I grew up in a small town. No stop light, no local government other than Highway Patrol, but it had a small coffee shop, which is where I pulled my first shot of espresso. As such, few things excite me more than hearing about quality coffee shops popping up in unlikely locations. I first became aware of Maxwell Mooney through his incredible latte art pictures on social media. Later, I met him in person on the barista competition circuit. Even in the context of a competition he’s the afffable sort of barista that makes a lot of friends. When I heard Maxwell was opening his own shop I wasn’t surprised, but I was excited. I also knew I wanted to know more. So I caught up with Maxwell and asked him a few questions about Narrative Coffee, the newest place to get coffee in Everett, Washington.
Tell us about Narrative Coffee. Is it a café? A pop-up?
Narrative Coffee is currently living as an outdoor pop-up coffee bar in the downtown core of a small city called Everett, WA. I’ve been pursuing a proper brick-and-mortar location, but I don’t want to land just anywhere. The opportunity came up to post up in a busy city park that functions as the courtyard of the Everett Performing Arts Center and that seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up, so here we are!
What’s the significance of the name?
Before I worked in coffee, I was a serious home coffee enthusiast. Forums, espresso machines, restorations, home roasting, you know, the whole deal. Like many home roasters, I had friends reach out to me and ask if they could purchase coffee from me. So I began hunting around for a name that would communicate many of the values I held in the world of coffee. Particularly, the nature of coffee as a commodity that is produced by actual people who are oftentimes abused by the commodity system and live in sometimes destitute poverty. Many of these mores can be alleviated by more attentive purchasing decisions and paying more for coffees that are produced equitably across the entire supply chain. At the time, I was on staff at a small church as the youth and associate pastor and was attending a private Christian university, pursuing my degree in Biblical Literature. I’ve always had a particular interest in narrative theology, of which a tenet is that truth is communicated through story. For me, I saw a great potential in sharing the stories of the hands that any given coffee has passed through before reaching somebody’s mug. So that’s where the original conception of the name came from, way back in 2012, before I ever worked in coffee.
Then I became a barista. I was now charged with the joy and honor of serving coffee to people. Over my time as a professional barista, I’ve become increasingly appreciative of the role coffee plays in the majority of most folks’ lives. As a coffee professional, coffee plays a major role in my particular narrative, it’s a central cut of fabric in the garment of my life. But for the average person, coffee doesn’t occupy such a place. If anything, it’s more like a seam – it gives occasion for individual’s narratives to come together. Over my time as a barista, the name Narrative Coffee began to shift its meaning in my mind more toward the way it connects people’s lives together. My vision for Narrative Coffee is that it will be a place that celebrates both coffee and community. I hope it will facilitate genuine interactions between people and will be an equitable product for everyone involved throughout the supply chain.
Tell us about the coffee program. What roasters are you working with? What’s the menu like?
We are a multi-roaster coffee bar featuring one static roaster, Spotted Cow Coffee (which is a celebration of Snohomish County) and two rotating roasters, who represent a Pacific Northwest roaster and a national/international roaster. The current PNW seat is occupied by Slate Coffee of Seattle, and the national roaster spot is filled currently by Steadfast Coffee of Nashville, TN. Next month, the national/international spot will be filled by The Barn from Berlin, Germany. We are still cupping through coffees for the PNW roaster, but are currently sampling Venia, Street Bean, Dapper & Wise, and Tanager.
Our menu is intentionally designed with the context of where we are serving in mind. Everett is a city with almost no exposure to specialty coffee. It was really important to me that I had the ability to offer something of high quality to nearly every person I would come across, regardless of where they’re at in their coffee journey.
Typically, the menu starts out with me meeting you at the front of the bar and saying a simple phrase to the effect of “I know our menu looks a little different than most places, so if you have any questions, please feel free to ask!” This hopefully diffuses (see what I did there, it’s a coffee joke) any of that pressure that people sometimes feel when first trying to order with a bunch of Italian words like cappuccino or breve. The menu opens with filter coffee which is individually hand brewed using a Hario V60. While I love me some quality batch brew, and even though it’s super trendy in the industry right now, I made a call to go all hand-brewed because of context. With no exposure to specialty coffee, hand brewed coffee gives an immediate visual signal that this coffee experience won’t be an average one. We offer two coffee options for filter- usually one classic and one more adventurous.
Then we have espresso, which rotates daily – Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays it is a Latin/Indonesian coffee and Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays it is an African coffee. Next, an “espresso & milk” style menu made famous by Prufrock, Handsome Coffee Roasters, and Slate Coffee. I did this to further cement that question-asking environment and also because I get tired of arguing with people about what the world a “traditional cappuccino” is. It also highlights an opportunity to share who we partner with for our milk, Grace Harbor Farms. They are a small dairy of around 60ish cattle, mostly Guernseys and a couple A2 producing Jerseys. They do low temperature long time pasteurization and never separate out the cream from the milk (this seems to lead to longer-lasting homogenization than others who separate out and then add back cream). Then we have the Ritual Mocha, which is named after our wonderful partners in the chocolate sourcing world, Ritual Chocolate.
