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Originally published March 8, 2013 at 12:00 PM | Page modified March 8, 2013 at 12:56 PM

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Risk and drive fuel Dani Cone's coffee and pie success

Behind her apparent quirkiness, the owner of Fuel and High 5 Pie is a savvy entrepreneur.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Congratulation Dani... you've succeeded where most have failed. Most people who have a... MORE
Sounds tasty!!! I'll have to check them out! Maybe she can open another store in... MORE
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IT SAYS SOMETHING about Dani Cone that she framed a snarky review of her own business, High 5 Pie, and posted it just outside the baking area: "Great pie, it's not for everyone," she wrote on top. The shop, which sits at the busy intersection of 12th Avenue and East Madison Street, had been open just three months when the Seattle Weekly slammed it so viciously that friends wondered if Cone and the reviewer had gone through some sort of romantic Armageddon. (No, they'd never met.)

It says even more about Cone that after brushing away her tears, she assembled the High 5 staff, revamped their recipes and never looked back.

There will always be bumps in the road; there will always be bad reviews, said her grandmother in a consoling note. Just keep moving forward.

Grandma Molly, a writer of children's books who'd weathered her own share of rejection, knew what she was talking about. In the two years since that miserable moment, Cone has sold pies wholesale in stores from Seward Park to Kirkland, cooked pastry alongside domestic diva Martha Stewart, appeared on television's Food Network, managed her three Fuel coffee houses, authored two books and kept 38 staffers employed through the worst recession in 80 years.

"I'm married to my work, for sure," says Cone, 36. "But nobody forced me to do this. Even in my darkest hours — and I have them daily — there's nothing I'd rather be doing."

Seven days a week, she rises at 4 a.m. and works 'til 7 at night; she hasn't taken a week off since opening her first shop, Fuel coffee on Capitol Hill, in 2005. A holiday for Cone means walking from her home (also on Capitol Hill) up to the University District to smoke a few cigarettes and drink someone else's brew for a change. "Balance is my white whale," she sighs.

But that — along with a willingness to take risks — just might be the secret to Cone's indisputable success. It also makes her a quintessentially Seattle entrepreneur. A business owner building her dream on artisan treats. A shy kid who thought she might not make it through college but now finds herself lecturing before crowds of business majors. A woman who grew up in one of America's leading tech centers, but purchased her first computer less than 10 years ago. If Cone has a motto, it might be "Go your own way — but be sure to bring a map."

IT'S 8 A.M. IN the kitchen at High 5 Pie during the final lead-up to Election Day 2012. Cone and her four bakers stand around a long table, mixing, rolling, filling. While many professional kitchens hum along to rock 'n' roll, at High 5, political coverage from NPR serves as background music. Lead baker Anna Bicknell, a former psychology major, is making chicken potpies. Cone hired her as an intern with zero professional baking experience but promoted Bicknell to manager within six months.

"I emailed lists of places for work, even unpaid, and they laughed me out of the kitchen — 'This is not a cooking school!' " Bicknell recalls. "But Dani said, 'Come on back!' "

Cone's front-of-the-shop manager, Annie Terrell, had a similar change-of-life experience. When she applied for a job after 10 years of working in public health, she'd burned out of cubicle careers and was searching for something new. "I'd hit a wall," she says. "I just wanted to talk to people."

Now Terrell's main duties, aside from pushing pie, are to organize and promote High 5's community-outreach programs, a rotating series of craft sessions, artist lectures and neighborhood conversations. That's not just a nice-sounding buzzword here. Cone donates about 10 percent of annual sales from Fuel and High 5 Pie to breast-cancer research in honor of a friend who died young of the disease.

"There are things you can teach, and then there are intangibles," Cone murmurs as she breaks up butter clumps back at the rolling table and considers her somewhat unorthodox business and hiring strategies. She, too, started without an iota of culinary training.

Hearing this, baker Elizabeth Sellner, who tattooed a whisk on her inner forearm after graduating from cooking school, smiles into her tray of maple oat scones (unusually delicate and deliciously crumbly) next to Jamie Little, who is making the half-circle hand-pies that Cone calls "flipsides" (comfort food to-go).

