The Seattle staple is thriving by adapting to the times while staying true to its old school roots.
Craig Nobley looks right at home inside Lighthouse Coffee’s Fremont headquarters. He fits the description of a Seattle coffee roaster, right down to the plaid shirt, trucker hat, and beard. In fact, he is at home. A classic Seattle Craftsman has housed Lighthouse — and its roasters — for over 25 years. Nestled on the corner of 43rd and Phinney, the building’s second story doubles as an apartment for Nobley, Lighthouse’s manager for the last six years. “You can’t beat the commute time,” says Nobley.
The apartment’s previous tenant was Ed Leebrick, Lighthouse’s founder, and the mastermind behind its decades-long success. Leebrick transformed the century-old building into a neighborhood coffee shop in 1994. Since its humble beginnings, Lighthouse has grown to become a go-to coffee roaster and wholesaler for caffeine-hungry locals, restaurateurs, cafes, and more.
In many ways, Lighthouse is a throwback to a different era. You won’t find remote workers plugging away on their laptops or battling over electrical outlets, considering Lighthouse doesn’t have WiFi. Neighbors congregate here to chat, connect, and enjoy the signature Roaster’s Choice espresso. Before the pandemic, regulars would swap stories atop retro diner bar stools. Nobley describes Lighthouse’s appeal as a combination of crusty and rustic — in a good way.
Over the years, Lighthouse eschewed modernization not just in its amenities, but also in its roasting methods. From bean delivery to sale, Lighthouse does not use any automation. They enlist the help of neighborhood high schoolers to haul in 150-pound bags of imported beans. Who needs a forklift when you have spry teenagers? They scoop the latest batch of beans out of plastic buckets rather than fancy hoppers. Since they don’t have a laptop plugged into their roaster, the staff manually tend to each roast. They rely on their noses, eyes, and a stopwatch to tell them that the roast is complete.
This old-fashioned roasting method is all by design, of course. While Nobley admits that technology makes a roaster’s life more convenient, he believes it comes at a price. “There’s an art to roasting coffee,” he says. “You can’t learn it through a laptop.”
The engine behind the machine is the Gothot German roaster, a gas-powered 1950’s cast-iron that pops out nearly 50 pounds of coffee at a time. At first glance, it looks more like an antique war relic than a modern coffee roaster. Eric Anderson, Lighthouse’s primary roaster for 23 years, labors over every batch. For 15 minutes, he carefully monitors the beans’ color, tends to the flames, and tweaks the roaster’s temperature. Amidst the humming of the machine and the crackle of roasting beans, he’s able to summon the perfect roast.
After experimenting with the Gothot for years, Leebrick settled on the unique S-curve roasting profile. Roasters carefully raise and drop the heat to take the beans just past their second crack.
The result? A dark, full-bodied coffee that always goes down smooth. “Ed wanted the star of the show to be damn good coffee,” says Nobley. “All you need in a craft-based business is a good product and a community to back it up.”
The neighborhood coffee joint is becoming an increasingly rare find even in a coffee-obsessed city like Seattle. Many local favorites have shuttered their doors temporarily or for good since the coronavirus outbreak. Lighthouse is the exception to the rule. They’re not just surviving the pandemic, they’re thriving. Thirsty locals line the street for up to two hours on weekend mornings. Over 100 long-time wholesale customers, including cafes like Rosellini’s, C&P Coffee, and Seattle Sunshine, continue to rely on Lighthouse’s coffee supply.
Lighthouse also embraced new methods to boost sales, such as offering customers an online subscription that allows them to sample coffees from different regions of the world. Their cult-like following and turn towards eCommerce have helped them navigate the pandemic without suffering the same fate as many of their peers.
Nobley credits much of their success to the sense of loyalty not just from the community, but from the staff as well. “What backs all this up is kickass employees,” he says. “Some of our roasters have been here for over 20 years. We’ve built up a group that is second to none.”
Nobley and Leebrick have been pals since their high school days in Gig Harbor. Leebrick even convinced Nobley, an admitted ski bum, to relocate to Seattle after spending over two decades in Park City. Nobley knew that Leebrick’s deep community roots, advanced roasting skills, and ability to forge new business relationships were the perfect recipe for success.
“There’s really no secret to anything. We’ve let the community come to us,” Nobley says. “As long as they like what we’re doing, they’re going to keep coming back.