The Man Who Invented Starbucks

As of the past 30 seconds, I think, Starbucks' coffee sales were rocketing into space like the space shuttle Discovery. By next year the Starbucks giant expects to have heaven knows how many stores in North America.

The total is already some 2,100 retail outlets in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and the Pacific Rim. Their super-rich owners have offices out in the old Sears Roebuck building, First Avenue South and South Lander Street, where my mom bought my first suit, a lint-prone blue serge number that cost $8, via catalog.

In 1998, Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, cashed in $17 million in stock options and pulled down a combined salary/bonus of some $1.2 million. This was on my mind when I had dinner with Gordon Bowker, a thoughtful, even scholarly fellow who seems to be some quiet kind of genius. The coffee tastes good when he is around. Bowker, you see, invented Starbucks.

Even the name is classical. Bowker named his first tiny coffee house Starbucks (at Western Avenue and Virginia Street) back in 1971. Starbuck was the first mate on Capt. Ahab's ship in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." I wonder how many of Starbucks' stockholders know that.

No matter. Certainly Bowker doesn't care, nor does he envy Schultz's great wealth. After he sold the Starbucks name (and three stores) to Schultz, he conceived and helped found two other successful business ventures, Redhook beer and the Heckler Bowker ad agency.

"This is not quite what I had in mind when we began Starbucks," he was saying. "I don't want to say anything bad about the Starbucks people, but I never thought of it in quite this way."

Bowker must feel - I'm guessing here - like the guy who hatched those dinosaur eggs in the movie, or the man who fashioned the "Green Monster" at Fenway Park. Starbucks is Mighty Joe Young, the 800-pound gorilla of the caffeine culture.

There is even a book out about how Bowker conceived Redhook beer. The book, "Redhook: Beer Pioneer," is written by Peter Krebs, who writes technical books at Microsoft.

Krebs quotes a number of Bowker's associates, people like Terry Heckler, David Brewster and Jerry Baldwin. They leave the distinct impression that Bowker can peek around a corner and see a detailed road map of the next millennium.

He can't, of course, but as Krebs writes, "Bowker was the consummate idea man - an abstract thinker with incredible instincts to anticipate market trends years before they unfolded."

So what we've got is this bookish guy who gave the world its caffeine fix, and who devised Redhook, a national name in microbreweries.

Bowker is more Puget Sound than geoducks.

He has lived on Sunset Hill in Ballard, in Burien and on Capitol Hill. He knows the city intimately. He was an Underground Tour guide for Bill Speidel.

As a one-time cabdriver, he has pulled his share of drunks out of taverns all over town.

He worries that Seattle, his city, might lose its character in our vaulting ambitions toward cyberspace.

For those of you who think history began the day before yesterday, let me tell you that it was Heckler Bowker that created those zany Rainier Beer commercials back in the 1970s. Bowker's wild imagination, featuring dancing beer bottles, frogs on a mountain croaking "Rainier," and some 280 other commercials, made Rainier one of the country's largest retail brewers.

Rainier Brewery, once the pride of the great Emil Sick, folded up the other day. For all I know, the Airport Way brewery may be turned into an owl sanctuary.

What makes Bowker so attractive, to me at least, is his creation of something out of sheer boredom or personal tastes. He wanted good coffee, he made it. He wanted good beer, he brewed his own. He wanted to delight people, he gave them funny ads. He quit the ad business because he didn't want to hustle for anybody else.

We seem to have a kinship because Bowker and I have a shared affection for sloth. Or call it creative leisure. To Bowker it's his wife and two daughters, his books, read with good coffee or good beer.

He doesn't like personal publicity because it brings all the get-rich-quick yahoos to his door. When they bend his ear with their busy schemes, he thinks some are downright wacko.

"I don't want to start any more businesses," he told me. He wasn't joking. His leisure time is too valuable.

Emmett Watson's column appears Tuesdays in the Local section of The Times.