Meet the Designer Behind Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room

No detail inside the new Starbucks Reserve® Roastery and Tasting Room in Seattle escapes Liz Muller’s attention.

From the stitching on leather handrail covers and hand-stained wood finishes throughout the 15,000 square-foot building to the precise location of two industrial roasting machines capable of handling over a half ton of coffee per hour, every component of the first-of-its-kind retail space has the discerning touch of Muller, Starbucks vice president of Creative and Global Design.

Just as each cup of coffee Starbucks served in its 43-year history has led the company to create an unprecedented coffee theater for its customers, all that Muller has learned since childhood prepared her to lead the team tasked with bringing Howard Schultz’s vision to life.

As a little girl in Amsterdam, Muller discovered the value of precision craftsmanship from her parents. Her father was a fine cabinet maker and architect; her mother ran her own design and sewing school.

“Perfection,” Muller said with a satisfied smile. “I understood perfection from an early age and I’m still driven by it.”

Muller, who established her own design firm in South Africa, joined Starbucks seven years ago. Her first assignment was designing Starbucks 1st and Pike store, a Seattle location around the corner from the company’s original coffeehouse by Pike Place Market. Other high-profile project bearing her fingerprints include: Roy Street Coffee & Tea in Seattle; Starbucks® flagship store in Mumbai, India; the first Starbucks® store on a train based in Zurich, Switzerland; and the iconic Kerry Center Starbucks in Beijing, China.

Not long after completing the Starbucks store in China, Muller was asked not to return to Amsterdam – where she had set up one of Starbucks 18 in-house global design studios. Instead, she was needed in Seattle.  Schultz had secured a location for a retail coffee experience he’d been dreaming of for 10 years.

“It was October 22, 2013. I remember standing in this space on Capitol Hill as Howard explained his vision for creating a roastery for Starbucks Reserve® coffee,” Muller said. “He described a surreal place where the love for coffee must come through. It needed to be both educational and emotional. 'Seductive' was the word he used."

Schultz elaborated on how he wanted coffee beans to travel through the café to and from the roasters. The challenge was to seamlessly integrate coffee roasting, coffee education, retail areas, a spacious café and a restaurant all in one location – a building constructed more than 100 years ago. It had never been done before. How much time did Muller have to do complete the project? One year.

A small Starbucks design team traveled through Europe for a week looking at coffee houses with small roasters. But “Howard’s vision was much larger” than anything they saw, Muller said.

In a hotel in Amsterdam, the team started sketching the unrivaled design that would become Starbucks Reserve® Roastery and Tasting Room. The finished immersive coffee experience is almost exactly as Muller imagined it.

Starbucks restored the building’s façade and reclaimed many of the original materials including wood from the decorative ceiling and the original Terrazzo and concrete flooring. Inside, significant infrastructure was put in place to support the massive coffee roasters. 

“At one point we had 188 contractors with 21 lifts in the building working on the ceiling and the subfloor at the same time,” said Muller. “I’m so proud of my team and of every person who has touched this space.”

Of the facility’s 15,000 square feet, about 6,600 are devoted to the café space which is designed to have perfect sight lines - from any vantage point - to the hand-hammered copper coffee silo.

About 95 percent of the Roastery’s materials and finished pieces such as tables, chairs and lamps were made in America. Other unique design features include: wood beams at the entrance that are cut at an angle and stained, reminiscent of coffee stir sticks; a Solari board with mechanical flaps displaying the coffee being roasted and the name of the partner (employee) who is roasting it; a baluster of hand-bent wood mimicking the pattern created when coffee is raked during the drying cycle on a farm; and a Coffee Passion Projection Wall made of smart glass, displaying images and video from Starbucks coffee farm in Costa Rica.

As magnificent as the setting is, Muller said it is a “backdrop” for Starbucks partners and their coffee expertise. Forty baristas and store managers from around the world have moved to Seattle to work at the Starbucks Reserve® Roastery and Tasting Room.

“We created a space that is a stage for partners to take and be our coffee educators and storytellers. Partners and customers interact in an elegant, elevated coffee space,” she said, adding, “It has to be perfect because they deserve the best.”

The Roastery appeals to all the senses for customers, whether they know little about how coffee is grown or are discerning specialists with knowledge of different brewing methods.

Customers will hear the coffee roasting, touch the smooth finishes of the wood, see coffee beans traveling in pipes overhead, smell food created by acclaimed Seattle chef Tom Douglas, taste rare, exceptional Starbucks Reserve® coffees, and feel energy and excitement throughout the building.

“I’m so proud of the team that created the Roastery and honored that I was a part of it,” Muller said. “In my journey I don’t think I’ll ever have an opportunity to build something like this again. We will build more of these immersive experiences in other strategic cities, but this will always be the Roastery.”

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Starbucks Milano Duetto – an innovative ode to coffee, arts and culture