One of Seattle’s most iconic independent coffee chains is getting a fresh start in 2020. On January 1, local restaurant mogul Deming Maclise — who has opened prominent places such as Poquitos, Stoneburner, and Rhein Haus — took over ownership at Caffe Vita, which has been at the forefront of the city’s coffee culture for more than 25 years (Seattle Met first reported the news). This change comes just a few months after the shop got embroiled in a controversy over allegedly firing employees at its Capitol Hill location for serving leftover food to homeless people. Maclise tells Eater Seattle he wants to start things off on the right foot by getting “everyone’s thoughts on how they feel about the future” and improving communication between management and staff.
In October, The Stranger reported that the roastery and coffee company’s management started pushing a new policy to employees about giving leftover food to the homeless. An email allegedly sent to staff, obtained by the paper, read, “Although these were well placed intentions, please understand, it is our belief that feeding homeless people without comprehensive services actually enables, increases and promotes homelessness.” According to the report, the letter also read, “giving away products is theft and the grounds for immediate employment termination.” After the Stranger’s article was published, then-owners Mike and Liz McConnell issued a public apology and vowed to do better.
But now that Maclise has taken the reins, he wants to assure those who may still be wary of Caffe Vita’s attitudes that the chain is friendly to the homeless community. “I want to spread the widest net,” he says. “I don’t feel like you need to have a specific policy about specific people. I think you just have a general welcoming policy to everyone.” Lest those think the timing of this controversy and the ownership change is related, Maclise says the deal for him to take over has been in the works for the past year and a half. Eater Seattle reached out to the McConnells through Caffe Vita, but did not hear back before this piece was published.
Maclise — who had a minority stake in the company before, but was not involved in the situation this fall — brings a different perspective to Vita. He started out his career as a barista at Uptown Espresso in the 90s, before buying Caffe Fiore in Sunset Hill in 2002 and expanding that shop to multiple locations. “What I loved about being a barista was not just serving coffee, but connecting with people,” he says. “I feel like cafes are just a great facilitator of community in that way.”
Besides focusing on the internal culture at Vita, Maclise intends to make some small cosmetic changes to some of the shops and make sure “service is constantly improving.” He also says he would look at making some changes to the food menus over time and seek more collaborations with other local businesses, both of which might involve Maclise’s other restaurant properties.
With more than 10 locations across four cities (including Portland, New York, and Los Angeles), three roasting facilities, and a robust retail operation, Maclise already has plenty on his plate, and right now there are “no big plans” for expanding. “I think our first goal is to make sure we’re getting better at what we’re already doing across the board,” he says.