All of these goodies will be sold later at High 5 and the Fuel shops (the two others are in Wallingford and Montlake), as well as at three Café Fiore locations, six Café Vita shops, Red Cup Espresso in West Seattle, Urban Coffee Lounge in Kirkland, the Gates Foundation, University Bookstore, Macleod's in Ballard, Molly's sandwiches at the Henry Art Gallery, Kaladi Bros., Amazon, Nordstrom, Adobe, TNT Espresso, Kress IGA and, most ironically, at Sodo Kitchen in Starbucks' headquarters.

Cone shrugs at the list. To her, it's never long enough. After eight hours at the dough-rolling table, she hustles over to Fuel on 19th Avenue East for another six hours of meetings and bookkeeping.

It's a business life that keeps her pinned to the city, yet Cone is a veteran of the road, a wanderer who has settled down, a wearer of dreadlocks who had no trouble telling a prim and proper Martha Stewart what to do with her fluting wheel. A 5-foot-1 bundle of contradictions.

Behind her apparent quirkiness, Cone is a savvy entrepreneur. A business and economics major at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., she has an innate sense for marketing and knew from the time she was a high-school sophomore that Starbucks had nothing on her. At 15, Cone had already nabbed her first job as a barista.

It is exactly this ballsy approach — always delivered with a smile — that is winning her attention in a town already soaked with coffee-cool. Shortly after she opened Fuel, Banner Bank, which had given Cone her first small-business loan, chose her as the face of its local advertising campaign.

"Dani being a woman entrepreneur in a large market, not only a big city market but also in a territory where companies like Starbucks are king, probably played a big part in her selection into our commercials," says Jessica Peters, the bank's advertising coordinator. Cone personified the notion that "the little guy" had a chance.

BORN AND RAISED on Mercer Island, Cone grew up in a family of small-business owners, independent souls who had no problem with a young woman so enamored of cross-country drives that she flew to Tucson to buy a VW van and drove it back to Seattle by way of Colorado. But they could not hide their skepticism when Cone announced her Grand Life Plan: opening yet another coffee house in Seattle. She shrugged off the doubts.

"There are lots of pizza shops — each one is different," she says. "That's how I thought about coffee."

Before building a coffee empire, however, Cone had to finish school. At Willamette, she was having trouble staying put long enough to earn a diploma.

"I was so hooked on road trips I had a hard time not dropping out," she says, recalling regular pilgrimages to South Dakota and a longtime love affair with California. "All I wanted to do was drive. I'd go anywhere, anytime. I'd wake up my roommates — I've always been a morning person — and say, 'Let's drive to the coast.' I'd wake up my best friend, and we'd drive to Seattle and back in one night, just to be on the road, listening to music and talking. Just to be driving. The destination was never the point."

After several more sojourns around the country, by 2003 Cone was back in Seattle, cooling her heels with a job pulling espresso shots at Café Vita. Just a few months into the gig, though, she stepped out onto Pike Street for a cigarette break, noticed an old friend walking by and exchanged the usual pleasantries: How was she these days, the friend asked. What was she doing?

"Opening a coffee shop," Cone announced, though she hadn't actually done anything but daydream about it. "That's what it took — the decision to take yourself seriously and say, 'I'm doing this.' Not, I want to do this, or I'm thinking about doing this. But I am."

Within a few weeks Cone had purchased a computer (her first) and several how-to guides for writing a business plan. For the next six months she put her fantasies on paper, and a year later signed a lease for her first shop. In March 2005, at the age of 28, she opened Fuel on 19th Avenue East.

"It's like, fuel to get going, get out there — whatever that means for you. Going to work or hitting the road or saying hello to a stranger."

Initially, Cone insists, her plans were humble, just one small shop in a narrow space on a quiet street. But within six months of opening Fuel, her landlord mentioned another available site on Montlake Avenue just down the road from Husky Stadium. She grabbed it. As she was refurbishing the second space, a third that she'd long admired in Wallingford opened up. Cone grabbed that one, too. You could call it the Monopoly-board approach to building a business.

