50 years ago: The story of Edmonds’ forgotten Starbucks

A 1974 Starbucks advertisement listing three original stores, including Old Milltown in Edmonds. (Courtesy Edmonds Tribune-Review)

Back in the early 1970s, the historic quarter of downtown Edmonds was beginning to show its age though was not exactly doing so in a very graceful manner. Some of the older buildings had become dilapidated, certain areas were looking a bit seedy, and a steady exodus of local merchants were starting to move elsewhere.

This prompted a group of residents to take action, resulting in some much-needed renovations as well as such landmark projects such as the Main Street fountain. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer observed about the town’s preservationist movement at the time, “Both a facelift and an infusion of spirited citizenship have come out of barrels of paint.”

Overall, it was a unified community effort that helped plant the seeds for the vibrant and bustling downtown that we see today.

Leading the way in downtown’s renewal was a man by the name of J. Ward Phillips — an Edmonds native and urban developer who began purchasing some of the town’s older buildings in order to save them from the wrecking ball. He wanted to restore these historic buildings and give them a new purpose.

As he explained to reporters, “I was born and raised in Edmonds and I simply want to turn the town around and bring the people back.”

One of the properties he acquired was the old Yost Motor Company building on 5th between Dayton and Maple. Philllps transformed the former auto repair shop and garage building into an historic-themed shopping arcade that he named “Old Milltown.”

A postcard of Old Milltown from 1978. (Courtesy Brad Holden collection)

In order to give his shopping center a true turn-of-the-century aesthetic he began sourcing odd bits of Edmonds history from around town.  Architectural salvage such as wood from local barns, as well as windows, doors and old railroad ties were all used in the restoration project. Phillips even acquired an authentic horse-drawn buggy that once belonged to an Edmonds pioneer family to be used as a display piece.

Several months later, to much excitement and fanfare, Old Milltown celebrated its grand opening. Officially taking place Nov. 19, 1973, the inaugural festivities were kicked off by a honking parade of classic cars led by the mayor.

After the ceremonial ribbon was cut, throngs of people poured through the front doors, ready to peruse all the new shops. Old Milltown’s original tenants at the time included an indoor plant store, a bath boutique, an ice cream parlor and a specialty clothing store.

Also there on opening day was a fledgling coffee and tea business. Established in downtown Seattle just a few years prior, this new coffee venture was now attempting to expand into other locations, with Old Milltown serving as only its third official store.

Many years later, this company would revolutionize the entire coffee industry and become a worldwide success. On this particular occasion, though, they were still a small and humble operation that was struggling to find its footing.

By all accounts, things went well on its first day and they soon attracted a loyal customer base. Certainly working to its advantage was their attention-grabbing logo of a topless mermaid and a catchy name: Starbucks.

An original concept drawing of Old Milltown, circa 1973. (Courtesy of Edmonds Historical Museum)

It is worth pointing out here that the early Starbucks stores of the 1970s looked much different than the versions we know today. There were no baristas, or glass cases full of pastries, or pumpkin spice lattes, or frappuccinos. In fact, Starbucks wasn’t even roasting their own coffee yet. Rather, the store sold specialty teas and bags of roasted coffee from the Peet’s brand in San Francisco. It wouldn’t be until a decade later that actual cups of brewed coffee would be served at their stores.

Leading up to Old Milltown’s opening, a lot of time, money and sweat equity had been invested in this new Starbucks location. All existing employees at the time — including the three original founders — worked hard on getting the store up and running. Shelving and coffee bins were hand-built, all new lighting was installed, and the wood floors were sanded and stained.

They wanted everything to look perfect. Looking to take advantage of Old Milltown’s boutique-style shopping options, they even decided to add gourmet cookware to the line of items being sold at their Edmonds store.

While the first year of business was considered a bona fide success, sales began declining in 1975. First and foremost, the Starbucks line of cookware never really caught on. Customers visiting their store were interested in purchasing coffee and tea, not pots and pans.

