The barista behind the familiar amoeba-shaped laminate counter readies herself for the glass door to swing open. "They're h-E-E-e-r-r-e," she whispers.
At 11:45 in the morning, the Judkins Park Starbucks, which breaks from the chain's cookie-cutter décor with a colorful jazz-inspired mural, is transformed from mellow refuge for breaking businesswomen and retirees into a high-school lunchroom as dozens of students from nearby Garfield High pour in.
They're here, all right, before, between and after classes. And at the Tully's in Redmond Town Center, Caffé Vita on Capitol Hill and both Starbucks stores flanking Eastlake High in Sammamish.
They are who the coffee renaissance has been waiting for: a generation too young to remember when coffee wasn't cool. They were born in the late-1980s, just as Starbucks was raising its first green awnings. They have never associated the drink with truck drivers in seedy diners or salesmen with bad breath. In elementary school, they drank hot cocoa pretending it was a mocha when they tagged along with mom on a cappuccino run. They grew up with enticing images of coffee, in their own neighborhoods and on TV: grunge rockers brooding in hipster coffee bars, Converse-wearing 27-year-olds making millions via Wi-Fi as they sip their lattes, the sexy "Friends" at Central Perk, and Rory, the savvy teen protagonist on The WB's "Gilmore Girls," whose coffee addiction is a regular plot line.
Hanging out with half-a-dozen friends at Tully's, Jessica Frederick, a senior at Holy Names Academy, explains that coffee is a fashion statement.
"Sometimes carrying around a cup of coffee helps complete a look," she says. "A pair of capris, flip flops and a coffee and it has to have that cardboard sleeve is very trendy."
And it's a versatile accessory to boot: "It can give you that sophisticated, urban, intellectual look," Jessica says. "I want to be a writer when I grow up, so my friend said she can imagine me walking down the street in New York in all black with a coffee in my hand."
You don't even really need the coffee to be cool, just the cup a status symbol to carry around the mall or perch atop a school desk.
Leslie Bennett, a ninth-grader at Inglewood Junior High in Sammamish, doesn't like the taste of coffee but admires the image, so she orders coffee-less Crème Frappuccinos. An encyclopedia of pop-culture references, the lanky middle-schooler who resembles a young Helen Hunt can recite a spate of recent movies that star the brand she puts up there with Abercrombie & Fitch for teen appeal. "Starbucks was in 'Austin Powers,' 'Zoolander,' 'Josie and the Pussycats' and, oh, in 'Miss Congeniality' it was really funny because Sandra Bullock put on her police siren so she could get her coffee like it was an emergency."
Admitting to doing something with the intention of seeming cool is of course the death knell of coolness, so there are plenty of teens who won't cop to the motive.
A Garfield junior with French-pedicured toenails and blonde hair ironed stick straight maintains she has been drinking coffee since she was in elementary school, and emphatically states she drinks it for the taste not the cool factor. Still, she orders her usual tall nonfat soy vanilla latte in the same feigned blasé tone she'll later use to tell her admiring friends that a college guy asked her to a party on Friday night.
Kids trying to edge their way into the coffee scene first by sipping from Dad's mug after church, then as teenage hangers-on at hipster cafes is nothing new. But teens are no longer edging into the scene. They are the scene.
"ON THE FIRST day of school, I made at least 35 Espresso Spins in the half-hour before school started," says Caitlin Hagen, who works at the Tully's between Holy Names and St. Joseph's on Capitol Hill. Hagen, who graduated from Holy Names this year, says when she started high school, hardly anyone was drinking coffee, except for teachers, but by her senior year, there was a category added to the yearbook for "most caffeine-addicted."
Coffee's image has come a long way to land on the pages of Teen People. After World War II, "coffee was perceived as an old-fashioned drink of the older generation, of businessmen and gossiping housewives," explains Mark Pendergrast, author of "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World." Not only was the quality of most American coffee atrocious, stale before it went into the can and brewed vapid in percolators, he says, but "the advertising was abysmal as well, with Mrs. Olsen and Aunt Cora exhorting housewives to save their marriages by serving good coffee." It's no surprise Coke and Pepsi were able to steal away the boomers.