Yet by 2007, Cone wanted something more. She wanted pie. She convinced her Grandma Molly to share a family recipe for all-butter crust and began baking in a commercial kitchen rented from her old employer, Café Vita. There, Cone honed her baking skills and translated Grandma's home cooking into something that could be replicated en masse. She sold the results at Fuel and Café Vita, built a small following and began offering samples to other businesses that might be interested in wholesale baked goods.

Along the way, two regular customers, both of whom worked in publishing, approached Cone and asked if she'd like to do a book or two — first, in 2009, "Tall, Skinny, Bitter: Notes from the Center of Coffee Culture." Then in 2011 came "Cutie Pies," ranked No. 6 last fall among Amazon's pie and pastry books.

Cone's pies were cute, all right, but cute is hardly enough to win a publishing contract. "The final piece that won us over was Dani's voice," says her editor at Andrews McMeel Publishing in New Jersey. "A lot of people are intimidated by pie, but I think Dani makes it as accessible as anyone can. She herself went from not knowing much about baking to eventually owning her own pie shop ... It's a great story."

TO THOSE WHO study such things, Dani Cone's success in Seattle is no surprise at all. "This city is a Mecca for entrepreneurs," says Connie Bourassa-Shaw, director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Washington, noting that on lists of the best places to start a business, Seattle is usually near the top.

"Part of it is our history, part of it is cultural, part of it is maybe something in the water, but we're just sort of an ecosystem for entrepreneurs. The culture here says it's OK to be an entrepreneur, unlike a lot of big cities where they'd say 'What? Why would you want to do something like that?' "

Bourassa-Shaw, not coincidentally, has recruited Cone to speak to business students at the UW and sees the enterprising barista as the latest to join a long local roster of creative marketers, including Nordstrom (started by selling boots to miners headed to Alaska), REI, Costco and Amazon.

Cone, however, never consciously considered herself part of that tradition. She was lousy at math, for one thing, and wasn't quite sure where she might find a niche.

"I don't necessarily think that studying economics prepared me for small-business ownership," she laughs. "One minute you're doing accounting, the next plunging a toilet. It really doesn't match with the graphs I was studying in class."

The big test came with the economic earthquake that tossed thousands of people from steady employment and shuttered hundreds of small businesses statewide. "Harrowing" is the word Cone uses to describe her life during that time.

"It was very scary. It's still very scary. We had this staff and we'd trained them — it wasn't just about me anymore. We're a group now, and I'm the one in charge of making sure they get through this. It's on me."

Cone is proud to say that she did not lay off anyone. As Bourassa-Shaw sees it, the qualities that make a successful entrepreneur — motivation, energy, a willingness to shoulder risk — are the same ones needed to weather an economic downturn. So she was not surprised that Cone managed to keep four relatively new, comparatively frivolous ventures afloat.

"Economists have discovered that during recessions people need to treat themselves to little luxuries," Bourassa-Shaw says. "So they stop buying cars and houses, but they have to feel that for all the hard work and scariness of living through a recession they can still spend $5 and feel they have gotten a treat, a luxury item. And Dani is very good at reading what customers want."

This is where Cone solidified her niche, providing a sense of honest, handmade quality in an increasingly cold and unforgiving world. Though she, of course, puts it in terms of butter and sugar.

"These were very stressful times, and when I'm stressed out, I eat pie. I thought, I'm not going to sit around and let things happen to us. People need pie."

True to form, Cone is not content to have four businesses humming along. These days, instead of frothing milk at Fuel, she presides at the morning latte counter at the Wandering Goose, owned by a friend on Capitol Hill. Later, she'll offer business advice to the backers of soon-to-open Chico Madrid, also on the hill.

Building an empire, latte by latte? For Cone, it's easy as pie.

Claudia Rowe is a Seattle freelance writer. Ellen M. Banner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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