Brewing a Better Experience at Cedar & Spokes Coffee & Bar

Brewing a Better Experience at Cedar & Spokes Coffee & Bar

It’s a bright, beautiful summer day in Seattle’s Pike Place Market neighborhood, and I’m sitting at Cedar & Spokes Coffee & Bar with Brice Sanders, the owner and head roaster. Light floods through the floor-to-ceiling glass in the bright, cheery space, illuminating its clean, minimalist whites and pale woods. 

Out the window in front of me, the water meets the sky in a seamless blanket of brilliant blue, dotted with the white, red and green of ferries drifting idly by. The market is beginning to fill with late-morning tourists, and the shop is already full of patrons chatting over coffee or hunched studiously over laptops. It’s a scene idyllic enough to be the backdrop for a series about hip, Seattle thirty-somethings. 

photo cred: Blake Carpenter at @blakepnw

photo cred: Blake Carpenter at @blakepnw

According to Sanders, however, this isn’t a lifelong dream of owning a coffee shop fulfilled. Rather, it was an evolution of ideas that gradually built to where he is today: with a bustling brick-and-mortar cafe that roasts its own coffee beans, offers a lunch menu and boasts a full bar. 

Comfortable Is Boring

Tracey & Brice at Cedar & Spokes

Tracey & Brice at Cedar & Spokes

Cedar & Spokes is celebrating its one-year anniversary in this space on Oct. 17, 2019, but the journey dates back to February 2016. Sanders and his wife, Tracey Tucker, were newlyweds, and had recently moved to Seattle from his native Texas. Living what most would perceive as a comfortable life and working 40-hour weeks as a youth pastor, Sanders found himself — as most entrepreneurial types do in such situations — downright bored. 

Before moving from Waco, Texas, Sanders worked at Common Grounds: a coffee shop often  featured on Chip and Joanna Gaines’ HGTV show “Fixer Upper.” The experience working at this thriving local business, combined with Sanders’ love for specialty coffee, planted a seed that took root upon his move. 

“Now that I was in Seattle, I was watching all the friends I’d made in Waco start roasteries, breweries, coffee shops — one of my friends even started a cool ‘made here’ store in San Diego [selling local artisan goods]. And I’m sitting here thinking, ‘We should start something,’” Sanders says. 

With enough spare time and money to invest in a new venture, the couple decided to open a pour-over-only coffee cart, catering to customers at Seattle’s many farmers markets. They constructed the small push-cart themselves, building a small 4x4x5 cedar box and mounting it on bicycle wheels for a vintage-meets-modern look. 

“We tried to come up with all these names for what we should call our coffee business,” Sanders recalls. “My wife said, ‘Why not just call it ‘Cedar & Spokes?’” 

And so, named for their original mobile means of serving quality caffeine to eco-minded shoppers, a business was born. Sanders designed the logo, and they were off and running, supporting the markets and other local events. 

In these early days, they served coffee from Street Bean, because “they were also new on the scene, and we wanted to support a local Belltown roaster,” Sanders says. The roaster’s unique background also aligned with the Sanders’ values of supporting the local community: Street Bean is a 501(c)(3) offering work opportunities to street-involved youth and sourcing from green, farmer-oriented coffee importers. 

Unbeknownst to Sanders, the relationship with Street Bean would pave the way for future flourishing. 

Making Waves at Makers Workspaces

One morning, a fortunate coincidence occurred. Melissa Dowell — then the community manager at Makers Workspaces, where this blog’s author is a member — went for a cup of coffee and overheard someone talking about Sanders’ coffee-cart operation. Dowell contacted Sanders and asked if he wanted to host a Friday morning pop-up event at the workspace, to which he readily agreed.

The cart was a big hit with Makers members, and the pop-up turned into a recurring event, with Sanders rolling in every Friday morning. By the summer of 2016, they decided to open the coffee cart to the public — building business for Sanders, while also helping the still-young Makers promote its services to the caffeine-hungry crowds. This, too, was such a success that they decided to show up every day. Sanders hired their first employee, and growth exploded from there.  

The original cart at Makers Workspaces

The original cart at Makers Workspaces

“Before I knew it, two and a half years passed,” Sanders says. “We added espresso, [and] Street Bean invited us to learn how to roast, … so we started doing [our own] roasting at that point.” Eventually, it became clear that Cedar & Spokes needed a space of its own. 

“It's been a neat thing to be able to do — to start as a catering company, [then becoming] a kiosk cart and getting to roast. All those things kind of grew into all the key pieces we needed to have a cafe,” Sanders says. “We had a customer base; we had a very small operation and very small staff; but it allowed us to scale appropriately.”

Building a Future With Brick and Mortar

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Luckily, they didn’t have to wander far from the workspace that had become a second home. The space Cedar & Spokes occupies today, at 2125 Western Avenue, was available and right down the street. At first they thought it was too big, Sanders says — but just as they had already outgrown the coffee cart, he put his faith in growing to fill this space, too. 

“We started construction in August 2018, and in a quick eight weeks, we opened, on October 18, 2018,” Sanders says. He recalls the grueling schedule this tight timeline required: “I still had my full-time job at this point, so I’d get off work at five. I’d go down to the Market, and get mac and cheese from Beechers or a pastry from Mee Sum and eat on the way back here. I utilized every minute. I would just haul butt and work until about midnight. Then I’d finally go home; shower; wake up around 4:30 [a.m.]; come back here and get the contractor set up; and be back at work by 9 [a.m.]”

