Zoka brews up coffee to next level at new Kirkland location

Jeff Babcock recently opened a new Zoka coffee house in downtown Kirkland. - Matt Phelps/Kirkland Reporter
Jeff Babcock recently opened a new Zoka coffee house in downtown Kirkland.
— image credit: Matt Phelps/Kirkland Reporter

Opening a coffee house on the same block as an established Starbucks is not what many would think of as good business acumen. But for Zoka Roaster and Tea Company owner Jeff Babcock, his business is not just another coffee house — it is an experience for the taste buds.

“We will let the customer make the choice,” said Babcock. “Starbucks and others are worthy competition. But this is a pretty densely populated area. I have been in this business for 25 years and I think we just do it better.”

Babcock said that it took 10 months to develop the location at the corner of Lake Street South and Central Way. The store has an assortment of coffees from around the world, teas, baked goods and a calming decor reminiscent of coffee houses in Europe, with a Northwest touch.

“I wanted to take the coffee house to the next level,” said the owner. “Our coffee doesn’t come out of a brew pot or from an automated machine. We are already getting some five-star ratings and our customers will experience championship coffee that takes it to another level.”

When Babcock uses the word “championship” he is not exaggerating. Zoka won the United States Barista Competition in 2002 and 2005, along with placing sixth in the world in 2002.

Babcock brought in an espresso machine called the Slayer for his newest store. The first one in the US, the machine works more like a finely tuned musical instrument than a coffee maker, with a pressure lever that has to be manually controlled by the barista for a specific taste.

“Most coffee is bitter,” said Babcock, a UW alumni who owns Zoka stores in the University District, Green Lake and the smallest in Snoqualmie. “This is smoother and an entirely different type of drink.”

Zoka trains all of its baristas but goes outside for some that are dedicated to the craft, including a barista that moved from Missouri to work at the new location.

“We found Britt at a barista competition,” said Babcock.

He is also meticulous about the coffee he chooses to serve. All of the bagged coffee Babcock sells at Zoka have pictures of the places he visited where he found the product, including Costa Rica, Columbia and Nicaragua. He plans to visit Brazil and Bolivia among others before January.

“The coffee has to be fresh or you’re not getting the full experience,” he said. “It is overwhelming to get it all correct.”

And the owner is a perfectionist when it comes to his coffee houses.

“I have been to thousands of coffee houses in the world and asked myself ‘where do you go next,’” said Babcock.

Zoka makes all of its own food, which is cooked in the U-District store and sent out to the different locations. The menu has everything from pastries to Panini.

Babcock found the Kirkland location through the landlord for his first store.

“It is a great spot,” he said. “I really like the community. It is lively and has an international culture.”

The owner said the new store has that European feel with a Northwest influence. The shop includes a giant wood table that looks like sections from a freshly fallen tree. The wood, which came from a tree Babcock found on a decommissioned farm, was also fashioned into shelves for the coffee house.

“I think the wood work softens the decor,” he added.

The store is purposely laid out so that the customer is greeted by a barista and not the cash register.

“We want to develop a relationship with the customer,” said Babcock. “The barista can tell you all the differences.”

And Babcock knows his coffee. He is also a judge in the annual Cup of Excellence Competition.

“You really have to go out and experience the good stuff.”

Where to go

Zoka Roaster and Tea Company is located at the corner of Lake Street South and Central Way in downtown Kirkland. Visit Zoka on the Web at

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