After those classics, we have our summer signature series. We have two variations of espresso and milk combos: the iced cappuccino and the iced cortado. The former is espresso poured over ice with steamed and foamed milk added onto a pile of ice. I was skeptical that it would be good (shoutout to Wrecking Ball for throwing it on their menu and making me try it for myself), but it turns out to be very delicious. The iced cortado takes inspiration from the slightly sweetened Puerto Rican version that Menottis serves down in Venice, CA. It’s espresso, equal parts milk, and 10g rich simple syrup, shaken with ice and strained. It has a dense top of foam and drinks like a milk shake. Cause it literally is. Then we have an Espresso Old Fashioned which is not uncommon these days. We have 6 different bitters we pair according to the profile of the espresso. Then we have the “BPW” which is named after my good friend and barista coach Brandon Paul Weaver. I owe an incredible amount to that human, the least of which is the basic formulation for this drink. It’s a slightly summerized version of my signature beverage from this year’s USBC. It utilizes espresso, a coriander simple syrup made with coconut palm sugar, and a good coconut water, shaken with ice. It’s then poured on top of some setlzer to turn it into a refreshing summer style drink.
Then we have our menu of teas from Song Tea and Ceramics out of San Francisco. We are thrilled to be working with them, as they are quite selective of who they choose to work with. They’re on the cutting edge of sourcing beautiful, intriguing, and delicious teas. We brew those individually using Hario Largo tea drippers.
We also feature a series of scratch sodas, featuring seasonal, fresh, and delightful syrups (which also can be used with coffee, if they choose). Currently, we have Garden Raspberry, featuring raspberries I picked from my garden, Grapefruit Sage, Tahitian Vanilla, and Honey Lavender.
Quality ingredients, in my opinion, are the single largest factor in producing a good product.
By the looks of things you have some pretty rad old school gear. What’s your set up like?
I have been getting so many comments and compliments on our gear. That’s probably been the most surprising thing to me!
So, remember back when I didn’t work in coffee and was a home enthusiast? Well, the church I worked for at the time met in another church’s building and in their basement sat this old espresso cart that hadn’t moved for 5 years. I officially offered that church $500 for the cart, the 1991 La San Marco FCS-85 two group, and the SM90 grinder. They never officially made a decision and I moved on from the church I was at.
About two and a half years later, I was behind the bar at Spotted Cow and the pastor of that church and his wife came in. Before leaving, they asked if I was still interested in the equipment. I let them know that I was still interested but didn’t have the money for it any longer. They said it was mine and asked when I could pick it up, to which I responded, “I’ll be by as soon as my shift is over.” So I wound up with the fully outfitted cart (minus the fridge) for free. I put $300 into everything over time- I tore the machine down, replaced all the gaskets, filter baskets, etc., and gave it a custom paint job (read: rattle canned it in my garage), I replaced the burrs and gave a matching paint job on the grinder, and I ripped off the old laminate covering on the cart and replaced it with wainscoting. I had to install a new Flojet on the cart, as well as purchase a fridge that would fit (a shockingly difficult thing to find).
The machine is a heat exchanger, so it requires some temperature surfing, and I think it might have the world’s wettest steam, but it produces some real tasty espresso. The grinder, bless its heart, wasn’t built to handle the light roasts we use today, so the motor bogs down when under a normal load. I’ve figured out that you can work around that problem by letting just a little coffee through the hopper gate at a time. Then I dose directly into a Lyn-Weber blind tumbler that sits on an AWS gram scale that’s been velcroed down to the grinder. This helps me ensure accurate doses every time. It’s not a perfect set up but it was free and it does produce delicious coffee so I am totally okay with it for the time being. Also, La San Marco made some beautiful machines back in the day. They’re plentiful on Craigslist and they do clean up nicely with a fresh coat of paint.
Many baristas dream of becoming entrepreneurs. What’s it like to live the dream?
Well, serving people is my dream! So I lived that even as “just a barista.” But also feeding my family is a dream too, so I’m working on that part. So far, I’m doing the serving people part. As a side note, has anyone seen my leather punch? My belt needs a few new holes in it.
But genuinely, I am still so fresh at this that I can’t see past the fog just yet. I pulled a 17 hour day on Friday and I imagine that will just continue even more. Entrepreneurial endeavors are exhausting and probably not for everyone. But if you’re serious and committed to starting your own venture, PLEASE get a business mentor, do as much research as you need before you jump in, have a strong business plan, and make sure that your values are deeply rooted and held. Also, a healthy dose of patience and also “just do the damn thing” are needed, and I can’t tell you when which is necessary. I’ve had a business plan completed for nearly two years now, and a business mentor for a year and a half before actually moving forward on pursuing Narrative as a retail company.
feeding my family is a dream too, so I’m working on that part.
For many years you were a key member of the team at Spotted Cow. How did building that coffee program help prepare you to start your own company?
There are too many ways to list but I think the biggest things I’ve learned from my time at Spotted Cow has been that you’re only as good as your team, quality products lead to profitability, and that community is essential. I’ve gained leadership skill, industry network, good friends, a better palate, more in-depth knowledge of what a roasting program looks like from the inside, how to balance costs in a way that makes sense, and how to prioritize expenses for things like cash flow. I am blessed to still be there in ways – I continue to help out in the sourcing side of things and with wholesale, Spotted Cow is also my commissary, and my main roasting partner. They’re truly my favorite company in coffee and more people should know about the awesome work and crew that hold down the specialty scene in Mill Creek, WA.
What’s your five year plan look like?
Find a good brick and mortar spot, be a better father and husband, serve our community, empower an amazing staff, make coffee that tastes super good, push the industry toward more extensive hospitality, hit some sales goals ($30k, $40k, $50k monthly revenue), open another spot or two. Also, buy a small house for my family in the city of Everett, as we live in the rural area outside of the city right now.