By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Seattle’s International District (ID) has long been known as a haven for Asian snacks, desserts, and drinks. But for old-school eateries that have been in the neighborhood for a long time, the presence of the new 85°C Bakery Café could be detrimental to their livelihood.
85°C Bakery Café is a popular Taiwanese bakery franchise with more than 1,000 retail shops internationally. Named after the belief that 85 degrees Celsius (185F) is the optimal temperature to brew espresso coffee, the company has three local locations in Tukwila, Lynnwood, and Federal Way. Its fourth location in the greater Seattle area, situated on 5th and Jackson in the ID, is the company’s first store in Seattle. The store held its grand opening on Jan. 18.
85°C describes itself as a one-stop shop for coffee, tea, and bread, made from top quality ingredients with drinks made-to-order.
Trendy baked goods and drinks, such as the brioche, cheese dog, and iced sea salt coffee, make it a popular go-to spot, especially for the younger crowd.
Christopher Jocson, marketing and public relations senior specialist for 85°C Bakery Café, sees potential in the ID location.
“We foresee an opportunity to grow within the community — not only by offering our products, but also job opportunities for locals.”
When asked about why 85°C wanted to open a location in Seattle, Jocson noted the city’s reputation as a coffee capital, which presented an opportunity to offer “premium yet affordable espresso drinks to the community.”
The store’s general manager, Michael Daniels, also sees an advantage with the location in the ID.
“We’re right next to all the major transit hubs, so people will be passing by quite a bit,” he said.
Looking back at the neighborhood’s roots
With the Chinatown-International District Light Rail Station across the street, and the historic Union Station nearby, the intersection of 5th and Jackson is a well-traveled area.
The southeast corner was once especially notorious for panhandlers, alcoholics, drug addicts, and dealers. The Union Station Market, a mom-and-pop convenience store that used to occupy the current 85°C location, was a known hotbed that drew transients in the area. A case study conducted by the Seattle Police Department in 1999 described the situation around 5th and Jackson as “an atmosphere of crime and disorder.”
However, since the mid 1990s, the ID has undergone a huge transformation, with the last few years ushering in gentrification.
New restaurants, retail shops, and cafés have dramatically changed the neighborhood at the expense of older businesses that have been around for decades.
Yummy House Bakery is one such business. Kavin Poon is the son of the owners. He bakes and manages production in the kitchen, as well as helping customers up front. Specializing in Hong Kong-style sweets, including sponge cake, mixed fruit cakes, coconut buns, and BBQ pork buns, Yummy House has been open since 1998 and credits itself as being one of the first bakeries in the ID.
85°C’s opening presents new obstacles for smaller bakeries like it.
“For most of us in Chinatown, this is a challenge. We’re a family-owned business, so they’re huge compared to us. They have new pastries in all the time, more advertising, more opportunities in general. But for us, it’s all local — we just have this one shop here.”
While 85°C offers food and drink options that change often, Poon says Yummy House’s strength comes from producing old-fashioned, traditional pastries and offering them at lower prices. The key, Poon said, was focusing on the classic flavors and ingredients used in their preparation compared to the modern approach and presentation of companies like 85°C.
Lam Tai Cheung, 70, owner of Cake House, said, “It doesn’t have any impact on my business. 85°C is more expensive. My customers are all my old customers. We have different clientele and different styles of pastries. I should have retired a long time ago since all my kids are grown. But I enjoy working so I can talk to people. Just earning money to pay rent and a cup of coffee is good enough for me.”
A rippling effect
Despite being open for a couple weeks, the ID’s 85°C has been swamped with long lines. Daniels is originally from California, where he managed other 85°C stores. He said that the volume of customers in this new store has been overwhelming.
“I’ve noticed that this location is much busier [than California stores]. There’s a higher demand here, and it seems to be a continuing trend among our stores in Washington,” said Daniels.
Reception to the store’s opening has been so high that the team has had to limit the number of guests entering the shop at any given time.
Daniels attributed this high demand to the brand being less established in the region, compared to its presence in California.
Meanwhile, Poon has already noticed a decline in business from the short time that 85°C has been open. Whether it’s a big or small business, an opening or closure in the ID can have a rippling effect on the neighborhood. When another local bakery, A Piece of Cake, closed last year, Poon noticed an uptick in guests coming to Yummy House shortly after. The competition remains fierce among local bakeries even without 85°C.
But Poon has faith in Yummy House’s loyal clientele — past customers, repeat customers, and those who buy cakes from them regularly — to help keep the small business afloat. Still, he recognizes that it’d be difficult to compete with a global franchise like 85°C.
“We came here first to serve the district and the people, and we’ve been here long enough to survive all the changes,” said Poon. “But one day, if we can’t survive, we’ll sell the business, too. This [85°C store] affects all of us — bakeries, drink shops, dim sum restaurants.
85°C is eating us alive. But we’re the ones who created this neighborhood. They need to do something to protect us. It’s not a healthy business practice.”
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.