Then came the beatnik cafes of the 1960s, which introduced fringe types to the European coffeehouse. Seattle historian Walt Crowley hung out as a teenager in the mid-'60s on The Ave at the Eigerwand, which boasted one of the first espresso machines in town. "I would sit around and espouse Marxism and write and read bad poetry."
Far from the mainstream teen hangout that coffee bars have become, he says, "Going to a coffeehouse was a statement. You weren't hanging out at Dick's or Burger Master with the muscle-car guys after the football game or at the soda fountain like the glee club. It was about rebelling and smoking with eclectic, potentially dangerous people."
Literally. Mercer Island High has its own Tully's outlet in the cafeteria, a fact that shocked Brittney Kennett, a junior on the drill team, when she moved from San Diego freshman year. "I knew when we moved to Seattle coffee would be a lot bigger deal, but I didn't know it would be the standard drink for teenagers." Now standing in line for her daily iced vanilla latte, Brittney says her friends back in California are picking up the habit. "It's getting really popular for teens everywhere, but nowhere as much as here."
Coffee has come to kids not just in terms of location though there's a chain coffee bar within walking distance of nearly every high school along the I-5 corridor but also in terms of taste. The new array of confectionery coffee drinks has lured teens' taste buds with the sweet help of whipped cream, caramel drizzle and chocolate shavings.
At Victor's Coffee Co. in Redmond, 16-year-old Laura Perazzoli must bore through a mountain of whipped cream with her tongue in order to taste her Irish Nudge a chocolate, Irish cream, hazelnut and espresso concoction.
Starbucks vehemently maintains it doesn't market to kids, though you might have seen its colorful Chill Patrol vans distributing Frappuccinos essentially milkshakes with a shot of espresso at kid-friendly spots like festivals and beaches last summer. Besides, when the urbane, sophisticated image they've cultivated comes tasting like a sundae, who needs to advertise?
A TRIO OF Holy Names sophomores stakes out their usual tiny table in a cove of Tully's at 7:30 a.m., surrounded by dozens of their latte-sipping classmates and middle schoolers from St. Joseph's who, except for a few early mocha-adopters, are drinking mostly hot cocoa. School is on a late schedule this overcast morning, so they've got time to catch up on homework actually, that can wait; there's time to talk about boys first.
A heated debate ensues over whether Orlando is worthy of such notebook worship. Jessica Escott, warming her palms on a mocha, balks, "He is so not hot; hot is Johnny Depp." Uh-huh, Molly concedes. "Hot is Daniel Radcliffe," Jessica continues. (That's the kid who plays Harry Potter, by the way.) Molly hoots: Orlando is clearly hotter than Harry Potter. Beneath those elf ears, she points out, lies undeniable hotness.
As they grow louder and sillier, no one chides them to pipe down or hurries them out once their cups are empty. "Here, you can make almost as much noise as you want," bellows Molly, whose drawn-out raucous laugh would surely draw glares in a movie theater.
Starbucks chief Howard Schultz had a grand plan for creating places to escape from home, work, the hassles of everyday life. No one as much as teens has taken to the idea, perhaps because they truly don't have anywhere else to go. They can't talk in the movies, Molly explains, mall walking is now for middle-aged women trying to get in shape, and at home there's always the threat that parents will embarrass you.
Like the soda shop of the 1950s or the 7-Eleven of the '70s, coffee shops have become the place for teens to just be.
That's why the about-to-turn-15 Rose Brown, a sophomore at Nova High School, is willing to fork over her full allotment of lunch money for a $3 toffee nut latte at the Judkins Park Starbucks.
Rose, a tiny brunette with glittery orange eye shadow and braces kept secret by a self-conscious smile, explains she gets more than a drink for $3 or $4. She buys a chair and table of her own where she can chat with friends or populate her sketchbook with cartoon characters for as long as she wants and that's a pretty good deal.
COFFEE'S IMAGE of sophistication and its role in klatching have made it much more of a girl thing. Sure, there are artsy boys trying to impress girls at cafe poetry readings and plenty of high-school boys whose sweet tooth has them addicted to the frothy drinks, but few recognize it as a phenomenon the way girls do.
And its popularity has created the predictable backlash. The cultural descendents of the beatniks are still hanging out in dark cafes, still bashing the establishment, which is now represented by coffee chains.
