Coffee & community: Irwin's offers tasty treats and neighborly Wallingford charm

Nestled on the corner of North 40th Street and Bagley Avenue North in Wallingford, Irwin's café and neighborhood bakery is a welcome departure from the many coffee chains that have flooded Seattle's neighborhoods.

Unlike Starbucks, Irwin's doesn't boast national (or even citywide) brand recognition or slick promotional materials. Most of the café's customers hear about it through word-of-mouth or by driving by the handpainted signs in the storefront windows that announce new specials.

Regulars don't frequent this modest coffee shop for unique drink concoctions or coffee merchandise, and most are aware that it isn't always an efficient choice for lightening-fast service.

Yet, for a loyal group of Wall- ingford residents and an ever-growing crowd of converts, Irwin's is a comfortable coffee stop that serves up a tasty array of fresh baked goods with lots of friendly neighborhood spirit.

"I honestly time my schedule around coming here," said Wallingford resident John Giovine, who has stopped by Irwin's nearly every afternoon for the last four years to enjoy a cappuccino and a cookie. "I like the family aspect here. It's kind of an eclectic mix of folks."

Irwin's owner, Shannon Mattila, agrees that since the café opened nearly six years ago, the friendly chatter that abounds among patrons and employees is a big part of its charm.

"Everyone knows each other really well," Mattila said. "The pace is slower because the customers are friendly and they enjoy catching up."

The café's relaxed atmosphere is a cozy spot for conversation. It has even become a free venue for local artists. Pieces of stained glass, watercolor and beadwork line the walls, competing only with a chalkboard opposite the counter that displays philosophic quotes and a bulletin board announcing offerings from yoga instruction to rooms for rent.

The friendly camaraderie that abounds in this relaxed coffee spot stems from a modest menu that offers baked goods, lunch items and beverages that keep patrons flowing through all day.

Most mornings, early bird customers wait in queue for their favorite caffeine fix from a list of options ranging from espresso to chai tea ($1.25 to $4) scrawled on a chalkboard behind the counter.

It's difficult to avoid the temptation to reach for an item from the small bakery case next to the register that offers up a daily helping of cinnamon rolls, pumpkin and blueberry muffins and Irish scones, in addition to a small selection of vegan and gluten-free treats (90 cents to $1.99).

An oversized coffee cup on top of the bakery case even holds complimentary dog biscuits for the four-legged regulars outside.

After the morning rush, the café's seven employees prepare for a midday crowd of retirees, university professors and stay-at-home moms who circulate through to meet friends, read the news or grade papers at the scattered wooden indoor tables and outdoor park benches.

In the afternoons, customers choose from a small but tasty lunch menu that serves up goodies like vegetarian pizza with feta cheese and tomatoes ($2.95), veggie quiche ($4.99), baguette sandwiches ($2.99) and soup du jour ($2.99 to $4.99), all made daily from scratch in a small, on-site kitchen that is barely visible behind the counter.

A list of cold beverages includes bottled water (99 cents), Odwalla juices ($1.99 to $3.50), iced tea ($1 to $1.50) and Italian sodas ($1.25 to $2.10).

Mattila is pleased (if not pleasantly surprised) with the neighborhood nest that she has created since she opened Irwin's after her father persuaded her to try her hand at running a business in the storefront that has been in her family since her great-grandfather, Charlie Irwin, operated it as a grocery store in the 1920s.

"I've learned everything through trial and error," said Mattila, who does much of the baking herself during the 40 to 60 hours she spends there each week. "It's been a huge learning experience."

For her, the fulfillment in running her own small business comes from the feedback that she receives from customers like John Giovine and a steady stream of other loyal regulars who chip in together to keep their favorite local coffee shop running full-steam.

"People come to help out. If something is broken, the neighbors will take it home and fix it," Mattila said. "It's the sense of community and how much the people in the neighborhood care that it's here that keeps it going. I've been very grateful."

Irwin's, 2123 N. 40th St., is open 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

[[In-content Ad]]