This is ‘Renton Cheers’ on caffeine

The abandoned gas station on the corner of South Second Street and Main Avenue South has been slated for redevelopment since the day Jet City Espresso moved in 17 years ago. Owner Debbie Natelson says attempts have been made to tear down the place “eight million times.” Or at least five times, she says.

  • Saturday, April 19, 2008 12:00am
  • News

Susie and her dog Savannah lean across a crowd of Jet City Espresso regulars on Friday. Left to right

But Jet City

Espresso is

facing end

The abandoned gas station on the corner of South Second Street and Main Avenue South has been slated for redevelopment since the day Jet City Espresso moved in 17 years ago. Owner Debbie Natelson says attempts have been made to tear down the place “eight million times.” Or at least five times, she says.

“I mean the day I got here, Debbie’s like ‘Don’t get too comfortable,’” says Mike Moskowitz, 37, Jet City barista for the last 13 years.

But the latest site proposal has gone further than any previous project. A six-story apartment and retail building is awaiting approval by Renton’s hearing examiner. If approved, city planners say 2nd and Main Apartments could quickly move into utility and building permits, which are the final approval steps.

“This might be it,” says Natelson, 49, over coffee on a recent day at Jet City. “But we had a good long run.”

Natelson moved her espresso cart to the former gas station in March 1991, after earlier stints in front of the former Renton City Hall and the old McLendon Hardware site (now Evergreen City Ballet).

The cart started outside as “just a speck” under one of the former gas station canopies. But winter drove Natelson and her cart into the old gas station garage, where she and the cart — now built into the cafe’s counter — remain today.

Over the years, Jet City has become a vibrant gathering spot, and, as Natelson says, a “cultural icon.”

“It’s just a total community spot,” Natelson says. “It’s magic is the people.”

Linda Middlebrooks calls Jet City “Renton Cheers.” “You know, like the TV program, ‘Cheers?’ This is Renton Cheers,” she says.

The retired Middlebrooks and her husband John have been coming to Jet City since it opened. The couple brings their trio of small white poodles: Buffy, BJ and Bruno. They come every morning

except Sunday, when they get their coffee fix after church in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.

Middlebrooks says Jet City is “filled with history.” She and her husband are part of that history. Both are in the “Jet City Family” photo album. The album has pictures of people and dogs, birthday celebrations, and even a wedding, held in the shop’s parking lot.

“All the regulars came,” Middlebrooks says. She says many of those regulars are “young mothers and old farts.”

The Middlebrooks join the old farts and their dogs most mornings. Most the dogs on a recent morning are small, like the Middlebrooks’ poodles. A German shepherd and his two owners sit outside.

“Their german shepherd dog doesn’t like us,” Middlebrooks says.

The young mothers (and fathers) come with their children any time, but especially on weekends.

Christy and Todd Schlegel, 33 and 34, brought their two 1- and 4-year-old children by Jet City the day after they were born, on the way home from the hospital.

The family of four now comes at least three times a week, sometimes even twice a day.

“It’s such a prime location,” Christy says. “It’s on your way to everything. If you’re going to the post office, you go by Jet City. If you go to the library, you go by Jet City.”

Jet City is also a nice meeting ground, Christy says.

“I’ve met some of my closest friends here,” she says. “It’s such a nice, open place.”

Aside from young mothers and old farts, Jet City is also frequented by skate park kids, local actors and colorful characters, like the Far West taxi driver who banged out show tunes on the piano, and Ed, the schizophrenic man pictured in a black-and-white shot above the coffee bar.

Mike Moskowitz, the longtime Jet City barista, has seen couples get together at Jet City and come back later with kids.

“I love working at Jet City,” he says.

Moskowitz likes the people who hang out at Jet City — from “all walks of life,” Debbie says. But he also likes Jet City itself.

“It’s a cool, cool spot,” he says. “It’s bigger than any one of us who work here. Jet City has a life of its own.”

Much of Jet City’s life comes from its antiques, collectibles and kitsch.

Among the mismatched couches, chairs and tables there’s an old-time juke box topped by an inflatable gorilla, a pale pink beauty salon chair, an old wooden radio, a keyboard and shelves holding everything from old lunchboxes and a kid’s drum set to a pair of ice skates and a trumpet. Lamps, vases and books spill over other surfaces. Even the piano — painted turquoise and pink — is more of a shelf than a musical instrument. It holds records and a Jet City oil painting. Books are stowed beneath. Another battered piano stands outside, along with more tables and chairs, and a couple overgrown planters.

The indoor junk menagerie makes it easy to spot new Jet City customers, says Linda Middlebrooks.

“You can always tell the new ones,” she says. “They come in and they’re just overwhelmed.”

Natelson says collecting all Jet City’s wares was “a slow process.”

“But I’m like the queen of stuff,” she says. Her parents were world travelers and antique collectors. She’s never been accustomed to bare walls.

Much of Jet City’s stuff came from customers. Linda Middlebrooks dumped off the pink flamingo clock, and another man donated the American Indian carousel head. Stuff that didn’t come from customers came from antique stores, many in downtown Renton. Natelson says Jet City has a part of all those downtown antique stores.

Natelson used to sell antiques and other gifts out of Jet City, but that got to be too much. Now she and Jet City’s four other workers focus on serving coffee and baked treats. Natelson used to do her own roasting, and even held roasting classes, but the special Jet City blend is now roasted by a South King County company. Jet City staff blends the beans on a manual espresso maker. Baked treats come from a variety of specialty bakers.

Moskowitz and his fellow employees: Kristie, Brandie and Paul, are an important part of Jet City’s charm. All are former customers.

“They all have their own little fan clubs,” Natelson says.

Paul Rollinger, Natelson’s husband, started buying cups of coffee from Natelson’s first espresso cart outside City Hall. He’s since been “enslaved into owning” Jet City, Natelson says. He does “pretty much everything” at the shop, she says.

Paul may take over Jet City when the apartment complex goes up, if they can find a good nearby location. Natelson is working with property owners to find a new spot, but she says she’s ready to be done with Jet City.

“It’s not in the cards anymore,” she says. She has worked seven days a week for the past 18 years, split between Jet City and her job as a marketer and educator for an organic land care company. And Jet City has never been financially profitable.

Family and friends often ask Natelson why she sticks with a business that doesn’t make money. To her, the answer is simple. “There’s something magical about it,” she says about Jet City. She will definitely miss being at Jet City’s helm, but she hopes the shop can continue under Paul’s leadership.

Otherwise, people like Christy Schlegel don’t know what they’ll do for coffee.

“I think it’s a shame,” Schlegel says of Jet City’s possible demise. “Just ‘cause it’s so eclectic. It adds something to downtown Renton. I can’t imagine having a giant apartment complex on this site.”

Natelson describes Jet City as “eclectic, energetic and just kind of warm and fuzzy.” She’ll miss the customers the most. She has wealth, she says, despite her “horrible financial condition.”

“I have customers and friends,” she says. “I have wealth in customers and people.”

Emily Garland can be reached at emily.garland@reporternewspapers.com or 425-255-3484, ext. 5052.

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