The real nail in the coffin, though, happened when freezing temperatures destroyed all the Brazilian coffee crops and coffee prices suddenly spiked, prompting most Edmonds residents to go back to buying cheaper, commercial-brand coffee at the local supermarkets.

By 1976, the Edmonds Starbucks was struggling to stay afloat and would prove to be one of the company’s relatively few missteps. For the employees working there at the time, the Edmonds store was known as “the lonely outpost up north.” Later that year, the company would decisively close down operations at Old Milltown in favor of a new location in Bellevue.

It would not be until over a decade later that Edmonds would get a new Starbucks when one opened in 1989 at Olson’s Foods (now QFC) in the Westgate neighborhood. By that time, Starbucks had a full menu of coffee drinks, and the original Edmonds Starbucks — nothing more than a distant memory for most folks – was eventually relegated to the proverbial dustbin of local history.

As far as Old Milltown, J. Ward Phillips would retire from the real estate business in the 1990s. Another Edmonds developer would later purchase the aging property in 2006, at which point it was completely gutted and rebuilt.

Since that time, Old Milltown has undergone a few more renovations with part of the old property now occupied by the Las Brisas Mexican restaurant. The remaining section — still with its faux Old Western exterior — continues to be enjoyed as a public shopping space known as the Hazel Miller Plaza.

Today, Edmonds boasts a total of six Starbucks, including the Westgate location that has been in operation since 1989. The town’s most popular Starbucks — located in the historic Leyda building on the corner of 5th and Main — sits only a block away from the original store that once sold coffee, tea, and cookware to local residents a half century ago.

Unlike the first Starbucks location at Pike Place Market, though, there are no plaques or markers to commemorate the Old Milltown site, nor are any photos of it even known to exist. Its brief residency in downtown Edmonds, remembered by very few, survives merely as a curious footnote in our town’s caffeinated past.

— By Brad Holden

  1. “One of the properties he acquired was the old Yost Motor Company building on Main Street.”
    5th between Dayton and Maple actually…

      1. Great info!!
        I remember!
        But question for you…”6″ Starbucks in Edmonds??
        Wheres the 6th??
        Scratching my head 🙂

        Drive thru

  2. Great history. The sort that makes you look twice as you pass a building. The Yost Building continues to have an interesting history, and thankfully it was not torn down.

    What I have never figured out is what made Starbucks take off. What did Howard Schultz do to create a nation-wide niche for coffee shops? There have always been local coffee shops. The idea of taking a handful of them and creating a national chain was brilliant.

    I hope you do more stories. While Yost’s home is on the historic register, the building that was his garage should be on it as well.

    1. It strikes me that it doesn’t take all that much genius to figure out Americans, who cheerfully buy bottled water they can get for free out of a tap, would jump at the chance to pay $8.00+ for a cup of glorified coffee and $6.00 for a Costco style bran muffin they could buy for about a dollar almost anywhere else. I’ve never been able to figure out the great allure of either Starbucks or Howard Schultz, whose specialty has been low wages but with medical coverage to get and keep workers. (Maybe a little genius in that, I guess). I much prefer a cup of ordinary drip and a pig in a blanket at the Edmonds Bakery. Just seems like a more real and honest treat somehow. I do remember all my Nebraska Cousins rushing down to Milltown to get their Starbucks Coffee stash to take home with them whenever they visited. Couldn’t get that “good stuff” back home.

  3. Very cool. I had an office in Old Milltown in the back. Loved walking in when all the other antique places were closed. My kids loved coming to the office and wandering around. And of course always a yummy dinner at Provinces.

  4. The true star of this article is not Starbucks. It’s “J. Ward Phillips — an Edmonds native and urban developer” who dedicated his time, money and thoughtful creativity to preserve this historical site that has been a focal point for the growth of our beloved Edmonds.

    Thank you, Brad, for this interesting article about the history of Edmonds. As for other long term Edmonds residents, Old Milltown brings up many memories.

    1. Thank you, Joan. Much agreed about J. Ward Phillips. He still resides in Edmonds, and I am hoping to talk to him soon.

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