Ugly Mug - David LeeIn 2008, David Lee, a Korean student at the University of Washington, struggled to balance doing homework while working part-time at a café near campus. He eventually dropped out of school and kept his job. But quitting school led Lee to his current position: owner of the café where he was employed.

Ugly Mug - David LeeIn 2008, David Lee, a Korean student at the University of Washington, struggled to balance doing homework while working part-time at a café near campus. He eventually dropped out of school and kept his job. But quitting school led Lee to his current position: owner of the café where he was employed.

For two years, 26-year old Lee has owned Ugly Mug, a low-key café nestled in an apartment building on 43rd Street in the University District. Lee said he and his wife Nara Olson and their friend Michelle Tark are its fourth owners.

“I didn’t originally plan to be a business owner.” Lee said, “I was interested in studying art and design. But I felt that some aspects of the store operations, like accounting and inventory procedures, could be improved upon.”

He made suggestions to the previous owners, Jefferson and Shinae Oh, who planned to retire from their positions due to family obligations. After a few conversations with the Ohs, Lee and Olson, who was an employee there, became the owners of Ugly Mug. Soon after, Tark signed on as co-owner.

“I had conversations with friends about opening up some type of business,” Lee said. “I planned to do it with 5 to 6 friends. Some people gave up. Nara, Michelle, and I were the only ones left.”

He took ownership at a time when business had improved under the Oh’s management. Before the Ohs, a family that Lee describes as “cranky” and “rude” owned Ugly Mug. Lee said that the more-friendly Ohs helped to drive more customers into the café.

Ugly Mug - David LeeUgly Mug - David LeeSince 1995, Ugly Mug has sat on the corner of University Manor Apartments, a Tudor Gothic-style complex made of alternating brick and cast stone. Stone faces carved beneath the mullions above the entrance give Ugly Mug its namesake, according to Lee.  

The seating area is filled with antique kitchen chairs and wooden benches that give the feeling of stepping into what Lee calls a “grandmother’s living room.” One interesting feature is the scribbled notes left underneath a glass panel covering a few tabletops.

“Some people have called the look ‘chic,’ and ‘New York City-esque’… I like to think of it as cozy” Lee said.

This atmosphere attracts customers like Maggie Burges, a UW student.

“I like the chill music and artwork,” she said, referring to the paintings lining the peach-colored walls of the café. “It’s relaxing and the employees are really nice.”

One of those employees, 19-year old Henry Choi, said that working at Ugly Mug has been an “amazing opportunity.”

“It’s my first job,” he said. “This position has helped me improve my abilities to approach people and contribute to this feeling of fellowship that Ugly Mug promotes.”

Lee said that Ugly Mug will expand its bar area this September so employees can have more room to work. It will also improve its coffee-making approach, adding a Dutch iced coffee machine, a French press, and Aeropress coffee machine.

“Although we like serving sandwiches and pastries, we want to be known for making great coffee,” Lee said about his hopes to make Ugly Mug more of an artisan coffee shop rather than a deli.  

He said he also wants to change the shop’s current slogan from, “Friends don’t let friends go to Starbucks,” to, “It’s what’s inside that matters.” For Lee, this latter slogan not only reflects the modest exterior of his coffee shop, but it is also carries a personal meaning for him.

“This saying does not just mean for customers to come look inside,” he said. “It’s also meant to convince people that quality matters more than what’s on the surface. That’s something I try to live by every day.”

Ugly Mug Café
1309 NE 43rd St., Seattle | (206) 547-3219
http://on.fb.me/NhRAyD


Behind the ScenesNote:

While stepping into a café for a cup of hot coffee, I always think what stories lay behind the shop. In Seattle, We are living in a dreary city, but still wear warm smiles. What special experiences bring us power to conquer the gloom inside our lives?

The most stirring story in life is our vigor and strength of spirit.

“Behind The Scenes” is a place for every unique scene behind our lives. — Phoebe Fan

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