Listening to the land: Creating the Starbucks visitor center at Hacienda Alsacia
Julie Pizarro’s days are spent in wonder. Her backdrop, as she works in a café cantilevered over a valley, is a sweeping view of coffee fields, lush green hills, a roaring waterfall and the sky. Birds softly chirp. A gentle breeze envelopes her. On a recent day, after it had rained, a rainbow stretched across the sky.
“I don’t have words to explain it. It’s the most beautiful place in Costa Rica,” she said. “I feel everything when I’m looking at the view.”
That’s what David Daniels was hoping for when he and his design team set out to create the visitor center Hacienda Alsacia, located on the slopes of Costa Rica’s Poás volcano.
The 46,000-square-foot visitor center opens today. It is a place where visitors will see and experience coffee in its entire journey from soil to cup. They can see coffee tree seedlings, pick coffee cherries with their own hands, watch as the cherries are milled and dried, smell the coffee being roasted and then taste a freshly made cup in the café where Pizarro is a barista. It’s a place that fills all the senses. And it’s a place where soil has soul.
When Daniels, vice president for store design at Starbucks, set out to identify the ideal location on the farm for the new visitor center, he began by listening to the land. In the stillness, it revealed what it could become.
“We listened to the site and the site told us what to do,” he said. The team embraced the topography, the path of the sun, the wind direction and more, said Daniels, filtering all of it to guide them in how each building and feature should be positioned, working and playing off nature itself.
Hacienda Alsacia, the only coffee farm in the world owned by Starbucks, is a place of possibilities. It’s where world-renowned agronomists create hybrid coffee trees designed to withstand threats from climate change. It’s where a farmer support center helps area farmers, regardless of whether they grow coffee for Starbucks, learn how to best feed their soil for optimum conditions. It’s a place where farmers and those who pick the coffee cherries can send their children to school while they are working.
Above all, it’s a place of people, community and connection – and with the visitor center, Starbucks is opening it to the world.
“We want people to come here and not just learn about coffee but immerse themselves in the experience,” said Eduardo Meza, who is part of Daniels’ design team, along with Vanessa Rubio. “We weren’t building a project, we were building relationships.”
The people at the heart of the farm are represented everywhere at the visitor center. They are depicted larger than life in vibrant murals. They are in the center’s pillows, made by women at a local co-op. They are in the wooden rocking chairs created by Mario Arias, the son of a coffee farmer, and his team from Mad Living. And of course, they are represented in the coffee, grown, picked, dried and roasted right there on the farm, ready to be served
“Everything had to be driven by a balance of authenticity, context and community,” said Daniels.
A living story
When visitors arrive at the entrance, they are embraced on all sides by the story. A living wall behind the front desk showcases native plants framing a map of Central America highlighting the coffee growing regions of Costa Rica. Across from it, overlooking the vista, is a three-dimensional globe showing the coffee regions of the world. Just beyond that glistens a reflecting pool – and then the farm itself.
As visitors pass through the entry way, they follow the boulevard, once a dirt road on the farm that’s been transformed into a guiding feature of the center.
“We wanted it to be like the High Line,” said Daniels, referring to the popular, lush, elevated park in Manhattan built along what had once been the path for the New York Central Railroad. “It became the organizing element of the project.”
On one side of the boulevard, walking paths and buildings nestle against the side of the hill. On the other side, buildings open out on to the valley. The designers wanted to make sure the center fully integrated itself with the land. It’s context that was critical to them.
With the buildings’ open layouts and sliding walls, it can be hard to tell whether you are indoors or outside. The lines are intentionally blurred, said Daniels, to feel more organic. Everything is positioned to take advantage of not only the views of the coffee fields, spectacular sunsets and the waterfall, but also the natural breeze so there’s no need for air conditioning.
And while the buildings are new, they are meant to feel as if they’ve always belonged, built from concrete blocks, steel trusses and corrugated metal roofs – all locally-sourced materials authentic to Costa Rica.
As guests continue on the tour, they can follow a path to the coffee fields to pick cherries. They can also visit the wet mill, which uses water to remove the pulp from coffee cherries and reveal the beans, and is positioned to take advantage of gravity to help work the machines. (The farm is primarily powered by energy from solar panels.)
Those who’ve visited Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle may recognize a few familiar touches. “We sprinkled some of the DNA from the Roastery into the visitor center,” said Daniels, who was a member of the Roastery’s design team. The café at the visitor center features a cupping room like the one at the Roastery. A clacker board hangs above the roaster, telling visitors about the coffee being roasted at that moment. Another feature carried over from the Seattle Roastery is the stadium seating, which, at the visitor center, hugs the slope of the hill next to the wet mill – a natural gathering space.
As guests descend the hill, they can explore the drying patio where coffee beans are spread in the sun, a bodega stocked with Hacienda Alsacia coffee, and a greenhouse where agronomist Carlos Mario Rodriguez does research on disease-resistant strains of coffee trees and other growing best practices, which he shares with the world through open source.
Along the boulevard are two amphitheaters where visitors can enjoy the view, or gather for community events. Creating a place where community can come together, in a way that Starbucks stores are many customers’ “third place,” was critical to the designers.
Daniels knows visitors will come to the center wanting various experiences. “Some people will want to take the tour and learn about coffee while others may want to simply enjoy a coffee and something to eat in a beautiful, relaxing atmosphere overlooking amazing views,” he said.
‘A platform to show the world’
On a recent morning, Daniels stole a rare, quiet moment to sit in a rocking chair in the café and sip coffee grown on the farm. Behind him was the coffee bar, featuring hand-carved designs telling the story of coffee, where baristas such as Pizarro handcraft beverages for visitors. Before him unfolded the view that anchored everything he and his team designed.
To his left, a mural, painted by Peruvian artist Jade Rivera, depicts a coffee picker next to a house, with a coffee tree bearing cherries in the foreground and a large bird resting on top of a stack of books, a reference to the school located on the farm. On the coffee picker’s baseball hat, one can see stars and space – a universe that’s also reflected in the house’s windows. Both the mural and the farm reflect the how time reaches back to farmers who have grown coffee for generations and ahead to all those who will come. The space between is where memories are made.
“To create a space where people have experiences and those experiences are instilled in their memory, then you’ve participated in someone’s life,” he said. “I hope this place is a platform for us to show the world what we are doing.”
For more information, please visit: www.starbuckscoffeefarm.com