Kelly
Kelly

It started out as a small cafe next to a Starbucks in Queen Anne, but 25 years later that Starbucks has moved and Caffe Ladro remains.

“So the origin goes back to our first company, Uptown Espresso, which I started in 1987,” said Caffe Ladro founder Jack Kelly. “Basically, we had a really busy café, but I ended up losing that in a partner dispute after seven years. So I basically took as many people as I could to (upper Queen Anne) and opened up Caffe Ladro, which translates to the coffee thief.”

Kelly opened up the first Caffe Ladro in Queen Anne in 1994.

“We were right next door to Starbucks,” Kelly said. “And people thought we were crazy and asked if we were going to steal all of their customers. And one of my employees said, ‘Yeah, we are the coffee thieves.’ So that’s how that got started. We were just a rag-tag bunch of kids.”

Kelly grew up in Minnesota and moved to Seattle to study marine biology at the University of Washington.

He soon found himself surrounded by coffee.

“It was just fun,” Kelly said. “It’s like being a bartender in the morning. Being a barista is very social. And your job is to have a good time. The more fun you can have, the more your customers will have fun.”

Nearly three decades later and Kelly has grown his small, local coffee shop business to include multiple locations and a roastery. The new skills he’s gained as a founder of such a large company may have meant sacrificing some of his original barista skills.

“I get behind the counter now and I just make a mess,” Kelly said. “I can make you a beautiful drink … but to be in the bar, everything has changed and things have moved, so I start knocking things over.”

Kelly opened his second location in lower Queen Anne in 1998. Now there are 15 active locations, with a 16th coming in May. There are also plans for stores number 17 and 18.

Kelly said he was not overly ambitious, so he never expected to own almost 20 locations. He credits business partner Bob Ohly for that.

“He was my high school buddy, and he came out, he had an accounting degree, and he shored up the numbers,” Kelly said. “I’m the people guy and the visionary, but Bob makes sure the bills get paid. And we needed him because he came on with the idea that we would grow. So that’s when we opened store number two.”

Caffe Ladro served as just a coffee shop and retail business until 2010. The business then began roasting its own selected beans and making online sales, which has brought new challenges and adventures for the company.

“I travel a lot,” Kelly said. “To develop relationships and buy coffee. We have coffee from all over the world. I just got back from El Salvador where we have been buying coffee from the same farmers for eight years. We know the people, we know the quality of the product, and we are happy to tell their story. We are buying really exciting coffees that have different layers of flavors from different fruit, cocoa and nuts. We see coffee as a high-end food product.”

The extra effort Kelly and his team put in earned them a Good Food Award for the Ethiopia Limu Organic blend. Thousands of businesses go to a convention in San Francisco, and only three businesses from the Pacific Northwest can win. The winner’s coffee must be organic, traceable and sustainably sourced.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Caffe Ladro will give out free coffee and treats to customers on April 24. Past and present employees, family and friends of Caffe Ladro will participate in a large party at the Ballard roastery on April 1.

Kelly said what makes his business stand out in a city known for its many coffee shops is the quality of the brew and the relationships.

“Obviously we have good, quality products,” Kelly said. “But the relationships our baristas create is special. They are a little more engaging, and what we strive for is a relationship with our customers that is more profound. It’s our mission statement to provide profound service. And I believe that can change the world. To engage for just a moment, and when we can all put our stuff aside for a minute and connect.”