"They are the grossest places I've ever seen in my entire life," gripes Mia. Just thinking about it turns her face nearly the cranberry shade of her choppy dyed hair. "The people there are old and corporate and working on office work on their laptops. Here, people are more cultured, they are writing poetry, drawing, and there's real art." The bum who plants himself next to the girls' table and rambles about how he was wronged out of a free refill is, in her estimation, less offensive than the Starbucks crowd.
Mia sometimes spends entire shift changes here, drinking soy vanilla lattes, or if she's low on cash, drip coffee, playing Rummy, talking about Voltaire with strange men and photographing fellow cafe kids. Her photo album reads like a yearbook for the teens whose social activities aren't documented by their high school. This place and the mild caffeine buzz are her comfort zone. She's up to four cups of coffee a day; without it, she gets a wrenching headache and, she warns, is even crankier than usual.
LIKE NEARLY EVERY adult she knows, Hilary Zetlen, a 16-year-old junior at Shoreline's Shorewood High School, needs a cup of coffee to start her overscheduled days. She wakes up at 6 a.m. to make it to school by 6:45 a.m. for her orchestra class. Then, depending on the season, she has to stay after school for drill-team practice, business club meetings or track. She also has private viola lessons some evenings, and when she gets home around dinnertime she must eat quickly so she can complete her homework for three intensive Advanced Placement classes before collapsing into bed after midnight. No wonder some mornings she needs a shot-in-the- dark a shot of espresso in a cup of coffee to shake off her morning coma.
"I know that teenagers physically need more sleep," she says, "but I just don't have time to get enough sleep, so I need another way to stay awake."
Some blame too much caffeine for a generation of overtired youngsters. But while research on middle-schoolers found that those who drank the most caffeine slept fewer hours and were sleepier in the daytime, it's not clear whether the stimulant is depriving kids of sleep or whether sleep-deprived kids are using the caffeine to self-medicate.
Group Health's Dr. Jeffrey Lindenbaum tells parents that since most teens have just one or two espresso-based drinks a day, it's not enough to be concerned about in any case. And for the record, coffee doesn't stunt kids' growth. The real dangers are for heavy drinkers, who may be vulnerable to osteoporosis because caffeine hampers bone-building.
But for most kids, sugar and fat are a bigger deal. The 570 calories in a Grande Mocha Malt Frappuccino is comparable to the calorie load in a Big Mac.
The broader concern about a possible link between coffee and harder substances hasn't been answered. A recent survey found that teen girls who drank coffee at younger ages were four times more likely to smoke cigarettes and more than twice as likely to drink alcohol. The Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse says it's not known whether caffeine is a gateway drug or simply that teens who are prone to drinking and smoking are likely to have tried a host of other substances.
Others point out that as coffee drinking has been increasing, smoking has been dropping rapidly among teens in Washington and across the nation. The stimulant may actually be taking over some of smoking's role as a social lubricant and image enhancer.
Could coffee be the new cigarette? Maybe, says Colby Johnstone, a junior at Redmond's Overlake School, sipping an iced mocha and listening to the band Twirl with three friends at Victor's on a Friday night. "But there's not the same kind of peer pressure. No one is going to be, like, 'You have to drink coffee if you want to be cool.' Plus, it's much better, because unlike smoking, there's no second-hand coffee."
"That is, unless you spill it on someone," chirps classmate Nathan Srinivas. The table collapses into laughter.
Most parents give the drink and the hangout their blessing. Rose Brown's mother, Claire, says, "I probably should care, but she could be doing a lot worse things than hanging out in a coffee shop. She went to a rave recently, so by comparison, Starbucks makes me very comfortable."
Plus, like many parents, Brown would feel pretty hypocritical prohibiting coffee. "I'm a caffeine addict myself; I'm sure she learned it from watching me."
Whether Seattle's favorite addiction has been passed on from mother to daughter or celeb to star-gazer, coffee connoisseurs predict the next generation will keep the vanilla lattes flowing. The trend does have the biological-dependence thing going for it, after all. Then again, teens are a fickle bunch.
And teenage twin superstars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have been spotted drinking bubble tea.
Julia Sommerfeld is a Seattle Times staff writer. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.
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