The Untold Caffè Verona Story: Just add whiskey.
The Caffè Verona story began late 1974. Seattle entrepreneur Mick McHugh (and a business partner) decided to open up a restaurant in the lower Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle called “Jake O’Shaughnessy’s.”
Before the restaurant opened its doors, Mick McHugh knew he wanted an excellent local coffee. He went to the original founders of Starbucks, Jerry Baldwin and Gordon Bowker (see also, old Starbucks Pike Place history here) and had to persuade them to do a custom blend for his new restaurant. I spoke with Mick McHugh, and he remembered this well. Since there was, at that time, literally no Starbucks wholesale to restaurants, the original founders were reluctant to work with him. They didn’t have an interest in selling wholesale to restaurants. Mick McHugh recalls that since he was the only restaurant Starbucks sold to, they refused to deliver the coffee to him. He recalled that in the very beginning, he drove to the Pike Place Starbucks to pick up his famous, “Jake’s Blend” for his new business venture, Jake O’Shaughnessy’s.
By November 1974, he had lined up a tremendous amount for the new restaurant. November 20, 1974, Mick McHugh penned a letter to his business stockholders, and in one paragraph, he referenced Starbucks coffee:
“Also, Jerry Baldwin and Gordy Bowker of Starbuck’s Coffee Company have agreed to do a custom blend of Columbian (sic) Coffee for Jake’s. This coffee will be served as a beverage in the dining room and also will be a main ingredient for our soon to be famous bar specialty: Irish Coffee.”
Jake O’Shaughnessy’s opened January 31, 1975. If you wanted to give Caffè Verona a birthday, it would be January 31st, 1975. Mick saved old menu cards (like the kind of cards displayed on a table in a bar or dining area) from Jake’s, one of which read as follows:
“Classic Irish Coffee. Jake’s starts with 86 [proof] Irish Whiskey from the Republic of Ireland. This is blended with Jake’s deep roasted coffee, from the Starbucks Coffee Company, pure cane sugar and topped with a thin head of whipped heavy cream. Jake O’Shaughnessy’s sells more of its brand of Irish Whiskey than any other drinking establishment in America. $1.00.”
I asked Mick about the idea that the coffee was to be paired with a chocolate dessert. I believe that partners are trained this coffee was blended for a chocolate dessert. Mick was clear: Jake’s Blend was fabulous in an Irish coffee, featuring Irish whiskey, and not sourced for a special dessert. In official Starbucks sites, they say that Jake’s Blend was meant to pair chocolate cake dessert. Having reviewed historical documents from Jake O’Shaughnessy’s, as well as meeting with the co-founder of Jake O’Shaunessey’s, I find nothing to support the idea that this coffee was specially sourced for any specific chocolate cake.
The Starbucks Verona story includes a section something like this (which is correct):
In the mid 1970s, Starbucks started blending and selling a coffee for a restaurant called Jake O’Shaunessey’s on lower Queen Anne (a Seattle neighborhood). It was the very first “private label” coffee for a restaurant and it was called “Jake’s Blend,” a blend of 80% Yukon and 20% Italian Roast, and nobody else had it on their menu. customers started coming into the stores and asking for “Jake’s Blend”. Baristas scooped out the coffees, and weighed it out on scales, and labeled it “Jake’s Blend”. Starbucks sold enough of the coffee that they began to pre-blending and labeling the coffee, labeling it 80/20 Blend. Starbucks added it to the whole bean menu board as “80/20” Blend. If a customer asked for Jake’s Blend, they got 80/20 Blend, but labeled as Jake’s, otherwise they got a bag stamped 80/20 Blend!
Baristas were told that if a customer asked what Jake’s Blend was, they were told it was a proprietary blend, but a lot like the 80/20 Blend that was offered on the menu!
