Island native makes a splash in coffee biz

Dan Ollis relaxes next to a picture of the perfect cup of coffee taken on one of his trips to Guatemala. - Jim Larsen/Whidbey News-Times
Dan Ollis relaxes next to a picture of the perfect cup of coffee taken on one of his trips to Guatemala.
— image credit: Jim Larsen/Whidbey News-Times

A curved seating bar, the smell of fresh roasted coffee and various comfortable nooks and crannies from which chatter and laughter emanate tell the visitor this is no longer a bank or jewelry store.

It’s Whidbey Coffee’s newest cafe at 980 Pioneer Way in Oak Harbor, adjacent to a drive-through Whidbey Coffee facility that has been a fixture with North Whidbey coffee addicts for years.

The building has been transformed from the old Whidbey Island Bank which was originally located there, although the vault still exists. And it’s nothing like the formal atmosphere of what came next -- Island Jewelers -- where customers quietly peered through glass cases and asked to see engagement and wedding rings.

Owner Dan Ollis opened the new cafe last month after extensive remodeling, including one wall covered with wood removed during an expansion of the historic Freeland Hall. Besides the main entry area where people order caffeinated beverages and food, there’s a comfortably fireplace room where friends can chat on sofas and easy chairs, and a quiet meeting room where a dozen or so can sit around a metal table with gorgeous wood frame and discuss business issues behind a rustic, custom-made door. Framed photos of the coffee-making process in Guatemala, from bean to frothy cup, adorn the walls, demonstrating Ollis’ idealized cup of coffee, pictures of perfection he brought back from Guatemala.

The place was abuzz on a recent weekday visit in the early afternoon. Peggy Darst Townsdin shared a table with here daughter Michelle, who grew up in Oak Harbor but now lives in Bellingham where she’s attending college.

“This town really needed a place like this,” said Michelle, recalling the days when young people in particular had no place to gather and talk in a pleasant atmosphere. Her mom was quickly sipping on a coffee drink with obvious satisfaction and Michelle described her as “my hyper-caffeinated mother.”

Ollis is the classic example of “local boy makes good,” and he didn’t have to travel elsewhere to do it. He started selling coffee from a mobile stand while still in high school on South Whidbey, hauling it from one fair and festival to another during his senior year in 1988.

Eventually he got a $10,000 loan from Whidbey Island Bank and set up his first permanent drive-through in Freeland, and he later opened the Freeland Lighthouse cafe with free WiFi to help attract customers.

Along the way he picked up an associate’s degree from Edmonds Community College where he was a student leader and alumni they still boast about, having presented him with its “distinguished alumni award.” Ollis laughs that his main goal in life was “trying to find a way not to be a lawyer,” so he dove into the coffee business fulltime.

Today he has Whidbey Coffee locations in Clinton, Freeland, Oak Harbor, Burlington, Mukilteo and Mount Vernon, and sells coffee wholesale and online.

Boldly, he recently entered the highly competitive Seattle coffee market by purchasing the three upscale Victrola Coffee cafes, known for their quality coffee and customers with the demanding perfectionism of wine connoisseurs. He worried when he first met his new employees, whom he described as “self-proclaimed coffee geeks.” One of them referred to him rather dismissively as “some fisherman from Whidbey Island,” and he doesn’t even fish. But he got some good stories in the local press by people who knew of his success on Whidbey and he soon became friends with his employees and vowed to learn even more about coffee.

“I’ve got invitations to Colombia and Brazil,” he said, and he anticipates going to both of those coffee powerhouse countries to learn about new beans and blends.

Besides his busy business life, Ollis is a family man with his wife Kristen, 4-year-old daughter Mia, and 1 1/2 year old son Max, whom he describes as a perpetual motion machine. He also serves as chairman of the Island County Fair Board and belongs to various business and civic organizations.

Sharon Hart, executive director of the Island County Economic Development Commission, sees Whidbey Coffee as among the island’s finest small businesses, one of several that prove that success can be found right here on the island for any ambitious young person with a good idea.

“We have these little pockets of excellence everywhere,” she said.

Ollis sees his establishments as a “third place.” People have their homes and work places, but even in a deteriorating economy they need another special place where they can enjoy themselves and discuss ideas, and that’s Whidbey Coffee.

“Good conversation may put the world back together,” he said.

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