Welcome to the Small is Beautiful Project!
There are so many creative people doing cool things here in Seattle, I wanted to document some of their projects and share them with all of you. I’ve had this idea kicking around in my brain for a while. But because I’m an introverted hermit, I’ve been dragging my feet on reaching out to people to ask if I could come shoot their portrait and photograph their spaces.
But I finally got my ass in gear and asked Zack Reinig, the owner of one of my favorite coffee shops, if he'd be part of the SIB Project. Happily, he said yes.
So I give you my inaugural Small is Beautiful story, featuring Union Coffee. The clean lines and organic touches in this light-filled space make it one my favorite work/chill spots in the city. Also, they feature beautiful roasts by Olympia Coffee and pull a mean shot. My Seattle people definitely need to discover this gem of a coffee shop if you don’t know it already!
An interview with Zack Reinig, owner of Union Coffee, coffee shop and experimental space
Mad lib time! People could describe your business as Great Coffee meets Architectural and Sonic Self Indulgence.
What is your background?
I’m from Eastern Washington originally. I am a musician and came to Seattle in ’94, and very soon thereafter started working as a studio technician and assistant recording engineer at various recording studios in the area. I moved from that to being a freelance recording engineer/producer and moved to New York for a few years. I was producing a band back in Seattle at Jupiter studio in Wallingford during that time and met my future wife, Molly. She brought a pot roast and cookies to the recording session that day. It was both a completely crazy thing to do, and very, very charming.
I moved back to Seattle, continued my life in production, playing in bands, and dating Molly for a number of years. I did a few tours of the US, and then at some point, did a tour doing live sound for a friends’ band. I caught on pretty quickly as a live sound engineer, and ended up traveling the world for years with three girls from Olympia/Portland collectively named Sleater-Kinney, and subsequently a New Mexican band called The Shins. Touring was a great education in various cultures' design spaces/rooms/buildings. I often wonder why design firms don’t hire people who have toured a lot. You see so much insane architecture and design when traveling 200,000 miles, year after year while working in the arts.
Anyway, after 15 years in music, and five or six breakups with Molly, I realized it was time to quit music and transition to a more reasonable lifestyle for both of us, if Molly would have me. We got married at Treehouse Point in Fall City in 2011, we had a little girl (Named February Moon Reinig), and I studied law to get some of my logical mind back, having lost it from so many years on the road. We now live in a little house five minutes from the coffee shop.
Since 2009, I have been making Molly coffee every morning since we moved further than three blocks from our favorite capitol hill coffee shop. In my eyes, “Union” is much more about Molly and my relationship, and our mutual daily discovery of coffee than my street address. Over the years, I learned coffee via a Bialetti, various pourover devices, a vintage La Pavoni manual press, and finally a full on professional espresso machine - futzing with various grinders along the way.
How/when did you get the idea for your current venture?
A few years ago, I was kicking around various small commercial development ideas that resembled places I had been to in Holland and Japan, where a coffee shop was the center piece to the build-out of a space. I went down the road on a few projects only to be turned away during the final bit of negotiation. I decided that it would make more sense to simplify and focus on what I loved most about the project - coffee, music, and architecture in one small space where I can hang out all day and chat with friends. I knew the coffee and customer experience would have to be outstanding and I wanted to value my baristas as quality craftspeople, because a great barista is definitely the most important piece to pulling a great shot. So I hired, and continue to hire extremely carefully and offer full health benefits, the ability to tour and pursue art, and hopefully one day even paid family leave to baristas working over 28 hours per week, even though I know that would be expensive for a new small business. I designed the space to be very different from anything in Seattle, and did not compromise much at all from my original thought on the build - which took a ton of confidence in my vision.
On a scale of one to shitting-your-pants, how nervous were you about starting your business?
Very nervous, and that continues to this day. Only in the very beginning of design of the space did I think “Oh, this shit is eeeasy”. You quickly learn that there are so many x-factors in small business from construction overages to financing/debt, to opening and operations, to juggling life priorities, that you always feel that you are one really bad move from catastrophe. Business is a stressful thing, and I respect anyone who chooses to hang a shingle.
What's the greatest challenge with your business?
Patience! I want a great art show to happen in the space tomorrow! I want to have an awesome live music show the next day! I want to have a community speaking event the day after that! There are so many cool things to do - it just takes time to put them together in a way that gives the artists/performers/academics/etc. their just due... all the while running this infant of a business well enough to get the capital to fund more great fun things to do. Did I already say that running a business is hard? Or is it ambition that is hard? Hmmm….
What do you love most about your business? What brings you the most joy?
There are these moments that occur where my dream vision for the shop materializes out of thin air. Molly and my girl are hanging out on the couch, some old friend or tour buddy of mine has come in to chat, people are really loving the coffee, there’s a great record on the hifi, and customers are enjoying the design and architecture of the space. It's like - just for a minute or two, everything comes together in perfect rhythm. Those moments are so great.
What's on your bedside table (be honest)?
I don’t have a bedside table, but in its place is a cord that I try not to trip over while letting the dog out to pee every night at 2 or 3 am.
Secret hobby and/or obsession?
Coffee plantations in sunny locales.
That’s impossible. Osaka for the energy and oddities, Brussels for the music venues, Prague and Barcelona for the Architecture, Nashville for the Ryman Auditorium, Montreal for its European feeling with close proximity to Seattle, Anywhere New Zealand for the weird plant life. Favorite US town - Asheville North Carolina. It has a lot of east coast history and feels very liberal and experimental, with a ton of life wrapped up in such an idyllic looking small town. I love it.
If you could get in a time machine, zoom back in time and give yourself one piece of advice before starting your business, what would it be?
That ceiling is going to be expensive!!
What other local business/project do you think is Small and Beautiful?
Well, Molly Moon’s [Zack’s wife’s business] is too big to be small at this point, so I have two for you: 1) Prussian Blue in Mount Baker. Dawn is an impossible hurricane of exquisite style and sincerity that you need to know. And by you, I mean everyone. 2) Hello Robin. Catch her at work and sit at Robin’s butcher block island, built to resemble her kitchen at home, and treat yourself to the Robin Wehl experience. To me, Hello Robin will never have true competition because you can't clone Robin.