Best Downtown Coffee Entrepreneur/Philosopher: Ali Ghambari

Here's a quick business quiz: What captain of industry said the following? "Don't just think outside the box, burn the box and invite everyone for the party." Was it (a) Donald Trump, (b) Jack Welch, (c) Warren Buffett, or (d) Ali Ghambari? As the latter sits in his fourth Cherry Street Coffee House location, at First Avenue and Clay Street, eagerly describing his fifth store (scheduled to open this month at First and University), Ghambari retains all the drive and energy he arrived with in 1979. He came from Iran just after the revolution, knowing no one and hardly speaking English, and quickly discovered the streets were not paved with gold. "What happened to all the good things on TV?" he recalls thinking as an 18-year-old attending community college in Moses Lake. Ghambari soon worked his way up through the ranks at the U District Godfather's Pizza, began managing Cap Hill's B&O Espresso in the late '80s, and bought out his B&O partner to establish the first Cherry Street branch in Pioneer Square in 1998. Since then, he's embarked on a steady expansion, one that he insists is not about the Benjamins: "I never look at numbers. I just look at spreading the love in the community." This is why all his stores feature photographs of Martin Luther King and Gandhi—"This is what we are standing for." And why he's married his interest in Photoshop and Persian poetry to create elaborate, colorful cards bearing his aphorisms at all Cherry Street locations. (Another example: "It doesn't matter how dark it gets out there, when you are the light.") And for Ghambari, all the love and light are inevitably concentrating downtown, which is why he has no plans to venture back up the hill, or to other neighborhoods. "I just want to stay downtown; in less than 10 minutes, I can check all my stores. I don't worry about Starbucks at all. But I won't go too close to the small operators" (meaning friendly competitors like Caffe Ladro and Caffé Vita). Though he lives in Kirkland, with his ex-wife and three kids close by in Sammamish, it's the new density of Belltown, South Lake Union, and the like that draws his interest. For this reason, he's taken on developer Greg Smith of Urban Visions as a partner, which has enabled him to buy retail condo spaces and help secure Cherry Street's future no matter which way the wrecking ball swings. And here's another quote regarding Cherry Street's strictly daytime hours: "We make more money if we stay open late, but I don't want that." Nope, that's definitely not Donald Trump speaking.— Cherry Street Coffee House, multiple locations including 103 Cherry St., 621-9372;

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