAMA!!!! DYKE DRAMA!!!
Despite that setback, we’d recruit another good friend of mine, Sara Brown, to sing, and go on to record a little EP with three songs on it, using the studio’s drum machine. The band was called Sex For Jen, because it started as a charity dedicated to that great cause, since I was the only one who was single at the time. I mean, we were also hosting the Cute Girl Credit Union Popsicle Stand Application Booth too so, this charity band wasn’t really a stretch for us. The EP was called “Cherry” (since it was our first), and the cover photo featured a close up of a maraschino cherry placed along my bass strings.
One of the songs was an epic nine-minute prog rock jam called “Crème de la S.C.U.M.”, an ode to Valerie Solanas, who wrote S.C.U.M. Manifesto and shot Andy Warhol. The movie “I Shot Andy Warhol” starring the amazing Lily Taylor, had just come out, and we’d all become enamored by this brash, unapologetic lesbian radical feminist who had written some keen insights about men, their misogyny, and women rising up and not taking it anymore. We all had worn out copies of S.C.U.M. and thought it was brilliant, even in its insanity. Our anger against The Patriarchy mirrored the Seattle grunge music scene’s anger and was further fueled by the riot grrls coming out of Olympia, and women-fronted bands like Hole, L7, the Gits, and Seven Year Bitch. Together, we were going to overthrow the evil overlords and take over the world with our music!
Eventually, our little band would break up and I’d move down to the Bay Area in 1999, in search of more female musicians to rock out with. But I continued roasting coffee, and when the rock career failed to manifest into millions of dollars and a record contract, I started my own roasting company in 2009, and called it Scarlet City. I went to Espresso Vivace for the lesbians, and I found them, but I also discovered a love for coffee that I never knew I had, and the inspiration that I needed to start my own business.
*We’re all good now, so don’t feel sorry for me because I have great parents whom I love dearly but that is another story!