Sanders was no stranger to extreme hours; he cut his teeth in the Seattle food scene working 3 a.m.-to-3 p.m. shifts at a Korean food truck. What’s more, the entrepreneurial grind was in the Sanders’ blood — though Sanders says they often don’t feel like entrepreneurs. Tucker’s  grandfather founded Tucker’s Valley Furniture, one of San Diego’s oldest and largest furniture stores. And Sanders’ family has operated thriving plumbing, air-conditioning and 18-wheeler businesses in Texas.

“I really learned a lot growing up watching them,” Sanders says. “I can see how those experiences [taught] Tracey and I how to hustle to make this work.” 

And hustle they did — fueled by the dream of giving life to something all their own.  

“My wife knew the sacrifice, and she sacrificed a lot, too. … We looked at it like having a baby,” Sanders says. “But we did it because it got us to this point and it allowed us to open [the café] really quickly. And we have a really incredible team.” 

The hard work has certainly paid off, and Sanders himself seems happily awestruck at how fast they were able to succeed in the sink-or-swim Seattle food and beverage world — especially in such a competitive corner of it as Pike Place Market. 

“We have a great balance of customers,” he says. “About one-third are tourists, one-third are locals who live down here and one-third are people who work down here. Both [our] Yelp and Google [reviews] are above 4.5. We constantly have guest roasters desiring to be here. And we also have a full bar that's all local wine, beer and specialty cocktails that … my wife and our amazing staff have created. We also have great pastries, paninis, salads and grab-and-go options, which our team continues to improve upon.”

Gilbert Cheese Experience Event- Holly & Brian with Brice Sanders. * photo cred Catie Bergman Photography

Gilbert Cheese Experience Event- Holly & Brian with Brice Sanders. * photo cred Catie Bergman Photography

Another distinguishing factor: the 2,500-square-foot interior doubles as an events space. The cafe has hosted a broad array of these special occasions, including a 60-person wedding brunch; a Microsoft year-end party; business meetings and offsites; church events; photography shoots; and late-night music video recordings. It’s also the home of several events from Gilbert’s Cheese Experience: a cheese-pairing pop-up that hosts food-education and tasting events with local producers (and where this author is the Creative Lead; see the events calendar here, or read more about it on the Eat Seattle blog). It also hosts the start of Eat Seattle’s Chocolate & Coffee Tour; a 2-hour walking tour dedicated to learning about the small businesses producing some of Seattle’s best cup of joe, confections and bean-to-bar chocolate.

However, according to Sanders, his greatest honor is the ability to represent Seattle’s iconic coffee culture to visitors from around the world. Cedar & Spokes is, geographically, the closest specialty coffee shop to the original Starbucks; this puts them in a prime position to capture those customers who, after visiting the coffee chain’s first home, also want to sit and enjoy a slow cup of locally roasted pour-over or espresso and soak up the local scene.

That scene is a vibrant one, and Sanders pays homage to other locals businesses that are roasting and serving specialty coffee: besides Street Bean, he cites Elm Coffee, Cherry Street Coffee House, Anchorhead Coffee and Narrative Coffee in Everett.

“We look up to them; they were here before us, and they really paved the way for a shop like us to exist,” he says. 

‘People Deserve Better’

The next step in their evolution is to bring roasting on-site, Sanders says, which they intend to start soon. The café is already responsibly sourced, ensuring all coffees are Fair Trade and certified organic, and will switch to using compostable printed coffee bags in September 2019 — so responsible roasting is a logical next step. 

In the meantime, all the funds paid to Street Bean for use of their roasting facilities goes to support New Horizons, a nonprofit that supports homeless youth in the Seattle area. And it supports Street Bean’s own mission to help street-affiliated youth. These efforts to protect the planet, the community and its most vulnerable members are also central to the values of Cedar & Spokes.

“People deserve better, and everyone deserves a better cup of coffee,” Sanders says. “In everything we do — every drink, every day, every sandwich we serve, every interaction — we just always need to be better. ... And better is not just in how it tastes, but how it's roasted; how it’s sourced; ... [it means being] better politically; better socially; better economically; and better for the grower and the customer.” 

Eat Seattle Chocolate & Coffee tour

Eat Seattle Chocolate & Coffee tour

Cedar & Spokes is celebrating its first anniversary with a party the evening of Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. It will be open to the public, no tickets required; keep an eye on their website for more information.

Gilbert’s Cheese Experience (GCE) will be hosting two events at Cedar & Spokes in the coming months:

Friday, Sept. 6, 6-7:30 p.m.: The Amaro & Cheese Tasting Experience, featuring delicious pairings of amaro (complex, bittersweet and herbaceous Italian spirits) from Cedar & Spokes bartender Justin Thimmesch and artisan cheeses curated by GCE’s Brian Gilbert and Holly Regan.   

Saturday, Oct. 26, 5-6:30 p.m.: Kick pairings up a notch with The Whiskey & Cheese Experience, featuring bourbon, rye and port-finished bourbon selections from Woodinville Whiskey Co. as well as artisan cheeses.  
Eat Seattle will be doing their Chocolate & Coffee tours on Friday and Saturdays in September. See schedule here

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Post By Holly Regan

I am a writer, editor, foodie, amateur chef, traveler, reader, beverage geek, word nerd, animal lover, truth-seeker, tree-hugger, spiritual voyager, kundalini yogi, armchair anthropologist, activist, feminist, political junkie, daughter, sister and aunt. I hope you enjoy my work!