Joe Myxter, msnbc.com
By Travel editor
msnbc.com
updated 2/5/2004 7:15:34 PM ET 2004-02-06T00:15:34

Redmond is the home to software giant Microsoft Corp. and cell-phone giant AT&T Wireless. A town that just two decades ago was flanked by farms and fields is now a thriving city with its own outdoor mall, several movie theaters and nine — count them, nine — Starbucks. So how does a small drive-through coffee stand on the outskirts of town continue to rake in the business?

Java Junction is owned by 25-year-old Janice Schaefer, and is just over a mile from one end of State Route 520 — one of Washington state’s most traveled freeways that connects the high-tech area east of Lake Washington to Seattle.

Schaefer started her coffee stand back in 1999, and business has been gangbusters ever since. Why?

“It’s a main drag to the freeway, and I think everybody likes us,” she said.

She figures some customers stop in because they don’t like the bigger coffee retailers, and others show their support because they run small businesses themselves.

As ubiquitous as pizza shops in New York and lobster shacks in Maine, latte stands litter parking lots and roadsides in the Puget Sound region and throughout the Pacific Northwest — an area world-renowned and often defined by its coffee-craving culture.

These shacks — usually no bigger than 400 square feet — allow customers to drive up, place an order and drive off with a steaming cup of caffeinated delight.

Schaefer went into business with the help of her father, who built the latte stand. She bought her dad’s share in the business a year later when she was up and on her feet.

“I’ve worked at espresso stands since I was 17. … It’s really not that hard,” she said, although she does admit to a fair amount of nervousness when first starting out.

Java Junction employs six workers, one of whom is on maternity leave. Most of Schaefer’s employees have been with her for three years or more.

Her secret to keeping devoted, competent workers isn’t as complicated as one might think.

“Everyone works three or four days a week, and we fill in for each other,” she said.

That, paired with perks such as tickets to an occasional Seattle Mariners baseball game and an annual holiday party at the upscale Daniel’s Broiler in Seattle, tends to keep everyone pretty happy.

That’s not to say Java Junction hasn’t had its problems.

About two and a half years ago, a former employee skimmed several hundred dollars before she was found out. On a separate occasion, a thief busted out the front window of the shop and stole the cash register.

Java Junction — essentially alone and without nearby competition on the edge of town — has benefited from Redmond’s growth, but the most recent spurt may prove to be painful.

Across the street, two buildings are about to go up and will likely be complete in November, developer Russ Keithly said. A 27,000-square-foot building will be a grocery store, while a smaller, almost 12,000-square-foot building will accommodate six additional tenants. “They’re the usual suspects — a coffee shop, a mail shop, a dry cleaner, a video store, a sandwich shop,” Keithly said.

It’s the coffee shop that gets Schaefer’s attention.

“It will affect our business for sure,” she said. In fact, if her business is cut in half due to the new competition, Schaefer said she would be forced to break her lease and close shop.

She is, however, committed to keeping Java Junction one of the busiest roadside stands in the Northwest.

She is even considering supplementing her menu with items low in carbohydrates “for the Atkins crowd.”

And with assets including two espresso machines ($4,000 each), two refrigerators ($800 and $400, respectively) and a coffee grinder ($1,000), she and her team are efficient enough to keep up with the drive-through demand.

Java Junction goes through over 300 gallons of milk a week, not including half-and-half and whipping cream.

And the colder months tend to be busiest. Schaefer said the fourth quarter is usually the strongest.

While the future is uncertain for this popular latte stand, the owner is hoping for the best.

“I will own it for as long as I can. It’s perfect for me.”

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