The Corner Grocery: Q&A with Dani Cone, Founder and Owner of Cone & Steiner General

In this age of Amazon, Dani Cone harks back to a simpler time with Cone & Steiner General.
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This article appears in print in the January 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Dani Cone is a local dynamo and small-business owner who founded Fuel Coffee and High 5 Pie. In 2014, she introduced Cone & Steiner General, which has three stores in Seattle: downtown, Capitol Hill and Pioneer Square. 

Does Cone & Steiner have a mission? Yes. We believe that people come together over good food and drink, and we work each day to be the place where this starts.

Where did you learn about the importance of “place”? Coffee shops. One of my first jobs was as a barista and I fell in love with coffee and the craft of making coffee, but mostly I fell in love with the coffee-shop culture. It’s a high-volume, fast-paced business and in those few shared moments, it’s possible to create a vibe where people feel welcome and feel like somebody is happy to see them. Who doesn’t want that? 

Are the three Cone & Steiner stores different from each other? Oh, yeah. Each neighborhood wants something different and the only way to find out what those wants are is to put stuff on shelves and open the doors, then sit back, zip your lip and listen. 

In this era of Amazon, how does a corner store make sense? There’s room for both. Just as my business model for Fuel Coffee was not to take the place of Starbucks, my business model for Cone & Steiner is not to take the place of Amazon. You might come here after work to grab a beer and a couple of locally made items and when you get home, your Amazon Fresh order is sitting on the porch. 

Who were the original Cone & Steiner? My great-grandfather Sam was Cone. Steiner [also named Sam] was his brother-in-law. 

What drove you to revitalize what your great-grandfather started? I’m not exactly sure. There was a picture in the hallway of my childhood home of an old Cone & Steiner meats-and-groceries store in Seattle — it’s on our website — and it fascinated me. Whenever I travel, my first stop is the grocery store because that’s where you see the true face of a town.  

Since you don’t deal in bulk quantities like Costco, does that make it harder to turn a profit? Again, it’s a different business model. We can’t get the volume pricing that a big-box grocer can, so it comes down to really homing in on our product mix and the margins therein. Plus, we capture revenue with our coffee shop, bar and café, so that part of the business can offset slimmer margins on groceries. 

Were you the type of kid who had a lemonade stand? Yes! I opened my first real business in fourth grade with my sister, who was in fifth. It was called Friday Flowers and every Friday morning my dad drove us to the wholesale florist in downtown Seattle, where we’d pick out bunches of flowers. After school, we would arrange the flowers and then sell them in neighborhoods and the nearby business district. 

Do you like asking investors for money? Ha! Does anybody? The key is to believe in what you’re doing and know that you aren’t as much asking for money as you are creating an opportunity that you want to share: I think we’re on to something great here — do you want to be part of it?

Do you hate authority? No! Some days I’m like, I’m in charge? God help us!

Do you ever take vacations? Can you spell that for me?

Is it possible for employees to care as much as you do? It is possible. I’ve seen it. In the past 12 years, I’ve worked with incredible people who invest themselves in a way that has had a huge impact on the store, the community and big time on me. 

Do you currently have a favorite Cone & Steiner item? Lopez Island Creamery’s oatmeal cookie chip ice cream is phenomenal.

What is the worst business decision you’ve ever made? At the first Fuel Coffee, I put the refrigerator door on backward. It’s still backward and it still gets in the way of the flow of the baristas making drinks. 

What’s the sign of success? To have a strong, happy team that is well taken care of, well supported and feels like they have the opportunity to grow. 

Is there a piece of advice you would give to your younger self? Don’t be afraid to take yourself seriously. 

Biggest indulgence? Reality TV and US Weekly. 

Whom do you admire? My Grandpa Jerry, who died last year at the age of 102. He started his printing and mailing company, The Cone Company, a block away from here [downtown], and he was amazing. Kept his sense of humor to the end and always wanted to know about the store, especially how the kimchi was selling. He loved kimchi.

What rule would you most like to enforce? What my Grandma Molly always said: “Be good. Do well.”

Do you have a favorite swear word? I use them all liberally and equally and often. 

For more on the lives of entertainers, artists and entrepreneurs, tune in to Art Zone with Nancy Guppy on the Seattle Channel (seattlechannel.org/artzone).

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