Let’s fast forward to 1986. In 1986, Howard Schultz was operating a business called Il Giornale, his Italian-themed coffee bar business. You may recall, Howard was hired by Starbucks in September 1982, as head of marketing development. He briefly parted ways with Gordon Bowker and Jerry Baldwin to start his own coffee bar chain, as he disagreed with the Starbucks’ founders strong belief not to have a great beverage business too. In 1987, Howard returned to Starbucks, buying the company.
In 1986, Howard Schultz bought coffee from Starbucks, and resold it inside his Il Giornale cafe. One of the coffees he bought was 80/20 Blend, though he resold it as “Caffè Verona.” Sure enough, the earliest place you’ll find the name Caffè Verona is on an Il Giornale menu:
I spoke with a former SSC partner who designed the iconic Verona coffee stamp with the bridge. Sandy Nelson (the coffee stamp designer) had met with a former partner (who unexpectedly passed away shortly after speaking with her) who worked for Starbucks in the mid 1980s, and recalled specifically selling coffee to Howard for his new Il Giornale business. Sandy confirmed that Verona was actually named Verona to fit in with Howard’s business. According to her, Howard himself came up with the name “Caffè Verona.”
In fact, one day at the Roastery in late 2015, I saw Howard there, and just kind of confronted him with this. I said, “Hey Howard, I heard you named Caffè Verona.” He said he did. The name Verona ties back to Howard’s famous 1982 trip to Italy, and the whole inspiration to have a business of Italian-inspired coffee bars. The name Caffè Verona was a perfect fit for Il Giornale.
When it came time to trademark the name, Caffè Verona stuck. 80/20 Blend is too general of a name. Jake’s Blend was already associated with the business Jake O’Shaughnessy’s. Caffè Verona fit and made sense.
The coffee stamp and image that went with Caffè Verona for years and years was the image of a romantic couple standing on an old brick bridge. Sandy Nelson (the designer of that coffee stamp image) recalls her 2001 development of that famous coffee stamp:
Sandy wanted to “capture the essence of the city of Verona, Italy and romance. One of my ideas involved creating an image of a “stolen moment” or of a “peek” of a couple in love from the distance. I thought that seeing a couple, from a distance on an old bridge, might evoke old world Italy.
In order to create my concept, I needed a couple and an old bridge. Because of the very short timeline, I called my sister and asked if she and her husband were free the next day to be in a quick photoshoot. That evening I scouted all over Seattle to find an old bridge that we could use (many bridges in Seattle are fairly modern) and I found an old brick bridge over the road at the Arboretum not too far from the University of Washington. I met my sister, Stephanie and her husband, Kendall, at the bridge during our lunch break the next day and I photographed them on the bridge, standing below near the road.
Through Photoshop, I was able to tone down the color and make the photo appear older. I added a red rose block print pattern I had created to the edges as well as an image of a handwritten love letter and a Starbucks postal ‘cancel’ stamp, overlaying the photo — all to evoke romance, love, old Italy, the sending of love letters.”
That bridge in Seattle’s Arboretum is the Wilcox Foot Bridge.
You now know a lot about the old Caffè Verona history. I’m personally still very partial to the old coffee stamp image of the couple of the bridge. That’s my favorite of the Caffè Verona images and I wish Starbucks would bring it back!
For more reading on this coffee, I’d suggest the following:
If you want to enjoy a great Irish coffee drink, get yourself to FX McRory’s. Mick McHugh operates the restaurant Fx McRory’s in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. For research for this article, I forced myself to eat lots of happy hour food with two friends, and drank two of his famous Irish coffees, which are made with nearly the same recipe as they were in 1975, except now using Caffe Appassionato brand coffee.
I had a blast at FX McRory’s. It counts as a must-visit place in Seattle. The food is delicious and there’s a heck of a lot of alcohol to choose from. Let me know when you want to meet me there for happy hour. Sliders, here I come! 😉
Take a look at a few pics from my visit to FX McRory’s. We ate way too much!
Thank you to Mick McHugh for generously sharing with me original 1974 – 1975 era Jake O’Shaughnessy’s documents. Thank you to Sandy Nelson for her insights into the history of the packaging and the origination of the name.